SBS World News Australia Presenter Janice Petersen tells the story of how their family migrated from South Africa in the '70s and reflects on the values that make multiculturalism work in Australia.
21 Mar 2012 - 6:10 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

When you think about it, we're all migrants aren't we?

So it's been interesting to hear such fierce and divisive debate about migrants and immigration because at one time or another either we ourselves or relatives recent or distant have hailed from elsewhere. We all have that in common.

The ancestors of Aborigines are likely to have come from the Malay archipelago and New Guinea over 50,000 years ago; the first fleet began colonising 224 years ago and to this day migrants from all corners of the globe have chosen to live here.

You could say Australia has had a long history of boat people washing up on its shores.

My parents set sail for Australia from South Africa in the mid '70s on board an Italian liner named the 'Marconi' which came via Cape Town to Freemantle.

In a way, my parents were boat people too... but their boat was a cruise liner, and albeit a humble one, it was sea worthy; they were able to hang onto their passports and legitimate paperwork but they were most certainly fleeing a repressive regime and hoping for a better life.

South Africa in those days was very much in the suffocating grip of the oppressive apartheid regime.

My parents' way of life and opportunities were determined by the colour of their skin. I often think about what kind of life I would be leading if they didn't make the trek here.

There are the most horrific stories of abuse of course but even the smaller day to day struggles reveal so much about that dark chapter in South Africa's history.

For instance, my dad who has the same skin colour as me, wasn't even able to catch the same bus as his light-skinned mother. Just think about that... The image of a mother and young son running a simple errand, then torn apart by a regime of state sanctioned hatred.

It's incredibly heart breaking.

Even the children's fairy tale “Black Beauty” was reportedly banned because those two terms were considered by the regime to be mutually exclusive... the hatred trickled down to that degree.

Little wonder the book took pride of place on our bookshelf in Australia!

My parents knew of brave and passionate people who were detained for speaking out against the government - by informants. Friends, family, work colleagues turning on someone they knew... someone who probably trusted them. Divide and conquer. Evil stuff.

It was not a life my parents wanted their children to be subjected to.

So when my parents were in their 20s, they were thrilled to be heading to the new country, along with my brother Dale who was just a toddler.

When they landed in Freemantle they went into a store. A young blonde woman who was the shop assistant was bopping away - dancing and singing to a tune on the radio and offered a big smile "How ya goin'? What can I get ya”?

My parents were taken aback. She was open, friendly. There was no malice. She didn't want them out of the shop. She had no idea SHE was one of the first Aussies they'd encountered. She made them feel welcome.

That warmth, the idea of a fair go was something my parents experienced from that moment on.

So, to the bubbly blonde in the Freemantle shop – I salute you!

And cheers to the rest of you who continue to welcome those who've come from across the seas…

Happy Harmony Day!