Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

2212355983_74be3eec5f_zFor any ex-“Jo-burger” living in Melbourne, one can probably count the number of kind things said about Johannesburg on the palm of one’s hand, including comments from ex-South Africans.

For most it exists in the mind as crime-ridden, lawless place with rolling blackouts and road rage – and for those visiting South Africa, the only memory they may wish to have of Johannesburg will be of the ultra-modern airport and perhaps a short cab ride along the motorway – or via the Gautrain – to the safety of their hotel in the leafy suburbs of Rosebank or Sandton.

Most will no doubt wish to head straight out of “Jozi” or “eGoli” (as it is affectionately known by its six million plus residents) for Cape Town and its nearby wineries, the beaches and warm oceans of Kwazulu-Natal or the world-famous Kruger National Park Game Reserve. Anywhere, but hanging about in Jo’burg…

Not even die-hard Jo’burg fans such as myself would be foolish enough to argue that crime is not so bad – you only have to look at the ridiculously high walls and electrified cables which surround nearly all the homes or read the front page of any newspaper to know this is true.

But there is certainly a lot more to the city than tales drenched in blood.

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The city, like South Africa itself is constantly changing and much is being done to shake off the cobwebs and re-energise Johannesburg in a very positive sense – meaning there is a lot to see for any tourists brave enough to venture beyond their hotel room.

The Apartheid Museum

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

First on any tourist itinerary should be a visit to the Apartheid Museum, situated just a short distance from the Gold Reef City Theme Park and Casino – (a gaudy monument to Johannesburg’s modern roots as site of the world’s biggest ever gold rush in 1886).

The museum was completed in 2001 and provides a totally exhaustive and engrossing history of the struggle to end what was a brutal, tyrannical and inhumane regime.

Upon entering the museum visitors are arbitrarily and symbolically classified as either “white” or “non-white”. Once classified, visitors may only enter the through the gates allocated to their race group. Much like the high, windowless concrete walls of Berlin’s holocaust memorial, such devices immediately transport one back into the dark day of Apartheid, setting the tone for the museum, which is designed to be as interactive as possible.

It’s an enormous exhibition full of photographs, video footage and installations detailing apartheid’s genesis, life under the regime, and the resistance struggle which took root in the 1960s and saw Nelson Mandela’s rise to power.

Give yourself at least four or five hours to explore – more if you are one of those people who likes to read every word and watch every video.

Constitutional Hill

Next stop on the political trail should be the Constitutional Hill complex near Hillbrow, seat of the Constitution Court, the highest court in the land, where South Africa’s constitution – considered the most democratic in the world – has its home.

The old prison cells - home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The old prison cells – home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The complex is built on the site of the Old Fort, the notorious prison built originally by Boer leader Paul Kruger in a vain attempt to defend Johannesburg from the British.

Visitors to Constitutional Hill should sign up for a guided walking tour to get a real feel for the place. Local guides take visitors through cell blocks which housed every famous political prisoner the country produced including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Mandela’s cell has been recreated and besides the video footage on display it contains original letters written by Mandela – a qualified lawyer – written in elegant curved freehand, detailing his numerous requests from prison authorities for access to books, legal counsel and to see his family.

On the way visitors bypass the now empty and incredibly eerie cellblocks – like everything under apartheid, divided into white and black sections.

As the guides explain and visitors can see for themselves, Apartheid’s reach was limitless. The walk takes one passed notice boards which detail meal rations for prisoners (more meat and extra coffee and sugar for white prisoners, less for Indian prisoners and virtually no luxuries for black inmates).

But constitutional hill is also an uplifting experience culminating in a visit to the Constitutional Court itself. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of the country’s finest artists (the nearby art gallery is a must) the building has literally taken what was once a symbol of oppression and turned into a symbol of freedom – an entire wall of the court building is made from the bricks of a section of the old prison.

Ancient histories

For history that predates the arrival of the first Dutch settlers who moored at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, say by a couple of hundred thousand years, another new permanent exhibition has sprung within an hours drive of the city. Called “Maropeng” or “The Cradle of Mankind” it remains one of the world’s great fossil sites and is rightly listed as a “World Heritage Site”.

Looking like a massive ant hill, and surrounded by ominous orange signs telling visitors to “Beware of snakes” (surely not likely to scare off any Australian tourist), the tour main walk way is lined with human and animal fossil finds which lead into the main building. Here a ride through an underground lake takes one to a massive exhibition hall where the “history of mankind” is put on display including some of its most famous fossil finds.

