Book Review: Human Rights and Human Wrongs – A Life Confronting Racism May 26, 2015

Review by Dr Ross Mellick of:

Human Rights and Human Wrongs: A Life Confronting Racism

by Colin Tatz

Monash University Publishing, 2015

This book successfully engages the reader in the author’s engrossing and complex journey from childhood and his lifelong struggles against racism.  The narrative touches upon extreme examples of that struggle in the twentieth century. It is scholarly, deeply personal and infused with humanism, warmth and humour.

The main body of literature on racism, antisemitism and social oppression, not surprisingly, has been written about the experiences of the Northern Hemisphere – a Eurocentric history which includes no remnant nor echo of an indigenous voice.

“Human Rights and Human Wrongs. A Life Confronting Racism” addresses political and social history, for the most part of Australia and South Africa, and foregrounds the shocking treatment of the first peoples.

The perspective in this book continues to be European, but the lens through which it is seen and written is strongly influenced by the author’s Lithuanian-Jewish and South African origins. As a child and youth the historian lived the history, and later, as activist, teacher, departmental head, researcher and author, had a considerable role in the creation and unfolding of, the very history he records over two continents and for more than half a century.

Time spent in Israel also figures largely in the book and attention and comment has been directed specifically at the Holocaust cataclysm.

Much of the force of this book is because of the author’s capacity to examine not only the social phenomena but also himself, and the courage to report his discoveries with his historian’s precision.

Tatz frequently finds himself both an insider and an outsider, at the interface of many influences. He writes “….. I found I belonged at some levels and was very much a stranger at so many others”. It may be that the outsider/insider status was an advantage, as the view from the edge of things invites the possibility of a clear view in more than one direction, a capacity he certainly demonstrates.

 Early in the book the author —–“born aged two” – tells us of early childhood events and recollections, seeds later to germinate in his focused work and sustained achievements.

In South Africa as a toddler he had two nannies, mother figures, one white and one black.  At that time a white nanny was a shocking and unheard of domestic phenomenon.  She lived with the family. Daisy, “a non-White” shared a room in purpose-built servants’ quarters.  Daisy was especially remembered: “adorable, loving, my foremost mentor.”

He well recalls the moment when he considers the age of innocence ended for him, the day when he and Daisy were asked not to kiss each other. He was, however, at that time, still allowed to kiss Mr Khoori, the greengrocer downstairs.

The war years in South Africa were not safe for him even at the age of five. He had personal wars  “……against Bobbe,  mother,  family, empty ritual, solitariness, school bullies, street thugs, boxing opponents, Nazi hat-makers……” and something he came later to recognise  as social injustice.  Suicide, a subject he would also come to write about years later in relation to the Australian indigenous experience, was also there in his childhood: one dramatic attempt in schul and also a number of his family members suicided.

We meet Aunt Babs, a joy and only friend in his youth and later, who with “A shrug, nod, raised eyebrow, a rolled eye,  … understands what you are enduring, who doesn’t have to do anything but simply lets you know in one way or another…. she knows”.

The text here and in other places is enriched with images which close the distance between the reader and the experiences the author describes. A photograph of Babs Isaacson and her husband, Gerald Goldstein, gives the reader the opportunity to make eye to eye contact with this beautiful , smiling woman.

Verbal cameos of family members are vivid and unforgettable: Zeide, “Short, strong, cropped but grizzled grey hair ….. every Friday afternoon he’d come home with two dozen dead or alive chickens, unplucked and uncleaned, a turkey or two and an occasional goose, a duck-less domain”. At about the age of ten it was his role “…. to help pluck and de-gut the dreadful things, feed yards of hideous intestines (kishkes) to four malevolent cats, remove the unborn eggs with care, cut off the chickens’ feet, scald these with boiling water, peel off the flaky yellow outer skin, clip the nails with pliers and ready them for the chicken soup. (All this because we had ‘only’ two servants) “.

The book throughout brings forth ambiguities and contradictions in the closely personal, and also later in the social and various academic environments in Australia where he worked, that have analogies widely in the political, religious and racial spheres.

While still in South Africa Tatz struggled against a selective vision of things and makes reference to Jew’s College and Oxford men or locals who “…. preached fire and ‘bwimstone’ and banality but avoided mention of “….the hideous social and political vortex outside the front door: a raging world war, civil strife between pro- and anti-war forces; between English and Afrikaans-speakers; struggles for political power, violent anti-Semitism in a country rife with fascist movements.”

It would seem that South Africa could easily have gone to war on the other side.

