The essential question

2009-01-05 00:00

“IT gave me an education the equal of anything in the world,” recalls Colin Tatz of his undergraduate days in the early fifties on University of Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus. Interviewed recently in his North Sydney home, Tatz fondly remembers Arthur Keppel-Jones, Geoffrey Durrant, Edgar Brookes and Christina van Heyningen and describes a “critical coincidence of individual minds” that created an island of liberal thinking.

He emphasises that “it was just an island”. Only 20% of campus students studied arts subjects and “there was profound racism among agriculture students”. They regarded arts students as aberrant, although “relations were reasonably good natured”. Among other memories, he recalls playing poker with Pete Booysen, later University of Natal vice-chancellor.

Tatz was educated at Yeoville Boys School and King Edward VII High in Johannesburg. About 30% of the pupils were Jewish, but the general ideological tension surrounding growing Afrikaner dominance and anti-Semitism he describes as “vicious stuff”. Even as a schoolboy he grew to detest the race hierarchy and conformity that sustained “the South African way of life”.

Pietermaritzburg, by contrast, was “a city of peace and without fear in the early fifties where relations with black people were reasonably good, although Natal as a whole was a claustrophobic race-ridden society”. On campus within a small group there was wide-ranging, imaginative academic inquiry that provided liberation from racial thinking. Exposure to “great minds and values”, he remembers, “created space to contest South African norms and granted a licence to believe in human values”.

Needing to pay his way through university, Tatz worked for The Natal Witness for two years on the midnight to 6 am shift staffing the switchboard and telex machine. Emergency night sub-editing led to the opportunity to write film summaries. Drinking at the Black Horse pub, playing cards at Fort Napier Hospital with the nursing staff and writing letters on behalf of railway employees seeking promotion are bound up in his memories of Pietermaritzburg in the mid-fifties. A rounded student life also involved the secretaryship of the student golf club.

His work on native administration for a masters degree under Edgar Brookes made an impression and was eventually published as Shadow and Substance. “It continued,” he says, “the work Brookes started in the twenties” and argued that franchise and the land had always been linked in South Africa: “the substance of the vote was bargained for the shadow of the land”.

By now married and with their first child on the way, Colin and Sandra Tatz had to make a decision about the future. Horrified by the position of the majority of South Africans, he had no personal sense of fitting in or belonging to South Africa. Looking back, Tatz says, “You did not have to be a genius to read the signs; and simply being in South Africa was a form of complicity.” The options were to join a movement, ignore reality, merely observe the situation — or leave.

The Tatzes decided to get out of South Africa before the end of 1960, the year of the Sharpeville massacre, and made it to Australia with a day to spare. In the light of his South African research, Tatz was granted an Australian National University scholarship to work on policy and practice in Aboriginal administration, an issue that launched his academic and activist career.

“There was none of that South African messianic ideological imperative in Australia,” Tatz has written. “There was instead a willingness to listen” and his research on health, housing, education and employment led to a legal change in the status of full-blood Aborigines: they ceased to be wards of the state. In Australia it was possible to challenge racial oppression and “achieve fulfilment impossible in South Africa”.

His subsequent research looked at Aboriginal land rights, uranium mining and suicide; and he conducted extensive comparative field work on indigenous people in Canada and New Zealand. The bicentenary of Australia in 1988 raised the question: what is there about Aboriginal society to celebrate? His answer, in collaboration with his son, Paul, has been to document extensively its considerable contribution to Australian sport.

His ultimate personal and academic challenge was to come to terms with the Holocaust, in which many of his Litvak (Lithuanian) forebears in Ponevez and Shadove perished. As a boy in 1945, he had been told to cover his eyes when the news was shown at the bioscope. After studying in Israel, he developed teaching programmes at Macquarie University in genocide studies, following in the footsteps of his University of Natal lecturer, Leo Kuper. This led to a deeply disturbing question for Australia, the land of equality, democracy and the fair deal: could the history of Aborigines be described as genocide? (see box.)

For Colin Tatz, whether it is the South Africa of the fifties or Australia in the 21st century, the essential question is this: where is the dignity of the individual? “It’s a matter,” he says, “that goes beyond the Constitution and the law.” And it has informed his distinguished lifetime of scholarship that began nearly 60 years in an outlier of liberal thought on the Pietermaritzburg campus.

Colin Tatz

Colin Tatz was born in Johannesburg in 1934. A student at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, from 1952 to 1955, he returned to Johannesburg to teach in 1956 and has lived in Australia since 1961.

After completion of his PhD in 1964, he founded and directed the Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs at Monash University (Melbourne). He later held chairs of politics at the University of New England (Armidale) and Macquarie University (Sydney). In retirement, he is now visiting fellow at the Australian National University. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1997, the same year as he received an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Natal.

He is a sports historian and keen golfer, and represented Australia at the Maccabiah Games.

An Australian genocide?

In a paper due for publication in 2009, Colin Tatz challenges conservative critics of the idea of Aboriginal genocide.

After the Australian “history wars” of the last 10 years, there is antagonism towards what is dubbed “the black armband view of history”. Tatz shows that systematic, privatised murder over two centuries (known euphemistically as “dispersal”), forced removal of children, physical and psychological abuse, and imposed degradation resonate with aspects of the Holocaust.

Government policy was paternalist, confining a hunter-gatherer people to reservations and mission stations reminiscent of the South African location system. Aborigines were, effectively, incarcerated.

Tatz argues that the intent was the ultimate destruction of aboriginality. While there has been a recovery of cultural, economic and legal rights, health indicators continue to be poor and there is a high youth suicide rate born of hopelessness and lack of purpose.

Old prescriptive attitudes are again fashionable: Aborigines as a group are considered problematic.

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