If that’s not enough, there is also an opportunity to visit the nearby cavernous Sterkfontein caves, complete with dripping “stalactites” and “stalagmites”.

Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

No visit to Johannesburg can ever be called complete without a visit to the adjacent township of Soweto. Gone are the days when no one ventured near the township unless they lived there, it’s now a major tourist magnet (and with good reason) with numerous tour companies offering full day tours.

For about $90 you can spend an entire day with a Soweto resident as he takes you in air-conditioned mini-bus on a dazzling tour of the South Western Townships.

Putting aside its significance as the centre of the anti-apartheid struggle, the following tidbit should be enough to pique your interest in paying Soweto a visit.

6268519080_0efa4845fe_zAll tours of the township will take you down Vilikazi Street, a dusty street, lined with mostly small, compact houses and unique in this aspect – it is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived – the country’s greatest leader and former president, the late Nelson Mandela, winner of the prize in 1993  and the enigmatic, Desmond Tutu, the much-loved retired archbishop of Cape Town, who won the prize in 1984.

The tours include a walking tour through traditional African markets – complete with an African witch doctor who can give you a remedy for making anyone of the opposite sex swoon at your feet, outdoor butcheries and once illegal drinking taverns called “Shebeens” where you can sample South African curries and semolina pudding, commonly known as “pap”.

Those brave enough can try dried Mopani worms (similar to Wichita grubs) washed down with Amazi, the traditional African “sour” beer.

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The Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto

You will also visit the site of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when students protested against being forced to study in Afrikaans, and where Hector Pieterson a 13-year-old schoolboy was gunned down by police and whose dead body (famously photographed by Sam Nzima) became a symbol of the evils of apartheid.

Multi-cultural shopping and dining

Not all the things touristy in nature in Johannesburg are about history.

Given that one Australian dollar buys you around Nine South African “Rands”, shopping in eGoli can be a real spending spree. The city is littered with mega-malls stocking the latest local and international brands. For those on the hunt for modern finery and expensive African crafts, the ultra-chick Sandton City Mall and Hyde Park Shopping centre in the city’s North are enormous palaces to consumerism, while for sheer ridiculousness, the Monte Casino resort is worth visiting. Besides housing an enormous array of slot machines (pokies) and poker tables, the shopping and eating mall is designed as a fully enclosed Italian village, complete with washing hanging on the line, fake pigeons and a twinkling ceiling, where it’s forever nighttime.

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

There are many adventures to be had in the City of Gold, all of which can be done relatively safely, provided you stick to basic rules like not walking down quiet streets alone at night, leaving your expensive jewellery at home and keeping gadgets out of sight.

Most importantly keep in mind that Johannesburg is a friendly, multi-cultural place filled with some of the loveliest, most hospitable and zany people you will ever meet.

So go on, next time you’re flying into Jo’burg – spend a few nights and explore!

I dare you!

In memory of my beautiful son, Rafferty Schlesinger

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Today, February 2, would have been Rafferty’s first birthday.

A happy little boy, perhaps with curls in his hair like mine, taking his first steps around the living room, my arms outstretched, waiting to catch him.

Just a playful image to hold in my mind: our beautiful little boy was stillborn at 38 weeks exactly a year ago.

His passing came without warning. A few days before he died, he was an active little baby, his arms and feet pushing against Larna’s belly. Little shapes bopping out playfully from her round tummy.

The shock of his passing was immense. It was impossible to comprehend when it happened. I remember the phone ringing, and a lady at the hospital telling me I had to come in right away. Larna was too upset to speak.

I asked the woman on the phone: “Is everything OK?” She would not say, but I knew the answer.

A man usually of few emotions, I wept against the side of the bed as I held Larna’s hand in a darkened hospital ward half an hour later.

As Raffie was a fully developed baby, the doctor said it was better if he be born via natural birth and encouraged us to choose this option, even though it felt so ghastly and cruel and would mean Larna would have to go through labour and give birth. But the doctor said it was a safer option, especially if we decided one day to have another child, and so we agreed

We returned in the morning. Larna was inconsolable in the car as we approached the hospitable: “Raffie, why did you leave us?” she repeated over and over.

There were no answers. As a mother, Larna had lovingly carried Raffie for 38 tiring weeks, battled through severe morning sickness and an earlier miscarriage scare. More than anyone in the world, she deserved a healthy baby.

