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Published: Online Opinion

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I have just returned from a week in South Africa. I lived there from 1976 to 1979. I ran a training program for black South Africans from 1990 to 1993 and I have visited a number of times since.

The Rainbow Country is defined by race and racial attitudes, even though Apartheid ended 16 years ago. There are 11 official languages. People still speak of themselves as White, Black, Coloured, Indian and Asian and within those categories as Afrikaner, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Pedi, Venda and Sesotho. But now the reference is that of identification rather than separation.

Yes there is violent crime but it is colour blind. Theft and the sometimes accompanying anger is directed against those who have.

Can an unequal distribution of wealth and resources cause or entrench racial disadvantage? I believe it can. There are now Black Madams, along-side White, Coloured and Indian Madams, but there is still only one serving class and that is Black.

Officially South Africa is home to around 2 million refugees; unofficially the figure is closer to 10 million. These other Africans are discriminated against. In a country where the Black rate of unemployment is 35/40 per cent, resentment has coalesced into violence against outsiders, who are seen to have taken jobs from locals.

But there is no sense of subterranean racism in South Africa; what you see and hear on the street, in pubs restaurants and lounge rooms is what you get.

There is nothing underhand or furtive in relation to issues of race and racism in South Africa. There are no codes or Masonic signals surrounding and defining racism as there is in Australia.

Former Prime Minister John Howard used racism for political ends while denying its existence. It was nudge and wink racism in public, encouraged more blatantly behind closed doors. It went hand in glove with the secrecy that Howard fostered in response to the fear he sought to engender and use in response to what he termed international terrorism.

This has seen Australian Army operations in Afghanistan conducted behind a wall of secrecy, hiding the deaths of civilians, who don’t count in the same way that Vietnamese civilians did not count during our involvement in Vietnam.
And worse, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has vilified Afghan asylum seekers saying, even before their claims were heard, that he did not believe them. Incredibly, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he declared that the situation in Afghanistan was improving and conditions right for their return. That is base racism. The lives of Afghans do not count. He said the same about Tamils from Sri Lanka. With recruits like Rudd you can see why the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs is in such bad shape; although lack of leadership by their Minister, Stephen Smith, contributes.

Sneaky, subterranean racism rises to the surface in sulphurous, surprising bursts. Recent vitriolic musings in club surrounds from AFL and NRL luminaries give a glimpse into what some select sub-groups consider acceptable if not normal in their social discourse. Such as, “Mate let me tell you, in my experience blacks are lazy boozing bastards and I don’t care where they come from they are all the same”.

This is the same racism that assumes in the course of a conversation with a Naval rating in an airline queue, that after identifying myself as having been in the army, that I will appreciate looking at SMS jokes about Aboriginals a mate has sent to him.

Is this type of racism used as a bonding thing amongst mates? Is it similar to the flag draped racism of Howard, where the language and symbolism of his peculiar brand of jingoistic nationalism was deployed to devastating effect against refugees and Muslims and Rudd did nothing to change it? Is it the same racism that elicits a sly smile at an Old Boys lunch or rural political party gathering?

Howard’s Mal Brough instituted a major attack on the rights and self respect of Aborigines for the same political purpose as Children Overboard and Jenny Macklin has perpetuated the offence through lack of imagination and courage. Pedestrian and paternalistic at best, she seems unable to comprehend that her policies are offensive and racist. No respect, no dialogue; it’s us up here and them down there, separate development, Bantu Board solutions in 2010 Australia.

Howard’s AFP acting on the many cues signalled by him and magnified by a loyal and zealous Kevin Andrews highlighted, for the world to see, the depth and official tolerance of Australian racism and xenophobia when they detained and harassed Dr Mohamed Haneef. Evidence against him was fraudulently concocted. He has never received an apology far less compensation. AFP police chief Keelty continued to conduct inquiries into Haneef long after he was found to have been vilified and wrongly detained. The treatment of Haneef may have encouraged attacks on Indian students.

Long after all support for Keelty, as head of the AFP, had evaporated Rudd continued to back him.

Australian racism is sneaky, it is practised in a way that mostly is deniable. Quite often its practitioners know it to be wrong, but they do it anyway. Why? Is it a way of expressing and releasing fear, of reinforcing and consolidating group membership? Howard and Rudd used it for political ends and by so doing condoned, if not encouraged a particularly perverse form of subterranean racism, surfacing from time to time in football clubs, Coogee, the Todd River and Palm Island.

The challenge is before the new Prime Minister Julia Gillard, not to use or condone this potent political force. She might move to end the intervention and look for processes of empowerment for Aborigines. She might send out an early signal by processing Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers and pouring scorn on the shrill whinging and childish fears of the border protectionists.

However, her past record, when Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, and more recently as a member of Rudd’s kitchen cabinet, does not engender much confidence.