Now it’s Australia’s turn to be accused of apartheid in film
FOR centuries, white South Africans blissfully mythologised their history and the effects that their arrival on the southern tip of Africa had on the indigenous people.
White Australians engaged in similarly elaborate myths about conquest. However, unlike here, whites are a majority in Australia – their extermination of the indigenes was more calculatedly vicious than here – so they have never faced the drastically changed political circumstances that in South Africa compelled a modicum of introspection and re-assessment.
But a documentary film by journalist and activist John Pilger might ignite a small bushfire of debate in his native Australia, following its British release this week. It opens in Australia only in January, on Australia Day, which Pilger has dubbed “Invasion Day”, and which commemorates the 1788 arrival of the British First Fleet.
Called Utopia, the film deals with the “trail of tears and betrayal” of the Aboriginal people, arguing that their marginalisation is part of Australia’s own pernicious and endemic strain of apartheid.
Writing in The Guardian, Pilger says he had long been struck by Australia’s similarities with South Africa as regards “white supremacy and the compliance and defensive- ness of liberals. Yet no international opprobrium, no boycotts, disturb the surface of ‘lucky’ Australia”.
More than any other colonial society, “Australia consigns its dirtiest secrets to wilful ignorance or indifference”. While Australia is now per capita the richest country in the world, Aboriginal communities live in abject poverty, going deaf and blind from preventable infections and “dying of Dickensian diseases”, as a result of having been systematically excluded from the benefits that mining, oil and gas revenue have brought the whites.
He quotes a former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, as describing the justice process in some states as being one of “racking and stacking” of black Australians. The Aborigi- nal rate of incarceration is five times higher than it was for black South Africans during apartheid.
Pilger describes the first Australians as the “oldest, most enduring” human presence on Earth, yet for white Australians it was always as if they did not exist. More first Australians were killed than Native Americans on the American frontier or Maoris in New Zealand.
“Of those who fought the British invaders of Australia, the Sydney Monitor reported in 1838: ‘It was resolved to exterminate the whole race of blacks in that quarter.’ Today, the survivors are a shaming national secret,” said Pilger.
The implication is that the extermination continues, albeit more subtly. “The town of Wilcannia, in New South Wales, is twice distinguished. It is a winner of a national Tidy Town award, and its indigenous people have one of the lowest recorded life expectancies. They are usually dead by the age of 35.”
Pilger cites deaths in police custody and high rates of suicide. “When I first reported on indigenous Australia a generation ago, black suicide was rare. Today, the despair is so profound that the second [highest] cause of Aboriginal death is suicide.”
Pilger’s film has already raised some Australian hackles. He was refused permission to film on Canberra’s Anzac Parade, where the Australian National War Memorial is sited, because “I had made the mistake of expressing an interest in the frontier wars in which black Australians fought the British invasion without guns but with ingenuity and courage – the epitome of the ‘Anzac tradition’.”
And when he questioned Warren Snowdon, the former minister for Indigenous Health, on why after almost a quarter of a century representing the poorest, sickest Australians, he had not come up with a solution, Snowdon snarled “What a stupid question.”
Such national hypocrisy should surely come at a high price. During the apartheid years the Aussies lobbied enthusiastically for SA’s sporting isolation and the boycott of our wine and fruit, as a means of bringing about political change. Time to return the favour, methinks.