If there was a God, I thought, he was cruel and vindictive.

Through a vail of tears, Raffie was born in the early hours of  Sunday morning at the Royal Women’s Hospital.

Even though I knew there was no hope, I had, up until his birth, prayed for a miracle. That some how the doctors had been wrong, that he would still be alive.

The moment he was born will stay with me for ever: a little boy who did not utter a sound.

We held Raffie’s little body, stroked his soft skin, held his fingers and toes and took photographs. In one of those photos, I can see the sadness etched on my face, it is the saddest I have ever been.

We would have given anything for just a few moments of him warm and breathing against our skin.

Later that day I drove home to shower and get some rest before returning to the hospital in the evening. It was one of those scorching February days. I felt the heat as a crushing, suffocating sadness. I felt empty and deeply depressed. The world seemed completely changed, drained of colour for ever.

At home, I lay down on our bed while the fan whirred, next to an empty crib that should have been Raffie’s: it was the loneliest, saddest empty space in the world.

Two days later, on a Tuesday, we said goodbye to Raffie.

His little white coffin engraved with Rafferty” and my surname ‘Schlesinger” stood at the end of a small chapel hall attached to the funeral parlour.

We  sat together and said our goodbyes.

Behind us, my daughter Edie, nearly two then, provided some ill-timed, but much-needed comedic relief, ransacking purses and bags and running around with the bunches of colourful balloons that decorated the hall.

When it was my turn to speak, I read from something I had prepared. At the end, my emotions got the better of me and I collapsed into tears:

Rafferty.
Raffie.
I never thought hello and goodbye would come so quickly.
You were a beautiful boy with your mom’s long hands and your dad’s frown.
Raffie, I was so looking forward to kicking the ball with you in the park, watching your delighted face discover new things, hearing you say your first words.
I don’t know why you left us, but just know that where ever you are, your mom and dad and big sister Edie love you so much.
Our hearts are broken, but with time they will heal and we know that you will be watching over us.
We will never forget you. You will always be a part  of our family.
You are inside of me, in my heart.
You are my son.
My sweet little Raffie.
My little rascal

After the service, we let go 38 balloons into the air – one for every week Raffie had grown in Larna’s tummy.

The saddest part was watching the car with his coffin drive away, knowing that we were saying goodbye to him for the last time and knowing that we would not watch him grow older, not even for a day.

Later that day we had a picnic in his honour in Queen’s Park in Moonee Ponds under a big shady tree. The pain lifted briefly that afternoon. Perhaps we were just numb or too tired or just relieved to have made it this far.

Twelve months have passed, and I don’t think I have really comes to terms with losing our boy. Do you ever?

Today, we celebrate Raffie’s birthday. It is hard to accept that he is not hear running around, playing with his big sister, saying his first words, being a little rascal.

We speak about Raffie all the time and miss him terribly. He is part of our family. Edie may not yet be three, but she knows all about her baby brother and we encourage her to look at pictures of him and say his name.

Rafferty. Raffie.

Rest in peace my beautiful little man. We love you, always.

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Rafferty Schlesinger

Born, February 2, 2014 – passed away, February 2, 2014
Deeply missed by mom, dad & big sister Edie

Freshlyworded online bites: Five hand-picked yarns to enjoy this week

media bitesJanuary 15 edition (inaugural edition)

The internet is a vast, limitless place and very distracting.The worst thing you can do is waste your time reading drivel like this or this

Every week freshlyworded.com scours the internet for five worthy reads and shares them with you, completely free of charge.

The only criteria are that they be interesting/startling/enlightening (or preferably all three), that I have read them myself, that they are not behind a pay wall and that they can be enjoyed in the time it takes to drink a good cappuccino (sometimes quite slowly).

This week’s five are:

1. A Craigslist ‘Missed Connection’ Lure (New York Times)
“It all felt so sweet, strange and surreal. And impossibly romantic.”

– Finding ‘true love’ on Craiglist isn’t as easy as you think by Rosemary Counter (@RosemaryCounter).

2. Reconciling faith with political power (The Age)
“Others, including myself, are puzzled that the most Catholic Coalition Cabinet in Australia’s history can be so cruel in slashing our aid program – the lowest  in our history.”

