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Where were you during apartheid?

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

It was the second session of the 27th parliament, 3 March 1970. The House was sitting for the first time since John Gorton had been re-elected as Prime Minister. On the third day of the session I asked the Minister for External Territories, Charles Barnes, affectionately known as ‘Seff’, the following question.

‘Is the Minster for External Territories aware that a considerable number of policemen of South African nationality are employed in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea Police Force? If so, how were they recruited, and is it the policy of the government to employ policemen from a racist country with the objective of keeping “the natives” in check?’

‘Seff’ gave the sort of answer one would expect from an upper-class pooh-bah who was not yet aware of the changes taking place in the ‘colonies’. Order was maintained and no one was injured. ‘Seff’ did not surprise. He was a Blimpish product of the colonial mentality that had ruled Australia pretty much unchanged since Federation. What did surprise was the lack of interest from the Labor party. I discovered how little when organising meetings for various unity opponents of apartheid. They included the South African poet, Dennis Brutus, and the journalist Donald Woods (author of the book, Biko — Woods had escaped from South Africa to campaign against the appalling regime that had ruled South Africa since 1948.) The celebrity opponent of apartheid, Helen Suzman, was later given an extraordinary reception unknown for someone who didn’t hold ministerial rank.

The visits created little interest with the meetings attracting a dozen or so members and senators. Forty years ago and I can only recall a handful of those who attended regularly. A poor roll-up for what was a major issue worldwide in the early 1970s. The only Liberal I can recall attending was Bill Wentworth, although Neil Brown, who was unable to attend meetings, was the only Coalition member who spoke strongly condemning the racist regime of South Africa. Neil, who became deputy leader of the federal Liberal party in the mid-1980s and is a Spectator columnist, was the only conservative who spoke out publicly. I sat through every word and was one of the first to congratulate him. His conservative colleagues weren’t all that impressed. Strong Labor supporters included Gough Whitlam, John Wheeldon, Gordon Bryant and surprisingly, Charlie Jones.


One group that would have been moved by Brown’s speech was the seven Wallabies who toured South Africa in 1969. Led by the staunchest opponent of apartheid, Anthony Abrahams, they saw at first hand what an appalling regime was running South Africa. Jim Boyce, Jim Roxburgh, Paul Darveniza, Bruce Taafe, Barry McDonald and Terry Forman made it clear that they would refuse to play against the 1971 Springboks if they toured Australia. Some believe it was the reason they were never selected to play for Australia again.

Listening to the unanimous voices who today claim to have opposed apartheid it is difficult to imagine that in the early 1970s the vast majority of Australians supported continued sporting relations with South Africa and that was particularly true of the upper-middle-class rugby mob. They have very selective memories. Their stance, however, made a lot of people think. They had witnessed apartheid firsthand. They knew such behaviour would not be tolerated in Australia.

Opposition to apartheid continued to grow and it’s now history that various boycotts contributed enormously to the ultimate demise of apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela and the establishment of democracy. Few recall that rugby was much more than a game of football. In South Africa it was a religion. We must never forget the magnificent role the Wallabies played in destroying apartheid.

Nor should we forget those who ultimately paid a huge price in social ostracism by their rugby mates. Let us not forget those who are now strangely silent and had nothing to say at the time.

Malcolm Fraser is not my favourite politician. Not after the dismissal, but I have repeatedly praised his stand on apartheid. When I was  visiting South Africa in 1978 with the First Lady Rae and our boys, our visit was ‘guided’ by the South African Foreign Affairs department and we saw the awful regime at first hand. Dining with the Australian ambassador in Cape Town I asked His Excellency the question, ‘Are we still as hated here as we were when Gough was PM?’ ‘Oh, no,’ he replied. ‘They hate us much more now.’ To my obvious look of shock he was surprised. ‘They expected Gough to be a bastard and he was tough but Malcolm was much tougher.’ I was to learn that Fraser had allowed some thousands of refugees to migrate to Australia. The question he has never been asked is: ‘Where were you in the late Sixties and early Seventies? Neil Brown couldn’t spell your name.’

It’s been impossible to find anyone who would publicly support apartheid. Ask former Queensland Senator Glen Sheil. His support for apartheid immediately following his promotion to Malcolm Fraser’s front bench in December 1977 ended the briefest ministerial career in history.

One could go on calling for past and present ministers to declare the stance they took against apartheid when it was still acceptable, but space will not permit. I’m sure Australian voters would like to know where Tony Abbott stood on this most fundamental of questions. He was never the strong silent type.

In fairness, he was born in 1957, so he would have been a teenager when South Africa’s wretched system was at its peak, but I cannot recall any condemnation-of-apartheid speeches throughout his long political career. I can guess what his views as an arch-conservative were. He went to South Africa on a ‘rugby scholarship’ that was universally recognised as a promotional tour of apartheid. It’s fine to be an opponent now, as we have buried and honoured the greatest human being of the 20th century, but let’s remember that Abbott’s silence in the early Seventies represented the consensus among the Australian political class.

Barry Cohen was a federal Labor MP from 1969 to 1990 and a minister in the Hawke Labor government.

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