When World War II began on 1 September 1939, General Smuts, then Deputy Prime Minister was an “Empire man” and insisted the country join Britain, and there was much opposition. The Smuts motion was passed in the National Assembly by only 13 votes.  There was much lingering bitterness from the 19th century Boer war lost to Britain and Smuts’s opponent Herzog considered that World War 11  was a “purely European one”. Splinter groups in South Africa at that time were active and supported a Nazi victory, even to the extent of sending an emissary to Germany to negotiate the South African spoils, after Hitler triumphed.

Reflections abound, however two especially stay with me.

In 1945 Major Phil Green, still in full uniform and with campaign ribbons, became deputy school principal.  He quickly displaced the “Boys Own” view of the war, no longer Spitfires against Messerschmidts. Green gave a first-hand account of “what men perpetrate….in the name of race”. He had had wide war experience and had seen a camp liberation.  Over more than half a century Tatz emphasizes the enduring influence of his contact with that teacher and recalls in childhood  “peering through fingers” at the first footage of Bergen-Belsen on the Gaumont British and Pathe News, memories to be charged later with adult realisations.

His academic career was greatly influenced and supported by Professor Edgar Harry Brookes and Tatz dedicates the book to him, “a great South African whose humanism and intellect nurtured my search for social justice”.

Under Brookes’ guidance, Tatz did pre-doctoral  work, reading the entire body of South African Parliamentary debates in Hansard from 1910 to 1960. He wrote of three foundations for the ideology of racial superiority in South Africa: British imperialist doctrines and dogmas; scientific racism emerging in the 19th century, and, “….more importantly, Dutch Reformed Church Calvinism, fervent and fundamentalist”. Also he writes that South Africa’s racist policy was essentially unchanged from 1830 to 1990.

His doctoral thesis was published with a slightly amended text in 1962 as “Shadow and Substance in South Africa: A Study in Land and Franchise Policies Affecting Africans, 1910 – 1960”, the first of his twenty two books. It became a standard reference book in South Africa and elsewhere.  His researched material, even before the publication of the book, was used successfully by the newly formed Progressive Party to prevent the rewriting of part of South African history by the United Party in August 1960.   Early, even in his third decade, he was influencing the shape of history.

In the book he stresses the crucial significance of the connection between the non-White franchise and land. Thirteen percent of the land was occupied by 90% of the people. This nexus was to re-emerge again later in his work with Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Blood was an issue in ways one would not expect. He reports that the head of the Johannesburg blood bank went to an international haematology conference where, Tatz writes, “God help him, he had to explain a law based on the premise that a black infusion could turn you into one of them…lazy, stupid, promiscuous, cursed. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t believe the Nazis ever went so far in their pursuit of racial purity.”

Day to day violence in the implementation of racist policies is carefully reported, including the Soweto massacre on 16 June 1976. Tatz does not neglect to acknowledge the work of eminent Afrikaner historians, men who had a profound understanding of Afrikaners and their politico-religious nationalism: two, D.W. Kruger, and especially Floris van Jaarsveld, the most controversial, and the author of “The Afrikaner Interpretation of South African History”. Van Jaarsfeld reported the widespread belief in “a fundamentalist God, a deity who had cursed forever Noah’s Black son Ham and his descendants.  The curse was that they would be hewers of wood and drawers of water, a perpetual servant class, but more importantly they could never achieve true spirituality with the White man no matter how many doctorates they earned or how Christian they believed themselves to be.”

Van Jaarsveld was tarred and feathered by the notorious Eugene Terre’Blanche, leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, because of his “blasphemy on sacred Afrikaner symbols”.

Tatz, like many others, left South Africa and came to Australia, where he continued fighting racism as it applied to the indigenous people of Australia and also became active in wider genocide issues.

He recounts how, many years later, his South African experiences took on a deeper meaning.

He had taught about antisemitism and racial oppression for twenty years, yet it was not until 1985 that he realised he was “afraid”. He then came to realise there was a considerable difference between thinking about the meaning of prejudice and facing squarely what exactly happens because of it. He had presented many courses on events in Germany leading up to 1933, “the un-citizening in 1935”, Kristallnacht 1938, forced migration 1938-40, but there he stopped.  He writes “I couldn’t look down the tunnel….” Yet in 1985 there was a change generated by a number of events widely separated in time.

Konrad Kwiet and John Moses organised a conference “On Being a German-Jewish Refugee in Australia” at the Goethe Institute in Sydney in July 1984. There he heard a “contentious presentation” from a La Trobe historian, Tony Barta. His presentation “After the Holocaust: Consciousness of Genocide in Australia” produced a powerful reaction: “Barta……  set my wheels going about seeing not parallels or analogies but echoes of the Holocaust here…”

Another important influence in May 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the war’s end, was a three day conference at the University of New South Wales prepared by the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. Tatz presented a paper titled “Racisim: The Role and Responsibility of Intellectuals”. This is a subject that in 2015 still troubles him; he writes “….the intellectual genesis of genocide is still the least researched and least talked about item on a large agenda list.”

