On 2 January 2018, The Age ran an opinion piece by Nelly Yoa, a man who claimed to be a professional footballer, a brand ambassador for American Express, a close friend of Usain Bolt, and the owner of a lucrative sponsorship deal with Nike. Yoa, it turned out, was none of these things. His claims to fame were fabricated and his opinion piece was plagiarised. Yet there he was, on the front cover of The Age, standing in front of a battered roller door covered with graffiti, next to six large, bold words printed in quotation marks: ‘I’m ashamed to call myself Sudanese.’
This was the height of Victoria’s African gangs hysteria. The day after Yoa’s piece, Peter Dutton claimed that Melburnians were refusing to go out to dinner for fear of violent gangs following them home. The same week, Channel Seven paid a visit to a vigilante meeting led by neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell, which the report referred to as having been convened ‘to help average Australians deal with what they are calling an immigrant crime crisis.’
The Yoa episode showed that the hysteria was not solely a confection of the hard right. Indeed, a longer-term consideration of the media’s treatment of the Sudanese community shows that the liberal centre has been integral to normalising hostility and scepticism towards Sudanese people.
In 2011, David Nolan and others published a study of the media’s treatment of the Sudanese community. It found that in seven months from mid-2007 to 2008, The Age, The Herald Sun, and The Australian had printed 203 articles containing the word Sudanese or Sudan. Of these, fifty-three per cent had violence in the Sudanese community as their theme, while fifty-five per cent questioned whether multiculturalism or migration policies would have to be rethought with regard to this community. The latter question was far more likely to arise in articles in The Age than in The Herald Sun – indeed, articles in The Age were twice as likely to raise concerns about the capacity of Sudanese people to integrate into Australia, and almost three times as likely to use phrases such as ‘Australian way of life’ and ‘Australian lifestyle’.
This was an archetypal example of toxic liberal concern in a context of actually-existing, vicious racism.
On 26 September 2007, nineteen-year-old Sudanese-Australian student Liep Gony was beaten to death with a metal pole in Noble Park by a white attacker who had spray-painted ‘fuck da niggas’ on the wall of his rental home. The media initially suggested that the murder had been committed by a gang of Sudanese youth. The judge then ruled that the murder was not racially motivated, in spite of the murderer having also yelled ‘I am going to take my town back. I’m looking to kill the blacks’. And Kevin Andrews, who was immigration minister at the time, used the murder to cut Sudanese immigration, saying in its aftermath:
I have been concerned that some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope and therefore it makes sense … to slow down the rate of intake from countries such as Sudan.
Since this watershed, the media prejudice against the Sudanese community has only intensified. According to anthropologist Mandisi Majavu, in the five years to 2018, the three aforementioned papers, along with the Australian edition of the Daily Mail, published over eight hundred articles on the Apex Gang, an organisation which the police themselves have said does not exist. It is not solely neo-Nazis who have attempted to turn words into action, either. The editors of major papers may not have been sieg-heiling on St Kilda beach in January this year, but it was the strenuous mainstream press promotion of a rally called by known neo-Nazis – on the hundredth anniversary of the formation of the German Workers’ Party no less – that enabled their confident goose-stepping.
And this is to say nothing of the media’s work in advocating harsher police treatment of the Sudanese community. While Nelly Yoa declared his shame to be Sudanese, lawyer Peter Farris wrote in The Australian that, though vigilantism was understandable, average Australians could best ‘fight back’ against Africans if they were to ‘let the police do their job. Let them crack down hard on the active black African criminals without the police being called racist.’
For the last six months, Sudan itself has been shaken by one of the most momentous social upheavals in modern history. It began with sit-ins of hundreds of thousands of people spreading across major cities. The sit-ins demanded an end to the rule of Omar al-Bashir, the country’s dictator of 30 years, a constructor of death squads and an overseer of genocide. Extraordinarily, the movement brought him down, and he was removed from power in April. His overthrow should have been regarded as one of the most significant political events of the year, yet it passed with barely a ripple through the Australian press.
The movement has only escalated since then, with astonishing bravery and determination. Al-Bashir was replaced by a self-appointed Transitional Military Council, led by generals, and which is trying to entrench its own despotic rule. In response a movement for civilian rule has escalated from sit-ins to mass strikes, with multiple general strikes freezing the economy, and with an extraordinary level of organisation and initiative being undertaken by Sudanese workers. Teachers are agitating for the construction of new unions independent of regime influence, and electricity workers have organised for the removal of general managers and deputies – almost all of whom are military personnel – from their workplaces.
The Transitional Military Council is now turning to extreme repression, and has been backed up by a number of regional Western allies in doing so, most notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have provided weapons and billions in funding. The death squads that committed genocide in Darfur under al-Bashir have been deployed against protesters, massacring hundreds. This has received little more than a passing glance from the Australian press. Protests organised by the Sudanese community in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide have received no media coverage.
Meanwhile people within Sudan continue to demonstrate unspeakable bravery, returning to sites of massacres and constructing barricades to recommence sit-ins and occupations. On 9 June, the first working day after the most vicious massacre to date in Khartoum, another general strike was initiated.
Racism in Australia has long rested on not only vicious establishment slander, but on silence, or attempts to obfuscate, the agency, humanity and courage of the oppressed. Poor Italian and Greek migrants in the fifties rarely had their histories acknowledged as partisan fighters against Hitler and Mussolini. The gulags on Manus Island and Nauru are filled with rebels and iconoclasts like Behrouz Boochani, who are kept at such a distance not only to conceal the conditions of their mistreatment, but to deprive public consciousness of any knowledge of their humanity.
We are entering a period in which this silence has acquired a more vicious edge. Our government is attempting to turn Australia into one of the ten biggest arms manufacturers in the world. Billions have been poured into subsidies for tanks, submarines and drones. Military expenditure is slated to increase by $200 billion over the next decade, and science and engineering faculties at universities are being converted into R&D departments for arms producers such as BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin.
A robust economy is being built out of what is in effect an insurance policy for dictators. Broader imperial tensions and the economic opportunities they generate are of course also a consideration. World military budgets have almost doubled in the last twenty years, largely underpinned by an arms race between the United States and China, and tensions are heightening almost everywhere.
As Australia looks increasingly to get in on this action, we can expect more silence and indifference, if not outright obfuscation, of those fighting for liberation from tyranny. In the case of Sudan, this silence should be a source of immense outrage. It amounts to a cover-up of the bravery, courage and sacrifice of a community who are so often put under the spotlight for manufactured offences, kicked around as a political football, or told to be ashamed of themselves. Denouncing this silence, and asserting our solidarity with the people standing against tyranny in Sudan, is an urgent political task.
Image: march of solidarity with the Sudanese revolution, Berlin, 16 February 2019. Hossam el-Hamalawy.