– Being Christian at home does not mean being kind in public office writes Tim Costello. (@TimCostello)

3. Laughing at the Establishment in Thailand ( Time Magazine)
“The Bangkok Post dubbed Winyu Wongsurawat’s frenetic style ‘Jon Stewart on crack,'”.

– How a satirist is taking on Thailand’s military junta via a hugely popular YouTube show by Charlie Campbell. (@CharlieCamp6ell)

4. Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights (The Jewish Daily Forward)
“The black-Jewish relationship is complex, with many changes over time, but the historical record is clear.”

– A new film about the 1965 Civil Rights processes omits the role played by Jewish leaders writes Leida Snow. (@LeidaSnow)

5. RJ Mitte: ‘Nothing I do will ever compare with Breaking Bad’ (The Guardian)
“When Mitte read the character summary for Walt Jr seven years ago, it came as a welcome shock. “The breakdown pretty much described me,” he says, still slightly amazed by his luck. “Dark hair, big eyebrows, cerebral palsy … I was like, ‘I have this covered.’”.

– RJ Mitte, the actor who played Walt Jr in Breaking Bad talks about his acting and how he overcame his disability by Homa Khaleeli. (@homakhaleeli)

If you have a worthy yarn, send a link to freshlyworded@gmail.com and I will review for possible inclusion.

The story of how an apartheid pariah became a $66 billion media Goliath

ecommerceIf you were asked to name the world’s ­fastest-growing e-commerce company behind Alibaba and Amazon, it’s a pretty sure bet that names like eBay and Japanese giant Rakuten would spring to mind.

But the answer – as measured by ­year-on-year growth in monthly average desktop visits – is South African ­company Naspers.

Few Australians would have heard of Naspers, or know of its roots as a publisher founded to provide a voice for nationalistic Afrikaners after the Boer War defeat. But it just might ­provide a ­perfect example of how a ­modern media company can adapt to the digital world.

naspers graph

Source: Naspers 2015 interim results

Before it began re-inventing itself as an internet, e-commerce and pay ­tel­evision business in the early 1990s, Naspers (short for Nasionale Pers, ­Afrikaans for “National Press”) was a strong supporter of white minority rule and cruel ­apartheid policies.

Its first newspaper was Die Burger (The Citizen) and the paper’s first editor, Daniel François Malan, was a clergyman and ultra-conservative politician. In 1948, Malan led the National Party to victory over the more moderate United Party in white-only parliamentary elections, becoming prime minister. Later he would lay the framework for apartheid.

These policies were supported by Naspers until the release of Nelson ­Mandela in 1990.

Koos Bekker

But it was only in 1997 that Naspers sought to publicly sever its ties with the past (though you won’t find any mention of this in the history section of its website). That was also the year it appointed Koos Bekker, a graduate of Columbia University as chief executive.

Bekker, who had pioneered pay ­TV in South Africa (now called DSTV), led the ­company into the digital age.

In 2001, Naspers made its most sig­nificant ­investment when it paid just $US32 million ($39 million) for a 46 per cent stake in China’s Tencent ­Holdings, which was at the time the ­operator of unprofitable instant messaging ­platform QQ.

Today, Naspers has a market ­capitalisation of around $US66 billion, thanks mainly to its 34 per cent stake in Tencent, which has grown into a Hong Kong-listed mass media giant through mobile chatting applications like WeChat, which has more than 470 million subscribers.

Dozens of e-commerce investments

Off the back of this, Naspers has invested in dozens of other e-commerce and internet ventures targeted at ­emerging markets like India, Russia, ­eastern Europe and Latin America, with fast-growing populations and ­rising internet use.

Naspers has a 29 per cent stake in ­Russian online portal mail.ru, and owns global online classifieds business OLX, which receives 11 billion monthly page views, and online payment system PayU.

Of the $US6.5 billion in revenue Naspers raked in for the six months to September 2014, more than half came from its online investments and activities, with pay TV responsible for a third.

The company still prints newspapers, although print accounted for just 10 per cent of total revenue.

Chinese internet censorship

While the story of Naspers’ ­re-invention is the stuff of legend and the envy of struggling media companies the world over, questions have been asked of its role in policing China’s harsh online ­censorship regime on behalf of Tencent.

China was recently ranked third worst country in the world for internet freedom by US independent watchdog Freedom House.

Naspers chief executive Bob Van Dijk , who replaced Koos Bekker in February 2014 when he retired, has responded only by saying that Naspers complies with the laws of the countries in which it operates.

