‘If it had been up to me, I would not have approved your application.’ It was April 1981 and we had just been interviewed by a consular official – we’ll call him Barry – at Australia House in London.
A month earlier, our bags had been stolen while we were travelling with a friend in Israel. In them were our round-the-world flight tickets, $10,000 worth of travellers’ cheques and passports with tourist visas for Canada and the US, as well as our Australian permanent residency visas. It was a shattering experience and I remember crying for the first couple of days. While still in Israel we managed to replace the passports, flight tickets and most of the cheques. We decided to leave the visas until we got to the UK. To smooth the way with the Australian High Commission, my mother had cabled ahead authority for our residency visas previously issued by the Consulate in Cape Town.
A native of Adelaide whose ruddy complexion hinted at a drinking habit, Barry had kept us waiting for four weeks. Part of that time we’d spent travelling around England and Scotland, calling up every few days – as he had suggested – for an update on what should have been an open-and-shut case. Each inquiry was met with a ‘not yet’ and peppered with Barry’s unique brand of vindictiveness. ‘Why are you wasting time driving around the UK when you should be in Australia looking for work?’ he’d say. For Barry, in want of someone to kick in the wake of Malcolm Fraser’s cuts to public sector staffing levels, we were manna from heaven.
When war broke out in 1899, the Transvaal gold mines were shut down. Even after the British occupied the Transvaal, it was almost a year before the first of them, the Meyer and Charlton gold mine on the outskirts of Johannesburg, reopened in May 1901. Having overcome the threat of sabotage – some Boer leaders wanted to destroy the mines rather than have them fall into enemy hands – Britain had had to turn its attention to a more immediate reality. With civilian administrations in the new colonies racking up debt and the cost of the war running to £2 ½ million per month, finding new sources of funds was imperative.
On the occupation of Pretoria in June 1900, Colonel J.G. Maxwell was appointed Military Governor of the Transvaal with, among others, oversight of the concentration camps included in his duties. A graduate of Sandhurst Royal Military College, Maxwell served in Egypt with Kitchener, and then in the Sudan before leading a division on Lord Roberts’ march to Pretoria. His second-in-command, Major J Weston Peters, also a graduate of Sandhurst, served in India and then South Africa where he occupied various positions as well as seeing action in the Orange Free State and at Johannesburg.
These men either had no aptitude for or much interest in the daily tedium of government. Roberts left behind a muddled transport system and endless hospital red tape in Bloemfontein while Kitchener was easily bored with administrative problems. For his own part, Maxwell had little empathy for humanitarian issues arising in the camps, remarking to Kitchener in May 1901 that ‘…the death rate amongst the children is higher than it should be owing to the crass stupidity and neglect by the mothers themselves.’ Under the military administration, mortality rates in the camps achieved new heights for most of 1901; in an attempt to reduce them, responsibility for management of the camps was transferred to civilian authorities in November.
A report filed by the Sydney Morning Herald’s special correspondent around this time described Pretoria as a place where ‘most of the business places, as well as the public buildings, have been renovated. Though martial law still rules, its restrictions are not severely felt, and life there passes quietly and indeed monotonously. The business people still complain of the difficulty in bringing up supplies from the coast, but…the shops are surprisingly well stocked with necessities, the prices of which, regulated by the military authorities, are exceedingly reasonable compared with those ruling at Cape Town or Durban.’
Despite Pretoria’s agreeable character, anyone wanting news of the outside world was unlikely to find it in the Transvaal capital. ”We know absolutely nothing of what is going on,” the correspondent was told, “beyond what we learn from an occasional official summary which Lord Kitchener allows to be pasted up, and from Natal and English journals whose news, of course, is somewhat old by the time it reaches us.”
At this time, Harry approached the Military Governor’s office on a business matter of an unspecified nature.
If I’d been treated like that, I’d have complained too! Although something in me does wonder, not about the content of this rather long-winded letter, but about what may deliberately have been left unsaid.
The last thing Mr Burns – a dour Scot steeped in the etiquette of late-Victorian Britain – needed was someone bursting into his office and demanding instant attention. He had enough of his own work to do without having to field Major Peters’ rejects. They were all the same, these impatient young South Africans with their sense of entitlement. Whatever this man’s business was, he didn’t want to know about it. Not today, anyway. Hailing an office boy, Mr Burns gestured towards the door. The lad placed a hand on Harry’s elbow and led him away.
In the interests of providing balance, I thought it fair to include Mr Burns’ point of view. And as he doesn’t have a public profile, I’ve fashioned one for him and constructed a scene around his imagined outburst. I had fun doing it. So having both parties’ perspectives and putting to one side any familial obligation, who did I decide was the aggrieved party? I didn’t.
After handing over our passports Barry, not content just to wave us goodbye, had some words of advice. ‘I hope that you realise that when you get to Australia, you’re likely to be unemployed for a year or more. Or at least one of you will be.’ Those words still ring in my ears.
We arrived in Australia on 21 June 1981. Before the week was out, we’d landed contract work. Both of us. After three months we had permanent jobs. While we’d thought about it, we didn’t write a letter complaining about Barry. It was enough to know that he had been wrong about us.
Several years later I made friends with someone who had worked at Australia House in London during the early 1980s. I asked if she’d known Barry. She said that she had. After I told her how badly he’d treated us she became defensive, noting that the High Commission had been inundated with residency and other applications, and that the pressure to get through them all with reduced staffing was intense. Ah, yes, I said, but we already had an approval issued in Cape Town; Barry knew it, he just wanted to have fun at our expense. She conceded that we had a valid point and then volunteered something else.
‘You know, Barry used to sneak off into the bond store in the basement and help himself to a drink.’
We both laughed.
 Pakenham, T. The Boer War Abacus London 1979 p495.
 Pakenham, p384
 Pakenham, p494
 Schaffer, G. (ed) Racializing the Soldier Routledge Oxford 2013, p59.
 Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1901.