Do we have apartheid in Australia?

Apartheid came to Australia long before being used in South Africa. Is it still alive and well today?

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What is 'apartheid'?

'Apartheid' is an Afrikaans word meaning 'apartness' or 'separateness'. It describes a situation where an empowered dominant group submits a minority, usually a country's aboriginal people, using racial segregation involving political, legal, and economic discrimination.

Apartheid is most often associated with the Republic of South Africa where it was introduced in 1948 and officially renounced in 1992. Few know it also happened in Australia.

Some of the characteristics of apartheid are:

  • Racial segregation. Groups are, or the entire population is, divided by skin colour. This can include separate designated areas to live, work or be (spatial segregation). Classifications might be used, such as White, Black and Coloured based on physical characteristics.
  • Less rights. The minority's political rights are reduced or removed completely. Opposition is suppressed.
  • Regulations. Behaviour and communication of the minority group are regulated.
  • Suppression. The government sets up elements to suppress aspects of the culture of the minority, for example in areas such as marriage, sexuality, jobs, wages or education.
  • Violence and destruction. The minority group experiences overt or covert violence or racism. Their property or lands are destroyed.

Origin of apartheid in Australia

In 1901 one of Australia's first acts as a nation was to introduce the so-called White Australia policy to exclude non-Europeans from Australia. Under the policy Melanesian slaves and their families were forcibly repatriated , severing centuries-old family and commercial links between Aboriginal Australians and Indonesia.

The policy had also a severe effect on Aboriginal people. It led to widespread segregation and racism which most of Australia only learned about after Charlie Perkins' 1965 Freedom Ride:

  • Desperately poor living conditions on fringe settlements.
  • Missions on which white managers controlled every aspect of Aboriginal people's lives.
  • White people convinced of their racial superiority.
  • Exclusion of Aboriginal people from the basic amenities of a country town.

Policies in states and territories refined apartheid after the White Australia policy was introduced.

In Western Australia, the segregation reinforced by the 1936 Native Administration Act and the racist attitudes of non-Aboriginal people "established an apartheid regime where Aboriginal people in Western Australia were discriminated against in all sorts of ways".

An Aboriginal parent painting their children with white paint so they can enter a swimming pool.
Aboriginal children 'painted white' to enter a swimming pool, 1965. Illustration: John Frith .

Examples of segregation and racism

Following are examples of segregation and racism Aboriginal people experienced during the White Australia policy:

  • Not allowed in swimming pools. Aboriginal children were not allowed to swim in the pool. The only opportunity to do so was by picking swimming as an elective in high school .
  • Segregated picture theatres. At Bowraville, NSW, the cinema had a physical partition and separate doors so that whites never had to lay eyes on Aboriginal people.
  • Not allowed to town hall. The Walgett town council even passed a motion barring Aboriginal people from the baths and town hall.
  • Not allowed in pubs and hotels. A sign above the doorway at the hotel in Dubbo, NSW, read "Aborigines not allowed in the Lounge without Licensee’s permission."
  • Not allowed at the footy oval.
  • Segregated school buses.
  • Segregated cemeteries.
  • Not allowed in shopping malls. Security guards expelled Aboriginal people from shopping malls .
  • Not served at shops.
  • Segregated at hospitals. Different areas served Aboriginal people.
  • Not allowed to the bowling club.
  • Not allowed in the RSL. Karen Rutterman’s father George Rose, an ex-serviceman, was refused entry at the RSL almost his entire life. The attitude of the time was “if you’re black stand back, if you’re white you’re alright”. The RSL in Walgett barred Aboriginal ex-servicemen from membership.
  • Not allowed to try on dresses in the store.
  • Police harassment. Police focuses more on Aboriginal people than other Australians, a problem still happening today. Police were known to "barge into houses without knocking—the men often have had only one or two glasses of beer—then drag them to truck without formally telling them they are being arrested."

Australian journalist Ray Martin, who also has Aboriginal heritage, remembers: "No question about it [having apartheid in Australia]. Aboriginal families herded into rough, town camps on the other side of the river, without electricity and with communal taps. Aboriginal people segregated on a Saturday night, squatting on the floor down the front of the local picture theatre. Aboriginal boys - who were the same age as me - being "hosed clean" by the lifeguards at the public baths, before they were allowed to jump in the pool."