This prompted South African Sunday Times business columnist Rob Rose to note: “When the Chinese government says it fancies trawling through your ­servers, you probably lift your skirt.”

None of this is likely to trouble Naspers’ biggest shareholder, the South African government – through the Public ­Investment Corporation – which recently inked a free trade agreement with China.

As for Bekker, he elected to receive Naspers stock options rather draw a ­salary, leaving him with a $US2.5 billion fortune (the Naspers share price has risen more than fifty-fold since 2001).

No wonder the expression “You never lose with Koos” has become popular in South African business circles.

A version of this article first appeared on afr.com

Black people with cockney accents and London flatshares: A tribute of sorts to Clive James

clive james bookI’ve started re-reading Clive James‘ second wonderful memoir “Falling Towards England” which recounts ‘our hero’s’ migration from Sydney to London in 1962.

I loved reading all of James’s hilarious, witty and erudite memoirs and it is a real treat to dip back in to the early year’s of one of Australia’s finest literary exports.

It is an endeavour tinged with sadness and nostalgia: sadness because Clive James has a terminal illness and because reading his memoir stirs up so many London memories for me.

I am only 40 or so pages into “Falling Towards England” where we find ‘our hero’ virtually penniless, rejected for numerous writing jobs, ill-prepared for the English winter and frequently surrounded by ill-mannered boorish South Africans, or ‘voortrekkers’ as he calls them who don’t like it when the ‘bleks’ talk back to white policemen on television.

James captures perfectly the harsh Afrikaner accent and the mentality of the neanderthals he was living with at the time:

“That’s what’s rewning Efrika,” said a voice from a winged chintz chair, ‘litting a keffir talk to them like thet.” Another chintz chair agreed. “Thet’s right,” it said. “They mist not be allowed to enswer beck.”

I remember with great clarity on my very first trip to London with my mother, aged 13 in 1987, when there was still an anti-apartheid protest moored permanently outside South Africa house on Trafalgar Square, walking into McDonald’s for the first time (that too a novelty) and hearing the black man in dreads behind the counter ask me what I wanted in a thick cockney English accent. I got the shock of my life.

“The bleks are not supposed to talk like thet,” is probably what raced through my naive South African head at the time.

Beyond that funny re-collection, Clive James’s depiction of flat sharing in the 196os  reminded me of my own early years in London (I was there from 2000 to 2004), when I lived above a kebab shop on Brent Road, Hendon.

The top floor flat above "Flame" kebab shop was my home for three years

The top floor flat above “Flame” kebab shop was my home for three years

Of course, I didn’t have to feed money into a heater to generate some warmth as James did and my finances were not quite as dire as his – my first full time salary was £16,000 a year working as a ‘content developer’ for Accountancy Age on Broadwick Street, Soho.

I do though remember the barrenness of my little room with its pigeon-shit encrusted window that overlooked some miserable discount shops, a ‘caf’ where you could get breakfast for a few pounds and my local Tesco, where I witnessed numerous disputes between the staff and local yobbos, attempting their daily ritual of shoplifting bottle’s of Winkleigh’s White Lightning cider.

My landlord was a kindly, jovial Jewish man called Harold Schogger who ran the local bridge club on the floor below our third-floor flat. Coming home from work, I’d have to make my way past a posse of bride club players filling the air with a dense cloud of tobacco smoke (One later had a heart attack and died on the landing).

My first flatmates were as follows:

  • Andy and Dave, who both hailed from Rochdale, near Manchester in the North of England. Andy, a chubby, bearded fellow, fond of eating but not washing up and Dave, a quieter, intellectual type with the eyes of kindly badger, whose chief pre-occupation was smoking marijuana on a fairly continuous basis
  • Sagey, a lanky, pony-tailed Israeli, who spent large parts of the day and night in his lair (the biggest room in the flat) smoking dope, and shagging women (the moans reverberated through the passage walls). Sagey would sometimes invite me into his darkened den for a smoke and to watch a movie.  I would sit on a large poof in the cozy lounge area he had created next to his bed, getting deeply stoned, watching something or other on Sagey’s television.
Brent Street Hendon, where I Lived above the kebab shop

Brent Street Hendon,

My evening activities home from work via the Northern Line began with concocting some kind of meal in our narrow little kitchen usually piled up to the ceiling with dirty plates, or grabbing a kebab from the Afghanistani  who ran the shop below our flat. Then I would sit with Andy or Dave watching something or other on television (the Frank Skinner show was a favourite) as they passed joint after joint around the pungent room.

