In search of identity

Issue FourteenIssue Fourteen Non-FictionNon-Fiction

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In search of identity

Rose Saltman


In 1994, I voted in the elections of two countries. I was a citizen of only one of them.   

Twenty years earlier, I registered to vote in an all-white South African election that was significant for two counterintuitive outcomes: an increase from one to six parliamentarians arguing for equal representation across South Africa’s race groups, and a greater share of the vote allocated to the incumbent Nationalist Party government. It was one of those bitter-sweet moments that foretold of circumstances getting worse before they got better. 

The Nationalists were a party of and for the Afrikaner people, forged from a distrust of the English that dated back to Britain’s occupation of the Cape Colony in the early 1800s. Having been ordered to free their slaves, and resentful of English as the official language of education, churches and government, some 13,000 Afrikaner frontier farmers gathered their families and possessions into ox wagons and, from the mid 1830s, headed north in search of fresh pastures and political freedom. While they were a small proportion of Dutch speakers in the Colony, their odyssey became totemic in the development of Afrikaner nationalism, a ‘romantic episode in the history of South Africa…(that) involved personal sacrifice on a large scale’. My high school history classes reverberated with the privations of these voortrekkers and how their god—a Calvinist offshoot bypassed by the enlightenment that liberated its European sibling—had preordained the future of South Africa on racially separate grounds. The curriculum didn’t mention that black tribes who had settled the land hundreds of years prior had a right to defend their occupancy; this I learned at the University of Cape Town, one of the few places in the 1970s where history hadn’t been redacted by a government bent on moulding our psyches. 

Released from the shackles of the school texts, I sought an outlet for my emerging outrage. In 1972, I joined a band of fellow students waving placards and collecting signatures in the streets of Cape Town; we would show the authorities that people, in particular, white people, cared about the inequality of educational opportunities in our country. In return, the full force of the apartheid machine rained down as sjambok-wielding police let loose canisters of tear gas and chased us down like criminals. 

Over the next few years, I became less bold as I watched people, some of them acquaintances, being carted off to prison, restricted to their homes under banning orders or sent into permanent exile. I agonised over my place in a dispute where one of the key players saw me as complicit and the other treated me with wariness. Despite our shared skin colour, all similarities with the Afrikaner people ended there. Our family was secular, and we spoke English at home; my paternal grandfather was a diehard Brit although he lived most of his life in South Africa. These differences often found expression in seemingly harmless ribbing, but some of it was borderline provocation. A popular Afrikaner jibe delivered to English-speaking males was soutpiel—salty penis—a metaphor for what happens where one foot is planted in England and the other in South Africa, genitals dangling in the Atlantic. But I was looking east, not north. 


I immigrated to Australia with my husband in 1981. Less than two years after our arrival, the unimaginable happened: the federal government changed hands. I was adjusting to the fact that such a thing was possible when there was a knock on our door. The person standing outside wanted me to know that the new government and its prime minister were too right wing. I was aghast. Bob Hawke, a Rhodes Scholar with an industrial relations background and a social policy agenda, was a conservative? Did this person, standing on my doormat, have any idea what it was like to live in a one-party state? Much later it would occur to me that being able to articulate an alternative view without fear of persecution is a fundamental privilege of a working democracy.

In a bid for acceptance in the country of my adoption, I befriended locals, worked on my accent and applied for Australian citizenship as soon as I was eligible. South Africa demanded that I surrender my passport, leaving me with one formal link to the land of my birth: an identity document biblically referred to as a Book of Life. I expect they would have seized that as well if it had not contained my marriage certificate.

During the period of acclimatising to my new environment, I discovered that Australians’ knowledge of South African politics and culture seldom extended beyond the latest sports boycott. I was dismayed by suggestions that I might be an Afrikaner, regarding those who held such views as either uninformed or subconsciously wanting to associate me with the actions of the apartheid government. Being addressed as japie—farm boy—cut to the core. But where one culture was slipping away, another had yet to fill the void. 

