This was written in 2013
I can picture the scene quite clearly. The horrified shouts of the refugees as their boat capsizes are in the Tamil language, but the fear in their voices has a timbre that is universal to all tongues. A woman surfaces and shouts desperately for her child, who has disappeared under the water. Sometime afterwards she is also silenced by the waves, her floating body one of the specks in the vast expanse of the ocean that these refugees were trying to cross.
I know a little about the fear and desperation that drives one to leave the country of one’s birth and to seek safety and a new life elsewhere. Even so, I can barely imagine how desperate today’s boat people must be to embark on highly dangerous sea journeys with their children and with young women in tow, subject to the possibility of drowning, or of attack, robbery and rape by ruthless pirates.
I was also a refugee and a boat person of sorts once. During the Apartheid era in South Africa I was a “person of interest” to the Security Police. At that time any perceived enemy of the state, including anyone who espoused views in support of the country’s oppressed non-white population, was deemed a “communist” and could be held in detention without trial for extended periods under the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950.
The injustices of the Apartheid system preyed heavily on my mind and on a couple of occasions I was angry as well as foolish enough to express some of my views to fellow Afrikaners. I was aware that someone had reported me to the Security Police for being a communist because my boss had called me into his office and told me so. It was 1970, I was 23 years old and I was scared.
During the following year I drove to Signal Hill in Cape Town one night to visit and to express my support to Reverend Bernie Wrankmore, an Anglican Priest. He had gone on an extended hunger strike to show his outrage at the death of a Muslim cleric who had been beaten to death by the Security Police whilst in detention. A few days later I read in the newspaper that the Security Police had been keeping watch and had noted the registration numbers of all vehicles that had parked there. I had been found out once again and my anxiety escalated.
When you live as a dissident under an authoritarian regime it is impossible to tell whether the authorities view you as a minor irritation or as a more serious threat who need to be dealt with in some way. Despite the fact that I was not involved in any acts of violence or sabotage or in conspiracies to overthrow the government by force, I lived in trepidation during my last four years in South Africa. The authorities were aware of my opposition to racism and to the government’s Apartheid policies. I knew that some opponents of the Apartheid regime had been blown up by letter bombs, beaten and tortured by the Security Police, shot dead by anonymous gunmen as they were leaving their houses, had “jumped” out of windows of high rise buildings “to escape interrogation by the Security Police”, or had simply disappeared.
My parents were worried that harm of some sort would come my way if I remained in South Africa. I was scared and desperate to get out. Unlike the refugees coming to Australia by boat nowadays, there was no need for me to jump the queue to enter this country. After all, I had the benefit of highly regarded university qualifications from a university that was inaccessible to my non-white countrymen and I had work experience in a senior position that had been reserved for white people only.
When I travelled to Australia In 1974 it was in the relative comfort of a Greek migrant ship, the “Australis”, along with three thousand Ten Pound Poms. As I saw Cape Town’s Table Mountain disappear over the horizon I experienced immense relief and my fears dissipated. I could now stop looking over my shoulder or panicking every time someone knocked on my front door after dark.
I settled comfortably into Australian life in one of Melbourne’s safe, leafy suburbs. One of the first Australians that I met in Melbourne, an electrician named Peter, had a T-Shirt made for me with “Aussie Tim” printed on the front. From the beginning I was made to feel welcome and that I belonged, very unlike the reception given to the boat people of today.
Last year, as I went to pay for my fuel at a local service station, I was served by a black African man in his mid-thirties. No-one else was waiting behind me, so I introduced myself, told him where I had grown up, and asked him where he had come from. He was a Zimbabwean who had been in Australia for three years, having fled with his wife and two small children from the deadly violence meted out to his people by President Mugabe’s supporters.
“Isn’t this a fantastic country to live in?” I enthused. “Most Aussies would not have any idea of what it feels like to live in fear of your life every day.”
“Yes, it’s a wonderful country,” he agreed. “Here people know nothing about living with terror.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “Thank God my family and I are safe now.”
Many Australian voters are worried about our fortress island being swamped by refugee boats. Increasingly a siege mentality is developing, akin to that of my own people, the Afrikaners, whenever they had felt under threat by others from a different culture. During the previous months the politicians have continued to argue about the most effective measures for stopping the refugee boats with their queue jumping occupants from heading to Australia. They talk with grave concern about saving the lives of refugees by deterring them from coming here illegally on small boats. No-one mentions the terror that drives so many of them to risk their lives on shonky boats on the open sea.
It is Christmas time, the season of peace and goodwill to all. Having done some last minute Christmas shopping, I am waiting to pay for my purchases at a local store. There is some problem at the checkout and the line of customers has come to a standstill. The elderly man in front of me has become bored with the delay, so he turns around to engage me in small talk.
“They should sink those bloody refugee boats, you know,” he says to me in a thick European accent. “Just sink them!”