I must confess here to mild theft – having asked Dave, for a bit of weed one evening, I discovered that he kept it in a drawer by his bed. Later, when my own stash ran low, I’d help myself to some of his when he’d left work for the day – never too much to arouse suspicion, but enough to get me “nicely toasted”. For this act of treachery, I do apologise to Dave, where-ever he may be these days (probably stoned somewhere).

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

Thus I spent much of my first two years in London in a weed-induced trance, often finding myself up past midnight flicking through the endless channels of Sky TV. Or else, taking the bus up Finchley Road to visit my friends in a share house in Golders Green.

Over three years, a whole stream of eclectic and eccentric characters came and went from the three bedroom flat above the kebab shop. There was:

  • Debbie,  curly-haired aspiring singer from Cape Town, who aroused the passions of the local drunks in the nearby pub, when she sang show tunes for them (and who rejected my advances on the living room couch)
  • Jacqui,  a lovely ‘older’ woman (she was in her 40s to my late-2os) with a high-pitched voice, red-cheeked face, who took up the violin with great passion
  • Joe, a googly-eyed school assistant, drug fiend and cyclist, fond of opium-dealing in our living room, whilst quietly building a North London property portfolio
  • A good-looking Spanish guy (his name has disappeared from memory) who received phone calls on our landline from Europe at all hours of the night and whom I distinctly remember hating.
  • Two Israeli girls, one fond of loud bonking (though not with me), the other…sleeping (she worked the 11pm to 7am shift at John Lewis)
  • and many others whom have disappeared in the marijuana haze.

I remember those flat-sharing days in much the same way as  Clive James recalls his formative months in London with poignancy, hilarity, shocking embarrasment and a great deal of nostalgia.

There was also plenty of rejection and a fair degree of loneliness too among those years.

I recall being turned down for half a dozen other flat-shares,  inviting places with big open plan lounges, people that dressed well and leafy gardens.

I remember those experiences like Clive James wrote them, where each incumbent resident “wants to interview you personally before okaying you for the shortlist, after which the final selection is by written examination”.

In the end, I think I got the room in the shabby flat above the kebab shop because no one else wanted it, but at the time it was a cause for major celebration: London, I had arrived!

The flat is no longer there, given way to some apartment development, but the bridge club has remained.

And the kebab shop, where I paid frequent late night visits drunk or stoned, is still there, serving its greasy fare.

Australia: a backwards country, going further backwards

Devolution_zps5c30acaaLast weekend, whilst driving in the Melbourne northern burbs, my wife’s phone rang.

It was friends of ours, recently back from a holiday in Europe and they had big news. They had gotten engaged in Paris.

They had been together for a number of years and we were delighted to hear they had tied the knot.

But then the realisation struck home that they cannot legally marry in this country, because Australia does not allow gay marriage –  they are a lesbian couple.

For a very brief period in December last year, it was legal for gay couples to wed in the ACT. Rather than embrace this bold move forward, the Commonwealth government successfully appealed the territory laws that had been in force for less than a week. No sooner were  gay couples saying “I do” then their marriage certificates were being gleefully stomped upon by conservative bureacrats.

This is the country we live in.

These are 17 countries where gay marriage is legal with Scotland the latest to the join the list of enlightened nations earlier this year.

First to allow gay marriage was Holland way back in 2000, the others are: England (2013), Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Denmark (2012), Argentina (2010), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Sweden (2009), Norway (2009), South Africa (2006), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and Belgium (2003).

Yes, even the country of my birth, South Africa, a developing country with many social issues, has recognised that people of the same-sex have the legal right to become husband and wife, but not in Australia. Prime minister Tony Abbott is vehemently opposed to gay marriage despite, his own sister Virginia being in a gay relationship.

Asylum seekers

This is not an isolated backwards step, Australia is moving backwards in many disturbing and insidious ways.

Our foreign minister, Scott Morrison recently drank champagne with his Cambodian colleagues after agreeing to send refugees that arrive by boat to Cambodia in a grubby “cash for people” deal that treats people like livestock.

Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world will take Australia’s unwanted refugees who are already living in secret squalor on the impoverished island of Nauru.

