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Confessions of an Australian diplomat and people smuggler

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 9 October 2007

According to the Howard Government I am a people smuggler and as such should be prosecuted and put in prison. As a young Australian diplomat posted to South Africa from 1976 to 1979, I was confronted by a ruthless police state enforcing white privilege over a black majority through the comprehensive system of race discrimination known as apartheid.

Black activists, friends and bystanders were taken into custody, tortured and sometimes murdered. This is what happened in September 1977 to Steve Biko, the exceptional leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a friend of mine.

Using my diplomatic immunity I was able to assist victims of apartheid. I took black activists across the border to safety and shuttled others from one place to another to avoid the security police. I put some up at home until the security police grew tired of looking for them and I took others, who were banned, to clandestine meetings.


The first person I helped to leave South Africa was an older African National Congress operative who I met through mutual friends. He asked if I could take him to Swaziland as things were getting hot in South Africa and he had "matters to discuss" with Bishop Mandlenkosi Zwane, who was an influential member of the ANC.

It was an easy matter to take him out of the country. He lay on the back floor of my Peugeot and I covered him with blankets. We went through the border without incident. That was August 1977.

The next person I took out was the newspaper editor and critic of apartheid, Donald Woods. He had to leave because police had fired shots into his house and his youngest daughter was posted a T-shirt which burnt her because it had been impregnated with a chemical by the police. He was also banned, which meant that under threat of detention he could only meet one person at a time. He had written a book about Biko which he wanted to publicise and also tell the world about apartheid, which he did.

He wanted detailed plans prepared which was a pain but understandable as he wanted his wife and children to join him once he was safely in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. All went according to plan. The escape was portrayed in the Richard Attenborough film, Cry Freedom.

I also took some students from Soweto to Swaziland. They wanted to apply for refugee status in Australia but were knocked back by officials at the Australian embassy in Pretoria. I couldn't say or do much because my border activities were not known in the embassy.

Some people left the country never wanting to return, others left to gain respite from the security police, intending to return, and others went to hold meetings with opposition groups in neighbouring countries. Others went to pick up money to distribute to the families of political prisoners. The borders were fairly porous.


What prompts this confession is the tragic story of Ali Al Jenabi, an Iraqi convicted of people smuggling and who is seeking refugee status in Australia. For some time I have been aware of his detention in Villawood. However, as I read an account of his case in the Herald this month, I felt an injustice had been done to him.

There seems to be no one in the Howard Government able to comprehend the fear and danger of living in a police state which can drive some to flee from all that is familiar.

The compelling needs of a refugee often finds a positive response in the marketplace. Al Jenabi, among others, responded with a mixture of compassion, common sense and self-interest. The latter being the need for money to support his family and fund other family members through "the pipeline" to Australia.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 27, 2007.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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