By 1994, I was no less conflicted about where my place was. 

On 26 March, I voted in the by-election that elevated Tony Abbott to the seat of Warringah. This was before the days of his opposition to same-sex marriage, knighting Prince Philip, and threatening to shirt front Vladimir Putin, but the signs were there in his religious conviction, devotion to the monarchy and belligerent style. 

South Africa’s inaugural multiracial elections were held one month later. In trying to make them as inclusive as possible, the transitional government declared that anyone with a South African identity document was eligible to vote. While this gesture was aimed primarily at re-enfranchising millions of South Africans who had been forced into homeland states or exile abroad, it captured anyone with the requisite paperwork. Like a Book of Life.

I remember having conducted a straw poll of South African friends and family in Sydney, all of us naturalised Australians. The response was unequivocal: why would anyone want to participate in the politics of a country with which they’d severed ties? Some were openly hostile to the idea, recalling the hasty circumstances in which they’d left. I argued the symbolism of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to vote in a colour-blind election, to make one’s mark on history. No-one was persuaded. 


If political activity had coloured my South African persona, I rationalised that it could help shape my antipodean identity. I joined the Australian Labor Party in 1996 after the Liberal-National Coalition had tipped Labor from office. I signed up with my local branch, hopeful of finding comfort among the like-minded and an opportunity to be part of a grassroots renaissance of progressive ideas. The branch, I found, was anything but nurturing. No-one was allowed to speak without having first sought permission, and debate was confined to the minutiae of seemingly worthless objectives. Who cared whether the Queen’s portrait hung in public school classrooms when Pauline Hanson was given free rein to spruik anti-Asian rhetoric in the Chamber? At polling time, I dutifully phone banked undecided voters from an airless office in Western Sydney and handed out flyers in marginal electorates, wishing that Warringah could be like them. Yet, despite the bottomless cups of coffee, pizza wedges and gratitude for my contribution, something didn’t feel right.

 The link between identity and beliefs is well established in social psychology. According to Gennaioli and Tabellini, individuals routinely associate with social groups of similar people to structure and simplify their world. In aligning with a group, we view ourselves more as a typical member than as a distinct personality. Gennaioli and Tabellini also point out that political beliefs are shaped by identities that can change over time. Ironically, it was at a time when Labor needed my help most, after the drubbing of 2013, that we went our separate ways. I left, not due to pro-Coalition sentiment, but because I realised that class warfare had become less important than a world threatened by climate change. Unknown to me at the time, an opportunity to pivot was shaping up close to home.

For the duration of his tenure as the Member for Warringah and three-year prime ministership, Abbott was an affable but largely absent MP who trumpeted his voluntary firefighting and surf lifesaver activities as evidence of bringing community benefit to his constituency. His periodic conversations with the electorate were predicated on a set script that asked constituents to rank issues of concern, with the economy in pole position and the environment at the bottom of the page. There was no ‘other’ box, and climate change didn’t rate a mention because in Abbott’s world no such thing existed. In the absence of viable alternatives and co-ordinated opposition, he got away with it for 25 years. 

All that changed in 2019.

I joined one of the grassroots groups that started mobilising six months out from the federal poll, and loosely affiliated myself to another. I discovered that the rules of engagement had evolved since the 1970s; placard waving and signature collecting were out, and one-on-one discussions with voters were in. In the months leading up to the May election date, I and a partner doorknocked more than one thousand households in the electorate, engaging with constituents on matters of concern and guiding them towards more contemporary pathways to achieving representation in their, and the national interest. In conveying the message to Abbott’s traditional supporters that there were acceptable alternatives—Warringah hadn’t returned a non-Liberal party candidate since the birth of Federation—we tapped into a rich vein of discontent.

While exhausting and, at times exasperating—there is nothing as dispiriting as dismissal by intercom—we never let go of what had brought us together in the first place. I had found my people and, with it, my Australian identity.