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177 Nations of Tasmania - Episode 50 - From a divided South Africa

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

It's interesting that when I sit down with people for the podcast and ask them to tell me a bit about their life story, there is often a sense of threads coming together and these make sense of who that person is now. I particularly got that sense after my conversation with Helen Tilbury , in which we talked about her memories of South Africa and the process of trying to adapt to some pretty large cultural gaps when she was first settling down in Australia.

South Africans make up the 7th largest migrant group in Australia, and in Tasmania it is something similar.

The majoity of these have been white South Africans and their numbers have increased pretty substantially over the past 20 years. But while many commonly cite the security situation in South Africa, with its high crime rate, those who came in Helen's era ( the 1970s ) came for quite different reasons, and that's certainly the case for Helen.

So, of course, like most of my interviews, Helen's story is not going to be representative of the average South Africa, told, as it is, from the point-of-view of a privileged white girl of English stock. Neverthless, Helen very nicely paints a picture of the obvious divisions and inequalities that stood out from her experiences as a young woman in Apartheid South Africa, that would be recognisable to me.

What I particularly appreciated was Helen's humility and honesty in reflecting on her past, especially in acknowledging her unfair prejudice against Afrikaaners. But I felt this was important to include and explain as it illuminated the divisions between white populations in South Africa and why those existed and, for me, it also highlighted a general truth, that when groups of people are divided up and never really meet ( Helen explains how she very rarely came in contact with Afrikaaners), how easy it is from prejudice and suspicion to grow. It also painted a picture of a country divided not only by race and wealth, but also class and linguistic background.

In listening to Helen's story I felt a bit like I was going with her on a bit of a journey of self-discovery. For example, one of those key moments was meeting Owen in South Africa, now her husband of over 40 years, and recognising an openness that was appealing. She contasted this with the South African men she had dated previously and I thin it was an another step in questioning the social millieu she had been living in.

Her description of her early experiences of I guess culture shock in Australia I found really interesting and insightful. On the surface, Australia and South Africa share a lot of things in common and Helen was an Englih speaker who expected to be able to adapt to life here quite easily. But some of the experiences that she realated, really highlighted some big differences. Sometimes moving to and having to adapt to a new country forces to look at your own culture with new eyes, and Helen illustrated this in a really interesting way, contrasting the "lightness" of life in Australia compared to the heaviness that she realised she was living under in South Africa.

Of course, the flip side of this is that in contrast with South Africa, the things that Austtralians worry about can seem frivolous in comparison and Helen describes how she found it hard to take seriously Australians passion for causes like "Save The Whale". With the context that Helen had described to me, this totally made sense and again brought home to me why it's important to understand where people are coming from in these oral stories.

Seeing Tasmania and Australia through the eyes of someone who'd come from Apatheid South Africa was also interesting and for me highlighted some interesting aspects about us and our society that we take for grant. After all, we live in a very stable and affluent society free of many of the cares of other parts of the world. We have police who are generally friendly rather than menacing, people are generally friendly and easygoing and yet naive in many ways.

Just to finish, I know Helen and Owen primarily through the Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival, really Tasmania's only film festival and still going after 12 years under challenging circumstances. The film festival has a strong theme of fostering social changes and the films chosen mostly reflect that. So, for me, it was really great to have the opportunity to get at least a bit of an understanding of where the motivation, the drive to do something like that came from and I certainly also hope that others get something out of the listening to this episode.

I also want to add, that I'm also interest in doing another episode on South Africa from a black and/or coloured South African, as I realise the experience and the story would be drastically different.

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