"In Leonora - out in the Kalgoorlie goldfields - I watched as Aboriginal women waited for hours in the dust and scorching sun outside the District Hospital, while white women drove up in their Land Rovers and were immediately treated by the Flying Doctor. The stories were endless."

But Ray has even worse memories of Australia's apartheid.

"As a young reporter, I remember a whitefella in Narrandera telling me the story of being taken by his father and uncle on 'a hunting party' one Sunday morning - to shoot Aboriginal people."

All Aboriginal kids now vacate the baths!

— 3 pm swimming pool loudspeaker announcement in 1965

Story: "We were not allowed to be friends with the white children" – Segregation in Australia

Gumbaynggir woman Ann Edwards was born in Bowraville, about 500 kilometres north from Sydney. She remembers the days of segregation (my emphasis) :

"Back then Bowraville had a hospital. It was a big building, only allowed for white people. On the side was a little room for the Aboriginal people, and it only had one bed in it. On a number of occasions my sister would get asthma and ended up in hospital. My mum and I used to go and visit her and we’d find my sister in one of those oxygen tents. Back then Aboriginal people weren't allowed in the hospital, I think it was only for kids.

"A lot of our women folk who were having babies back then used to walk over the mountains to Bellingen Hospital [which accepted Aboriginal people], 50kms away. My husband’s mum walked over the mountains to have my husband back in 1941. My mother also walked the mountains to have my sister.

"Then there’s St Mary’s. When I went to school at St Mary’s it had these great big buildings for the white children, with a large playground and a church. On the other side of a petitioned fence was a little shed. This was the school room for Aboriginal children, and we were not allowed to be friends with the white children – not even allowed to speak to them.

"The church also had one section for the Aboriginal people and the rest for white people.

"Then we’d come into town, which had three milk bars [cafes], as they were known back then. Aboriginal people were not allowed to be served a drink from a glass, as they didn't want white people to get the germs from Aboriginal people...

"We had two pubs: the top pub and the bottom pub. Our men folk didn't go to the top pub – that place was for the first class white men, the ones who owned the businesses in town. The bottom pub was more for the hard working white men who owned farms around Bowraville. The bottom pub was the place our Aboriginal men would go and get served out the back from a little window...

"The police were also hard on our men folk, especially to older men. When they saw them standing in town doing nothing, they would either tell them to move home, or they would lock them up, especially if they had work to be done at the local police station.

"Then we come to the famous picture theatre. Again this theatre was partitioned off for the white people, in their comfortable seats, looking straight at the screen.

"We had to come in through the side gate, get our ticket at the little window, then walk down the side and up a steep set of stairs, only to sit on hard wooden fold up chairs and every one of us with our heads bent right back to look up at the screen. Some of us would lay on the cold, hard floor to watch the picture."

Copied Africa apartheid from Australia?

There is not much official talking about Australia lending its apartheid structures to Africa. But anecdotal evidence points to the White Australia policies being used as a blueprint for Africa's apartheid policies.

For example, Colin Graham remembers that "the Queensland Aboriginal Act [Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld)] was used as a basis for the South African Apartheid... They sent their experts to Australia, and in particular North Queensland [to study] the Queensland Aboriginal Act and they took it back to South Africa and implemented it. That became the Protection Act in South Africa."

According to Graham, the African government's experts came back in 1948, fell "in love with it" and implemented it "in full". Graham says this knowledge has been passed down from his grandfather.

Graham is not the only one. Trevor Cook, who worked in politics, public policy and strategic communications for over 30 years and holds a doctorate in Australian politics at the University of Sydney, cites Janine Gertz, a Community Engagement Officer at James Cook University and friend of his.

"South Africa's Apartheid system was modelled closely on Queensland's Aboriginal Protection Act (1897)," Gertz writes in a Facebook post .

Australia introduced its White Australia policy with the ratification of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. South Africa officially introduced apartheid much later, after the general election of 1948 , to be repealed in 1994.

When journalist John Pilger visited South Africa in the late 1960s he was welcomed into "this bastion of white supremacy" and told, "We admire you Aussies. You know how to deal with your blacks."

Pilger witnessed conditions in Africa that were similar to what he had seen in Australia.

At Jay Creek, 45 kilometres west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, hundreds of Aboriginal people were corralled in conditions Pilger compared to those he had seen in Africa and India: One outside tap, no sanitation, rations consisting of starch and sugar, children with stick-thin legs and swollen bellies of malnutrition.

