Pat Wagner

About Pat Wagner

Pat Wagner is a now-retired school teacher who traded in South Africa for Australia in the 1970s. He now calls Canberra home.

Terminal change: Memories of the Australia I met, and the Australia I know

Back in 1977, I traded South Africa for Australia and was staggered by the kindness of authority. We’ve changed, but is it for the better?



The Boeing 747 rose from Johannesburg Airport a few days prior to Christmas 1977. My family and I were leaving Jan Smuts Airport as it was then named in honour of the South African statesman and Prime Minister who, early in his political career, had contended with a “difficult” activist of the time: M.K. Ghandi. Smuts had had the doubtful honour of imprisoning the Mahatma. I doubted this would be my fate, but felt anxious when, having completed the passport and customs formalities, a heavy-set person in khaki uniform instructed me to follow him. This I did with my six-year-old son, Paul, in tow. A quiet room and Paul was relieved of a plastic water pistol. My hand luggage was duly looked through and then the thick Afrikaans accent announced, “ I must search you now.” I turned to face a wall, raised my arms above my head and set my feet wide apart. “Ag , no man, I didn’t really mean like that.” So it was possible to embarrass even these people whose weighty authority could crush one’s future in an instant?

Paul and I were allowed to join the rest of our family and make for the aircraft.

Then across the Indian Ocean in relays – Mauritius as the day faded; then Perth the next day as the sun just peeped into a cloudless sky. Eventually the descent into Sydney. Below the broccoli-like bush and the intricacies of the valleys and gorges of the Blue Mountains, then suburbia with its endless tiled roofs and finally touchdown at Kingsford-Smith Airport, not named for long-forgotten politician.

Yes, I experienced apprehension, not knowing what this new phase of my life would bring. It was, though, not that same sense of anxiety tinged with fear which encounters with South African authority had instilled in me in more than 30 years. Passports were perused and duly stamped. Our luggage emerged onto the carousel without apparent evidence of having been opened or given any special “treatment”. (I had had mail from Newcastle University in the 1960s unceremoniously slashed open and crudely retaped.)

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Australian Customs who policed some of the strictest regulations in the world, we were made to understand. But I felt certain that none of us had anything to declare. But then who knows when there is a greater uncertainty swirling through one’s mind?

Suitcases to be opened? No.

Another uniform, a different accent indeed, but the face was friendly and smiled. “Have you got a place to stay tonight?”

“Yes, we’ll be with my sister-in-law.”

“Well then, you’re on your way. Welcome to Australia!”

Was that it? No interrogation? No searching of my person or my possessions?

Flashforward to today at the same airport, and those who hold the same positions, wear black uniforms, the faces unsmiling. Pity my country. Especially those in power who decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.

This makes me feel fortunate not to have tried to migrate to Australia in the year the above words were uttered.

For someone who has grown old with Australia, the shift is obvious. As for those people who are set to take the same journey as I did in 1977, I certainly do not envy them.We have changed as events have appeared to have changed us.

Has the change been an edifying experience?

I wonder.



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