It will be good to get home

2010-02-19 00:00

I’M visiting Australia again, to attend an academic conference and to visit Australian children and grandchildren. Here you are not far from home. On the Gold Coast there are many cars with South African flags on their back window. You are quite likely to catch snatches of Afrikaans in the shopping centres.

Would I ever choose to live here? The question is academic since I do not meet Australian immigration requirements. One thing I would choose to live here for is the birds — a flash of exquisite rainbow lorikeets, a pocket of smug galahs with their pastel colours, the liquid call of the Australian magpies, the lovely flute song of the butcher bird, the kookaburras that come each evening to the garden fence expecting a titbit of liver.

I like Australian people. A cynical comment in one self-deprecating Australian book said it is a nation of the lower classes. There is some truth in that: a typical Australian family with a large mother, tattooed, tummy flopping over her waistline, accompanied by a smaller husband (or more likely a boyfriend) equally tattooed with multiple body piercings and by three children all under the age of four is all too easy to be seen. There are “hoons” on the roads — wild cowboy drivers who like to terrorise other road users.

But for the most part, I find Australians friendly and helpful — perhaps part of the “mateship” that is meant to characterise the Australian character. Like anywhere, there are social problems. Currently, the news is of a 12-year-old stabbed to death at his prestigious private school by a 13-year-old classmate. There is binge drinking and drug abuse. Public schools are not that great and don’t match up to Model C schools at home. More than half the population (read, therefore, most white middle-class people) sends their children to private schools. Medical care is acceptable, but, in my limited experience, less up-to-date than at home. You might do better to have your operation in a South African private hospital. One South African couple, both specialist surgeons, came here on a “look-see” and promptly returned home saying they could not work in such underresourced conditions. There is plenty of racism. Newspapers publish racist letters and SMSes that no South African newspaper would touch. The local newspapers are awful.

But there are the three quality national broadsheets which no South African newspaper can match. Not only Sydney but most major cities have opera and ballet. There is wonderful scenery. They have preserved their lovely rainforests. And unlike Maritzburg or South Africa generally, they have beautifully preserved their imperial and Victorian architecture in both cities and country villages.

One thing they have not preserved, however, is the culture of the indigenous people. It has become ritually correct at any academic conference here for presenters to say “I begin by honouring the original owners of this land”. But it is merely a ritual. You can be sure that there will be none of the “original owners” in the audience, and probably none within 100 kilometres of the venue. No one is going to give them the land back. No one is going to rename Sydney or Brisbane by their aboriginal names. No one is going to rename Macquarrie Street or Queen Street or George Street.

And I guess that is why white South Africans come here. It is a home-from- home in many ways, a land where white people are in control. Of course, there are many Asian people on the streets. Of course, there are aboriginal people in far away Northern Territory and North Queensland, and liberal Australians can feel guilty about them and honour their memory. There is a social conscience about aboriginals which often emerges as highly paternalistic government intervention: housing schemes where the people don’t own the land, new laws in some northern towns preventing aboriginals from buying takeaway alcohol — just like South Africa 40 years ago.

But despite national “Sorry Days”, the original owners of the land don’t impinge on white Australian life. This is a happy country, a beautiful country and a country with a rich European cultural heritage. It remains a white country where white people control the politics and the destiny of the land. Here, still, white people feel safe. Can we blame South African expatriates who choose to live here? I don’t presume to judge. The choice is not open to me. I don’t have to decide.

While we are here we saw the film Invictus. It captures 1995 and the Rugby World Cup well. It made me glad to be a South African. Australia is a lovely country with no major challenges. I will be glad to come home and in a small way be part of building a nation. It is a challenge to be relished.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired Anglican priest.

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