In the 1980s, when apartheid reforms in South Africa failed to quell the mounting opposition against it , Pilger was "struck by the similarity of white supremacy and the compliance and defensiveness of liberals".


In 1961 South Africa left the British Commonwealth to avoid expulsion over its apartheid laws. At the same time, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies publicly defended South Africa's right to pass such laws.

Examples of contemporary apartheid in Australia

It is not easy to recognise elements of apartheid in Australia. Often it takes outsiders to make the comparison.

One such outsider is South African writer Sisonke Msimang who moved to Australia after spending years writing about and commenting on human rights, race relations and government accountability in South Africa.

Since arriving she has recognised a systematic approach to 'assimilate’ and 'eradicate' Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. She says the Australian government employs tactics of ‘trickery, disposition and violence’ that are ‘as ugly as you'll find anywhere in the world’, practices which she found all too similar to those implemented during South Africa’s apartheid.

Northern Territory intervention

A government Basics Card has been relabelled as 'Economic Apartheid Card'.
One government measure of the NT intervention was to issue a Basics Card to prevent people from buying alcohol and other non-essentials. The above is how an artist sees the perceived inequality the card caused. Image: WGAR News on Twitter

When the government intervened in the Northern Territory it also excluded Aboriginal people from the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act so it could pass laws (called 'special measures') that discriminated against them. Both the Liberal and Labor parties endorsed the change.

Hotel rooms

International hotel giant Accor was forced in 2019 to launch an investigation after allegations that staff at one of its Australian hotels had been segregating Aboriginal guests in lower quality rooms.

It was alleged that the Ibis Styles hotel in Alice Springs had directed staff to place guests from remote Aboriginal communities into designated "community rooms" which were dirty, and poorly maintained, with broken glass, leftover food, and discarded clothes found inside. The rooms cost the same as other, cleaner rooms which were assigned to non-Aboriginal guests.

Sophie Trevitt, a lawyer with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, said such practice was not uncommon in the Northern Territory and "effectively a form of segregation within hotels and hostels".

Pubs and swimming pools

Officially there is no segregation in Australia, but practically there still is, as witnessed by Dr Woolombi Waters in 2014:

"When I was in Alice Springs recently [in November 2014] as part of the Freedom Summit we witnessed pubs that still don’t serve local Blacks, and police at most bottle shops, with our people lined up like criminals as police check their ID because some of our mob are not allowed to buy alcohol."

Tony Greer, Manager of the Apmere Mwerre Visitor Park in Alice Springs, concurs.

“[During the White Australia period Aboriginal people staying in town] would be turned away from a regular hotel. And I can tell you now this still happens, even though people say, oh no, everyone’s welcome. That’s a lie. Non-Indigenous people have plenty of options, always have, always will."

During the White Australia policy, segregation was imposed unofficially in public places such as theatres and swimming pools. It is shocking that it persists to this day, as Dr Waters knows.

"My Uncle Paul and I even witnessed dark skinned kids staying at the hotel we were staying at being told to get out of the pool. That’s right they were staying at the same hotel and when Uncle Paul and I questioned the manager she said it was because the kids swimming would 'stop other guests from swimming'."

I feel like I am living in an apartheid state when I'm in a bar with 100 'white fellas' and 100 'black fellas' outside" looking into the bar in which they aren't allowed in.

— William Bernal Pike, Spanish traveller, visiting in 2015


Anand Grover, the UN's special rapporteur who visited Australia in late 2009, was informed during his visit that hospital authorities ''reinforced stereotypes and prejudice… by installing screens and walkways to allow non-indigenous people to access hospitals without seeing indigenous families sitting at the entrance", an issue he took "very serious[ly]" because it reminded him "of apartheid".

Police harassment

As any Aboriginal person and they will tell you that Aboriginal people are selectively targeted by police.

A Sydney Morning Herald investigation in November 2014 into police searches at train stations found that the "searches are not spread evenly across the city".

People at Redfern, where the majority of Sydney's Aboriginal people live, were "far more likely to be searched than those at Central or Kings Cross stations". This was despite those searches being less likely to identify drugs. Passengers at Redfern Station were 6.5 times more likely to be searched than passengers at Central Station, the report found.

Prison rates

With Australia's "law and order" and "tough on crime" approach, prison rates have exploded. Police target specifically Aboriginal people which makes their statistics even worse.