Regrettably, refinement of the intellect has little to do with the faculty of empathy. Sometimes nurturing the one seems to diminish the other.

His Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem caused changes in him: “a membrane breaker”. There he heard “….Yehuda Bauer in his fullest flow, the best flow I have ever heard. Truly the doyen of Holocaust scholars….”

Bauer explained that the Holocaust was not some meta-historical or metaphysical  event to be met with nothing but silence and sacralised….it was “he said plainly, a human event perpetrated by humans upon humans in mid twentieth century in ‘civilised’ Europe….”, also “the significant point, still lost by so many, that the Holocaust was genocide, an age-old phenomenon…..” but one that far surpassed all others. Bauer’s view of things was in contrast with most other Holocaust scholars.

Bauer’s interpretation is challenging and therefore places responsibility clearly, entailing a challenge taking us to the very cusp of human understanding – an abyss opens.

After 30 years of teaching Tatz observed that this time as a student there was “ one of my life’s most excellent moments…”

Now, however, Australia is Tatz’s home. The decision to leave South Africa was made with Sandra by 1959, and he successfully applied for a doctoral scholarship at the Australian National University in Canberra, his “precious ticket” to Australia.

On New Year’s Day 1961, with flies massing and a temperature of 37°C we witness the family’s arrival at Perth airport, with Sandra Tatz “heavily pregnant and apprehensive, a child fractious and people talking in dawdly and twangy sing-song cadences. “

An immigration officer greeted him with “Ow ye goin’, mate?” His prompt reply was “Fine, and how about you?”(He had had childhood elocution lessons to balance his boxing lessons.). He asked a policeman the way to the telegraph office and writes, “he walked me there, waited till I was done and bade me welcome to a new life.” This was in dramatic contrast with South Africa where a uniformed eighteen year-old Afrikaner youth, with a .45 Colt on his belt, would have you pretending to window shop or suddenly decide to cross the road, as cops were everyone’s enemy.

He whispered to Sandra “This is the place for us” and henceforth he would twang sing-song sentences “pak the kah’ rather than “pork the core”.

From the time of his arrival in Australia much of his work focused upon the oppression of Australia’s first peoples.

Shortly after arrival he bought a book for his children Karen and Paul on the fauna and flora of Australia.  There, he writes, “shamelessly, there was a chapter on Aborigines.”

It was quickly apparent to him that the Australian experience was no different from the African, and that Australians knew “…. less about their dark history than South Africans ….. about their country’s appalling past.”

With five decades of Hansard under his belt in South Africa, he writes that the published material on Aboriginal policies and their administration took him “barely three days to read” and the literature was almost entirely anthropological, rich in detail about dental plaque, haemoglobins and haptoglobins, skull measurements, totemic hero cults, bride promissory systems, circumcision and sub-incision practices . The indigenous people were “truly objects of scientific curiosity in such writings with no indication of the laws and conditions under which they lived while they were studied in this way.”  The impression produced by these writings was always that the men and women being studied were “objects” and in some pristine state unaltered by their enforced sedentary and confined lives on government settlements and church missions…..”In neither Africa nor the Americas was there ever an ethnicity so dominated, so ruled by the domain of anthropology”, he writes.

Tatz writes about the massacres of Aborigines in the nineteenth c

entury and the protection afforded by government policy of segregating the victims from people who, “in no particular order, wanted to kill them, take their women or sell them opium.”  Protection of the indigenous people by statutes wasn’t sufficient and “geographic isolation” became an essential part of the system.

Archibald Meston, appointed in 1896 to inquire into the Queensland slaughters, recommended absolute isolation from the Whites who, “coloured by prejudice, distorted by ignorance, committed shameful deeds.” The killing stopped for the most part, but an enforced sedentary institutional life began for these formerly free people.

Tatz in his fieldwork found that there were “walls around rural and remote peoples that seemed impenetrable”.  He found the indigenous community treated as “allegedly stateless people….forgotten or disdained.” A third of the indigenous population was on 13 Government settlements, a third on 14 Church-run missionary stations, and a third lived or worked on cattle stations.  In 1957 he described there to have been a welfare ordinance which placed full blood aborigines “on a Register….a work of monumental contempt…”  Tribal names were rarely used.  People were “saddled” with names such as Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, the cattlemen asserting their power by the use of these contemptuous names, similar to the phenomenon in America at the time of American slave-owning.

It is difficult to contemplate the way things were then done.

Tatz records that environmental sanitation was often left to priests and holders of theology degrees, and water-borne diseases were rampant.  Housing was inappropriate in design, temperatures inside dwellings were 18°F hotter than the outside temperatures. Only two out of the four hundred welfare branch workers had any word of an Aboriginal language. Most communicated in mime pidgin.

