Walls and Bridges


In the interrupted conversation that is my 30-year relationship with South Africa we’re again talking walls.

I’ve written entire novels about South Africa’s walls yet, somehow, this talk seems different. Perhaps because, unlike to the monumental edifices John Howard is currently erecting around Industrial Relations and Terrorism, we’re merely discussing bricks and mortar.

My mother  – who lives in a deeply unfashionable northern suburb of Cape Town, on the edge of the Cape Flats – is thinking of building a wall around her house. There’s quite a bit of petty crime in the area and she was startled awake recently by someone ringing her doorbell at three o’clock in the morning.

I did a subtle (so as not to set off the neighbourhood dogs) reconnoitre of my mother’s street, looking at the sort of walls other people have been building lately.

My brother, an elder of the Hillsong Church, is worried. Everyone knows, he says, that my mother, who’s 81, lives alone. Everyone knows she’s a soft target.


Now, there’s a word to make a girl feel right at home. It’s the sort of comforting fridge-magnet of a word every girl needs in her luggage, when she flies out of her comfort zone. Everyone knows we have to fight the War on Terror (even if Chris Patten, Gore Vidal and Terry Jones, among others, think it impossible to make war on an Abstract Noun), as Everyone knew we had to fight the War on Communism.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

I see that walls (having completed another cautious circuit of my mother’s suburban street so as not to trigger any heat-sensitive alarms) haven’t actually changed that much over the years.

But won’t you feel hemmed in, I ask my mother?

Oh, she says, they’ve got all sorts of walls nowadays. There are even ones with a sort of fretwork effect  – so you can see out. Almost, anyway. Enough.

I take yet another turn around my mother’s manicured street. She’s right. There are any number of different patterns of brick walls. The only common point appears to be their perpendicularity.

It’s strange being an Australian abroad, now that we’ve become such busy wall builders ourselves, when once we were such great bridge builders. Interesting, I think, the terminology of civil engineering. Any terminology, come to that. A friend of mind was amused recently to be referred to in a review of her first published book, as an ‘open’ lesbian. As opposed to what? A closed one? A walled one, even?

But what if he/she is on the inside of the wall with you, I ask of my mother, wouldn’t that be even more scary? (I mean what are you going to do, Mr Howard, ship every Australian Muslim out of the country?)

Oh, my mother says, the thing is they have to get back out. They have to climb back over the wall. That’s not easy.

No. I can see that. I can see her point.

There’s been something of a global resurgence in wall-building lately; just look at Israel’s Big Separation Wall. Could it be time for the Big Pineapple to make way for our very own Big Wall? I’m not sure how we’d ever reach a consensus as to where to build it. Perhaps right round Australia? Perhaps if we built a walkway on top, we could all enjoy The Great Australian Coastal Wall.

Or what about just around Sydney? Melbourne might have something to say about that. Okay, what about just round the ports? The airports?

One of my favourite poets, Cavafy wrote a salutary poem about walls:

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
They have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind â ‚¬ 
Because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.

Well, at a distance of some 12,000 kilometres, there you have John Howard’s Walled Australia. Which is my Australia, too. And yours.

Imagine a bridge built around Israeli cities, instead of a wall? Way too far-fetched.

Being back in South Africa, always brings back lunatic memories. A feeling of weird circularity. Every time I hear of John Howard’s new ‘Homeland’ Defence policy, I think of the Homelands of South Africa, so painfully built, so recently dismantled.

The mere mention of a War on Terror summons up that familiar old White supremacist catchcry (and one used to brutal effect against South Africa’s then own Axis of Evil (Angola, Mozambique and South West Africa): ‘The Only Good Terr(orist) is a Dead Terr.’

It seems only a hop, skip and a jump from Homeland to Vaderland, from Suspected Terrorist to Detention without Trial.

And interesting to think that 1 per cent, or around 500,000 of South Africa’s 43 million (from a sketchy 2001 census) population is Muslim, whereas our Muslim population numbers around 300,000; that the life expectancy of all South Africans is currently running at 49 years for women (48 for men); up to 25 per cent of the population is HIV-positive; 19 per cent of South Africans live below the poverty line; inflation’s running at around 10 per cent; 15 per cent of the population attends high school; 3 per cent makes it to college or university.

And Cape Town is actively seeking to become the gay capital of the world. It’s running third at the moment to Sydney and San Francisco. The Tourist Board is right behind it. There are some stylish websites, with some pretty hot eye-candy. Though it does seem to cater more for gay boys, than lesbians.

Never mind, given the puritanical history of this former Walled Homeland Defending White Bastion, it’s nice to see that somewhere, at least, the walls of Sodom and Gomorrha are breeched, if not yet tumbling down.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.