While the jailing rate of black males in South Africa at the end of the Apartheid era (circa 1993) was 851 per 100,000 population, Australian rates for Aboriginal males in 2009 stood at 4,364 per 100,000, more than 5 times higher.

No state or territory of Australia jailed Aboriginal males at a rate less than South Africa under apartheid. The closest was Tasmania at 1,169 per 100,000 population, 1.4 times South Africa's rate, the worst Western Australia at more than 8 times the rate of South Africa during apartheid.

"Apartheid runs through Australian society"

Journalist John Pilger, author of the documentary Utopia, concludes that "Apartheid runs through Australian society."

"Within a short flight from Sydney, Indigenous people live the shortest of lives. Men are often dead before they reach 45. They die from Dickensian diseases, such as rheumatic heart disease. Children go blind from trachoma, and deaf from otitis media, diseases of poverty.

A doctor told me, "I wanted to give a patient an anti-inflammatory for an infection that would have been preventable if living conditions were better, but I couldn't treat her because she didn't have enough food to eat and couldn't ingest the tablets. I feel sometimes as if I'm dealing with similar conditions as the English working class of the beginning of the industrial revolution."


View article sources (24)

[1] 'Apartheid Australia violating human rights', Treaty Republic, 24/10/2011, http://treatyrepublic.net/content/apartheid-australia-violating-human-rights
[2] 'Impacts of Law Post 1905', South West Aboriginal Land & Sea Council, noongarculture.org.au/impacts-of-law-post-1905, retrieved 26/2/2015
[3] Herald and Weekly Times, cited in http://museumvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum/discoverycentre/identity/people-like-them/the-white-picket-fence/timeline/?selected=3
[4] [4a] 'Freedom Ride: revisiting the dip in the pool that changed a segregated town', The Guardian 21/2/2015
[5] [5a] [5b] 'Freedom Ride returns to Walgett, the town where the RSL banned black diggers', The Guardian 20/2/2015
[6] [6a] 'In the lucky country of Australia apartheid is alive and kicking', John Pilge, The Guardian 6/11/2013
[7] [7a] Colin Graham, submission 61 to the Stolen Wages inquiry, 12/8/2006
[8] 'Racism and Aboriginal rights: Fifty years since the Freedom Ride', solidarity.net.au 19/2/2015
[9] [9a] 'Ray Martin: The Great Divide', SBS 10/11/2014
[10] 'The day the Freedom Riders gatecrashed the Bowraville cinema with a colour bar', The Guardian 22/2/2015
[11] 'Queensland: the model for apartheid', Trevor Cook, 11/12/2013, trevorcook.typepad.com/weblog/2013/12/queensland-the-model-for-apartheid.html, retrieved 26/2/2015
[12] [12a] 'Apartheid', Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apartheid, retrieved 26/2/2015
[13] [13a] 'Mandela is gone, but apartheid is alive and well in Australia', John Pilger, National Unity Government, 19/12/2013
[14] Indigenous Rights Timeline 1960-69, National Museum of Australia, indigenousrights.net.au/timeline/1960-69, retrieved 26/2/2015
[15] ''The first thing that strikes me about Australia is how racist this place is': Writer claims our treatment of Aborigines is WORSE than apartheid South Africa', Daily Mail 16/4/2015
[16] See twitter.com/BlakandBlack/status/1240713251140198401, retrieved 2/5/2020
[17] 'Undercover recordings capture hotel staff racially segregating guests', ABC News 8/3/2019
[18] [18a] 'National Indigenous Times, up against neo liberal conservative politics’, Dr Woolombi Waters, email, 28/1/2015
[19] Tony Greer, Manager, Apmere Mwerre Visitor Park, Alice Springs, in: First Contact, Episode Two, SBS documentary, 11/2014
[20] Personal Facebook message, 7/4/2015
[21] 'UN concern over apartheid-style access', SMH 5/6/2010
[22] 'Drug searches: thousands falsely identified by sniffer dogs', SMH 30/11/2014
[23] [23a] 'We jail black men five times more than apartheid South Africa', Crikey 2/7/2009
[24] 'Australia's day for secrets, flags and cowards', John Pilger, 21/1/2016, johnpilger.com/articles/australias-day-for-secrets-flags-and-cowards, retrieved 1/2/2016

Cite this page

Korff, J 2020, Do we have apartheid in Australia?, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/do-we-have-apartheid-in-australia>, retrieved 13 July 2024

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