His personal research extended into matters of health. He consulted death records which showed that infant mortality was 15%, and any skin lesion could result in confinement  in a Leprosorium on Bathurst Island where leprosy could be contracted and psychological causes were sought as the basis for infant mortality.

His report titled “Queensland Aborigines: Natural Justice, the Rule of Law”, published in 1963, was sent to the International Commission of Jurists where Edward St. John, the President of the Australian section, was reported to have been appalled by its contents, but said nothing, explaining that he didn’t want to embarrass Australia on the world stage.

Tatz considered there to be an apartheid in Australia similar to South Africa, without its “vehemence, venom and violence”.  Rather he thought here there was a mix of ignorance, arrogance, ineptitude, improbable goals and sometimes malice.

Before his second, the Australian thesis, was finally finished, chapters were heavily censored by the Department of Territories and were returned with notes “you can’t say this… can’t say that”. Tatz went directly to Sir Paul Hasluck to protest against the blatant censorship. Hasluck allowed inclusion of all his items, except the names of the cattle stations cheating aborigines in their local provision stores.

Since his arrival in Australia Tatz’s writing has ranged widely, resulting in more than twelve books, creating a solid body of work on the effects of Government policy on the indigenous people and concerning a number of disciplines and subjects: law, politics, economics, education, health, sport, Aboriginal suicide and uranium policy. This work has been seminal in establishing foundational understandings and influencing decision making in these and related areas.

Uranium mining was also a major issue with many important ramifications. Tatz makes reference to the second Ranger uranium environmental inquiry chaired by Justice R.W. Fox in 1977. Fox concluded “There could be no compromise with the aboriginal position: either it (their opposition) is treated as conclusive or it is set aside.” He concluded their opposition could not be allowed to prevail.

Tatz devoted attention to monitoring the effects of open cut uranium mining in Kakadu, in a monsoon area. Several biological scientists were consulted and all deemed uranium safe. He acknowledged the work of Carmel Schrire whose efforts to provide an annotated bibliography on the health hazards of uranium world-wide were put aside because she was regarded not to have authority as she wasn’t a nuclear or medical scientist. She predicted the occurrence of cancers in the area and Tatz reports that 24 years later he was able to vindicate her efforts.  The cancers did surface.

Tatz introduced the idea of sports criticism analogous to literary criticism, his articles not appearing in the sports section of newspapers. He wrote opposing the “so-called rebel cricket tours of South Africa”, including one by an Australian team. There was some considerable personal and family drama. He condemned these “bribery tours, South Africa paying extraordinary sums to have the world believe they were still an acceptable nation.” This led to confrontations with “dreadful Alan Jones” who, Tatz reported, eulogised the South African system and its virtues. Tatz “accused him of being a paid lackey”. Jones, he reports, denied being a lackey.

Violent repercussions occurred including bricks thrown against French windows and shotgun pellets through the front door of their Lane Cove house. Others from South Africa who opposed the apartheid regime in Australia included John and Margaret Brink. Their house in Greenwich was firebombed.

Indigenous sportsmen and women are the subject of a publication with his son, Paul Tatz: “Black Diamonds: the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame”, published in 1997.  The standing of the Aboriginal men and women in sport was a catalyst in slowly but favourably altering racist attitudes in sports-minded Australia.

The pre-doctoral years in Australia were hard for Tatz but especially for family. Before leaving South Africa and since, he acknowledges his wife Sandra and her support of his interests and ambitions. In the book there is an image of a page in a South African newspaper on the eve of their departure from South Africa, where Sandra is quoted: “My husband would like to take up a post at a university anywhere in the world… wouldn’t really matter where we went as long as there was a typewriter to type his thesis!” Colin’s admiration for her and the bond between the two is felt throughout the book. When he had completed his Australian thesis he writes: “Sandra and all three children had chicken pox at one point, yet she continued the laborious typing with pox tipped fingers while caring for three infants…”

This is a monumental book: panoptic and finely detailed, where both heart and head successfully work together. It also has the virtue of bringing within easy reach of the reader the terrible consequences of the alienation of one human group from another.

Claude Levi-Strauss comes to mind. In the final pages of his classic work “Tristes Tropiques”, he details his work amongst the first peoples of Brazil and writes: ”I am constantly called upon to live through situations each one of which demands something of me: I have a duty to men just as I have a duty to knowledge.”

Tatz, untiringly the long distance runner, carries that same baton clearly exhibited in this book: the duty to knowledge and also to men and women.

“Human Rights and Human Wrongs: A Life Confronting Racism” by Colin Tatz can be ordered here.

Note:  Tatz’s teaching commitments included, among others, the ANU, New England University, Monash University, Macquarie University, and he is currently Visiting Professor in Politics and International Relations at the ANU. He is founding Director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.