During the second half of the 20th century, news media focus on the events in South Africa and the fight to end apartheid there greatly eclipsed the plight of the Aboriginal Australians and the incredibly harsh and violent apartheid they were also subjected to.
The subjugation of the Aboriginal people started when the British began their colonisation of the island in 1791 in what historian Henry Reynolds called “one of the biggest appropriations of land in human history”.
The massive influx of violent and diseased convicts, who were sent in their thousands to the island to serve their sentences, had a terrible impact on the local aboriginal population. The diseases that the convicts brought with them such as smallpox and measles spread like wildfire through large Aboriginal communities as their bodies were not used to the foreign diseases.
Equally, the massive influx of foreigners and the resource intensive nature of the prison system meant that aboriginal land was seized in massive swathes, which eventually deprived the natives of access to any fertile land or water supply. This forced them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and restricted them to live in slum like settlements, officially called “reserves”. These factors, along with the introduction of alcohol and the numerous aboriginal uprisings against the settlers meant that by 1900 the aboriginal population was reduced by 90%.
With the creation of the Australian Federation and the advent of Australian democracy in 1901, you could be forgiven to assume that the aboriginal crisis would be resolved and their rights would be restored. However, it was not to be.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Australian government wanted to create a true Australian identity, separate from its British colonial past. To do so, it abandoned its policy of separation where they restricted Aborigines to reserves; and started one of assimilation which was based upon the assumption of white supremacy. They ruthlessly decided to let the Aborigines die out whilst attempting to incorporate any mixed race ones into Australian society by forcibly removing them from their families and community. Aborigines refer to this era as the “the lost generation”.
Many point to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s official apology for Australia’s past policy of assimilation as the moment where the country recognised its past mistakes. They also hoped it would mark the start of a new era of inclusion for the Aboriginal people in Australian society and politics. Since then however, these hopes have been dashed, as assimilation is still very much in place today, with over 13,000 children removed from reserves in 2012, the highest number than any time during this past century.
This has led to the near complete destruction of Aboriginal identity and culture and is arguably a policy inspired from the theory of eugenics, the idea of breeding a superior race.
John Pilger’s work on the plight and suffering of the Aboriginal population also casts a great deal of light on the incredible disparities between them and the rest of society. For instance, in the town of Wilcannia, New South Wales, the Aboriginal people’s life expectancy is 37, lower than that of the Central African Republic, one of the poorest countries on earth. The fact that the number of incarcerated black Australians is 8 times that of black South Africans during apartheid is also particularly revealing to the injustice they suffer.
Far from improving, the situation has worsened over the past few years, with the number of Aborigines living in slums increasing by a third, life expectancy decreasing dramatically and malnutrition so severe that many cannot even ingest the antibiotics NGOs give them because they have nothing to eat them with.
It is also looking increasingly unlikely that change will come from Australia’s political elite, who have either completely ignored the issue or outright rejected it as a matter of importance. This is epitomised by Prime Minister Tony Abbott who, upon being confronted by the UN rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people regarding his policies towards Aborigines, told her to “get a life” and to not just “listen to the old victim brigade”.
South African apartheid was defeated by a global campaign from which the regime never recovered. Given the general political consensus and lack of awareness of the issue in Australia, it looks likely that change will only come from a globally coordinated effort on a larger scale than has ever been seen to achieve justice for the Aboriginal people, “the most enduring human presence on earth”.