What will Cambodia get out of this – $40 million and the promise of more money if they take more people. At the same time, Australia has washed its hands clean of its commitment to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees in what Amnesty International has labelled “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: The 2014-15 Federal Budget, the first under Joe Hockey, cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 20,000 to 13,750 places and reduced its aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years.

Free speech squashed

Rather than enshrine freedom of speech as he had promised in opposition, Tony Abbott has done the opposite.

Journalists and bloggers now face up to 10 years in jail for doing their jobs, providing information about the secret activities of government organisations, even if their stories are in the public’s interest.  This is not all, the new national security laws also make it easier for security agencies to access personal computers and spy on Australians overseas, the very violations of individual privacy, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed were happening on an industrial scale in the US, UK and Australia.

And while the government eventually backed away from moves by attorney General George Brandis’s love-child – plans to water down protections under the Racial Discrimination Act that would have made Australia a protected haven for Holocaust deniers and racists (legal to offend, insult, humiliate someone based on their race or ethnicity), the fact that they were drafted in the first place, speaks volumes about our retreat from enlightenment.

Other backwards movements

These are but three examples, there are many more:

Savage reductions in funding for impoverished aboriginal communities, scrapping of the two-year carbon tax, which actually worked to reduce carbon emissions  in exchange for support for the coal industry, money pulled from the national broadcaster the ABC forcing the likely cancellation of important investigative journalism programs, a $7 GP co-payment that will hurt the poorest in society. The list goes on.

It’s a depressing state of affairs for those who cherish Australia as a forward-thinking, first-world nation, that values multi-culturalism, basic human decency and a “fair go”.

As for my gay friends who are now engaged,  there’s always New Zealand as a wedding option – a country that’s not just beating us at rugby.

For a far more erudite article on Tony Abbott and his government, read David Marr’s excellent article in The Monthly here.

Twitter’s anonymous racist underbelly is a parody account.

********Spoiler alert: @ozprotectionistparty is a parody**************

If you ever want to pick up the mood among Australia’s racist underbelly,  then Twitter is a great place to start.

Some of the vilest guff comes out the mouths of anonymous twitter accounts, racist cowards not brave enough to sign their name to their bile.

Take for example I wrongly picked this fella:

ozprotectpartyI recently came across his account as part of a Twitter war involving Wendy Bacon, an academic and journalist ( , Sharri Markson, media editor of The Australian () and News Corp ultra conservative columnist Miranda Devine ().

It was a classic lefty journalist criticising a News Corp editor, which descended into a slanging match.

The fuse seems to have been lit by Wendy Bacon. She tweeted in response to an article by Sharri Markson about how journalists that tweeted their own opinions (examples included Bacon herself, Crikey star writer Bernard Keane, former Channel Ten broadcaster Paul Bongiorno and journalist and blogger Margo Kingston) were putting journalism at risk.

sharri
It was a provocative tweet no doubt – Bacon was clearly incensed that her opinions had been cast as a threat to journalism.

Miranda Devine leapt to Sharri Markson’s defence in typical fashion:

devineAnd then it all erupted as you can see with all the retweets and favourites.

I won’t go into all the comments – it was essentially a slanging match between ultra-conservative tweeters and left-leaning thinkers.

Amongst it all,  @ozProtectionistParty caught my eye with this bogan-esque comment:

ozprotect1Then I read through OzProtectionistParty’s Twitter feed. These are just a few highlights:

On refugees:

ozprotect2Homosexuals and same-sex marriage (SSM):

ozprotect3
Women:

ozprotect4Renewable energy

ozprotect5
And so it goes on…

The twitter account is a  parody – which I understand to be that he is actually mocking the right wing/racist elements in Australian society.

Otherwise and were it not for the spelling mistakes, it seemed would be an almost perfect synthesis of all the worst right-wing stereotypes – refugees are illegal queue jumpers, feminists are power-hungry bitches, students are bludgers – cloaked behind an anonymous Twitter handle.

Ten years ago, this fellow – were he real – would be spewing this stuff down at the pub with his mates rather than on the public forum that is Twitter.

There’s thousand of REAL PEOPLE out there who are not a parody like this account, barometers of what’s lurking beneath the surface of people you might stand next to on the train on the way into work or who are in front of you in the queue at Hungry Jacks.

Eager funnels for every right wing ideology and stereotype that comes out of the mouths of white/male/conservative/bigots.

Just hope you don’t bump into one of these REAL PEOPLE on a bus or train: