Normalising segregation

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It briefly felt like apartheid. In that moment, the overwhelming thought that flooded my mind was of an incident during my youth in apartheid South Africa (SA). I know I will be vilified for daring to compare the Covid times in Victoria to apartheid, but there are parallels to be drawn and warnings to be sounded. At
the very least our leaders flirted with ideas that mimic those that lay behind apartheid – classify, legislate, regulate, and thereby control people.


One of the defining symbols of apartheid were the pass laws and their progeny, the ‘passbook’. The passbook became an artifact around which the antiapartheid movement gained momentum. It symbolised the very essence of division. It was the piece of ‘paper’ that determined what you could and could not do.

Legislation in the form of the pass laws were designed to restrict the movement and activities of ‘non-whites’. Everyone was required to carry identity documents (variously known as a ‘reference book’, ‘passbook’ or dompas) when outside of their designated areas such as townships and homelands. Whites had no such restriction. The passbook was much like a passport with all the characteristics
typical of such a document, however it also contained additional information such as behaviour evaluations by employers and any permissions granted or denied by the state. These included permits to be outside of a designated homeland and to seek employment within cities and ‘white’ areas. Consequences for non-compliance ranged from harassment to fines and arrests. Only those with a pass could be employed by white persons, with heavy fines also being levied against employers taking on ‘illegal’ workers.

A range of laws collectively enforced apartheid. Amongst those was the Population Registration Act that classified people according to race. The Group Areas Act, which physically separated races into specific regions in which they could reside and work. The Separate Amenities Act separated race groups, European and Non-European, forcing them to use different facilities and services.

The Population Registration Act, which laid the groundwork for the Group Areas Act and the physical separation of peoples, assigned people into various groups at the stroke of a pen. Everyone was classified as either Black, White or Coloured (with Indian added as a further category later). One’s race classification had implications on social status, political rights, education options, economic
opportunities and restrictions on movement and settlement. The idea that this system existed by formal legislation seems foreign to modern Australians and the mere suggestion that anything close to this happening here is offensive to most.

Apartheid Story

Growing up in SA my generation knew nothing other than apartheid. We grew up in the pass law system and had brushes with its consequences on occasion. As a European descendant, I was automatically classed as ‘white’ and consequently life was not dogged by restrictions, control, and fear. However, as a child a few incidents stood out to me. One such incident occurred around 1979, while accompanying my father on his construction site. It was a daunting time for a single operator not long arrived as an immigrant. He managed to win a few contracting jobs, but eventually landed a large two-story office block in an industrial estate.

Finding workers was not easy. By law he could only hire labourers that had a pass to work in white areas. Even though there were literally thousands of willing men desperate for work, many did not have the requisite permits to work or be present in the cities. However, ‘legal’ workers were scarce, and he would have to go to the local pass office to try and hire such people. His team on this job consisted of one ‘legal’ labourer, to justify his work, with the remaining four or five workers being hired ‘off the street’, illegally.

One mid-morning, I remember noticing shouts and whistles echoing across the streets adjoining the site, accompanied by an almost instantaneous scattering of labourers from the site. Everyone had disappeared, bar the one ‘legal’ employee. My father had no idea what had happened as his site fell silent and workerless! The signals emanating from down and across the street had alerted workers that
plain clothes police were on the street and about to raid the site to check passbooks. Thankfully they did not catch anyone, although he was questioned, and his paperwork checked to certify that his one worker had the requisite ‘papers’ and permission to work. After two or three hours the labourers slowly returned. This was their daily life under apartheid – providing for themselves and their families under constant fear of fines and arrest. Heavy fines also hung over my father and any who dared provide employment to those in need.

That incident made an impact on me as a youngster. The anxiety-laden, instinctive, and spontaneous flight from the worksite by grown men left an impression. The clear nervousness of my father as he laid out his own paperwork to justify his ‘legal’ worker just added to the depth of that memory.

Something similar happened in Victoria between 2020 and 2022. Whilst that period cannot possibly be directly compared to apartheid, the similarities must be drawn to show that this form of discrimination is forever crouching at the door, even in so-called free and democratic societies.

Covid Story

The memories of that raid came flooding back to me 40 years later as I stood in the carpark at the back of my family business in country Victoria. All I could recall was that day in SA that was indelibly printed on my mind.

It was late 2021 when practically all residents of Victoria needed to have received a Covid vaccine to be permitted to work. Our small family business employed six people, none of whom were willing to comply with the state’s mandated medical intervention. Ironically, as a food business we were deemed
‘essential’, but all our workers were deemed ‘unlawful’! We were therefore forced to continue business ‘illegally’. Fines of over $100,000 for the business and over $20,000 for each unvaccinated employee hung constantly over the business. Any of those fines would have immediately ruined our family venture.
After implementing some risk-mitigation steps we decided to defy the orders and continue operation. However, there was a constant unease, an apprehension with each day of operation. Never knowing whether a plain-clothes inspector or snitch would report you.

The police and ‘covid-cops’ were occasionally spotted in town. Apart from several close calls, this particular day I caught whiff of their approach down the street and making a line towards our business. Without hesitation, and with an unexplained instinct I made a dash for the back door of the store, leaving a temporary (‘legal’) worker in charge with a folder of carefully curated paperwork. A similar escape was required on another occasion by my wife and one of our employees. These were uniformed Department of Justice employees that looked official and intimidating. The situation was surreal. As I stood outside the back door in the carpark I had been turned from ‘normal’ law-abiding citizen into a criminal overnight. As with the workers on that construction site, we slowly returned when the inspectors and the associated threat had gone. Those months of working ‘unlawfully’ were not pleasant. Every time any uniformed or lanyard-laden individual walked down the street, an unease would ruminate in my gut wondering whether they were on their way for a ‘passbook’ inspection. As a small business we couldn’t afford to find out how legitimate these fines and powers were. There are countless more stories of evasion by Victorians

As the vaccine mandates took hold in Victoria, one’s vaccine status then dictated not only one’s ability to work, but also access to amenities, like restaurants, shops, and sporting events. Mandates had become the mechanism by which the state forced compliance and regulated movement, social activity and economic participation. In effect, the state of Victoria slowly ground everyone into submission and instituted a form of passbook. Whilst not of the same gravity, nevertheless the notion that significant segments of the community could be excluded from normal activities at the whim of those in power bears some semblance to apartheid. Particularly disturbing was the acceptance, by the general populace, to the imposition of such blatant discrimination on their fellow-citizens.


There are uncomfortable parallels – if not in substance, then certainly in ideology. The idea that a citizenry can be divided into various classes simply by legislation (the vaccinated and unvaccinated) smacks of segregation. It was akin to the Population Registration Act. Whilst in the SA context this classification was linked to attributes of race, the criteria set by the government of the day were not always clear-cut and somewhat capricious. For instance, unclear cases were determined based on a range of subjective qualities, such as facial features, hair type and even eating habits. Nevertheless, this classification had huge implications on how other legislation impacted a person. This classification was
entirely captured and symbolised within ‘your papers’.

Similarly, a restoration of ‘normal’ life in Victoria hinged on ‘your papers’ – your vaccine certificate, your exemption, your proof-of-vaccination, your green tick. Erratic and irrational ‘classification’ was likewise a hallmark of the Victorian government. A number of classifications emerged, with consequent privileges
and rights – vaccinated; double-vaccinated; two-weeks-post-second-dose-vaccinated; boostered; double-boostered. With each wave of mandates and restrictions, individuals would scramble to find out their ‘classification’ and how this might affect their livelihoods, only to have any loopholes ‘rectified’ in the next wave of regulation.

In SA your race classification then determined how legislation such as the Group Areas and the Separate Amenities Acts applied to you. Restaurants, theatres and entertainment were constrained according to your race. Freedom of movement and settlement were regulated. Economic activity and opportunity were restricted. Educational options were limited. Your papers either gave you license to go about life freely or be highly controlled and policed. Likewise in Victoria (and other parts of Australia to varying degrees), your ‘green tick’ determined whether you could buy a coffee, go to a sports game, dine in a restaurant, venture onto campus, attend parliament, get married, worship in church or bury your dead. More pressingly, it determined whether you could work, attend the workplace, provide for your family, or pay your mortgage. Just like apartheid caused many to migrate to less restrictive jurisdictions, many fled Victoria to other states and overseas.

Whilst some may think these measures were temporary and necessary, the fact that so many defended these steps as quite acceptable, has irreversibly changed Victoria and Australia. Having tested the populace and found these actions largely palatable, the temptation to repeat them or venture to implement something far worse is now not far away. Separation and persecution between people groups is unfortunately normal to human history, with occasional short-lived exceptions. Has Australia started down the slippery slope of accepting that not all citizens need to be equal all of the time? I fear it has and is now ready to publicly entertain all manner of segregationist ideas – whether race-based constitutional change, or simply allowing advantage to be gained by credentials based on heritage, gender identity or medical conformity. Feels an awful lot like Apartheid 2.0 is looming on the horizon.

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  • Prof Nick Blismas

    Nick is Professor in the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University in Melbourne. He joined RMIT from Loughborough University (UK) in 2004 after several years post-doctoral work. He worked as project manager in housing and corporate re-imaging prior to commencing an academic career. His main research fields over the years have included design for construction safety; off-site manufacture and housing production. Publications have included industry toolkits, reports and over 70 academic journal and conference publications. He has undertaken research funded directly by industry, Virginia Tech [via NIOSH (US)], AusIndusty and has held 4 ARC grants (Linkage & Discovery). Between 2014 and 2015 he was Director of the Centre for Construction Work Health & Safety Research at RMIT University. He has been a part-time academic since 2016. The response to the pandemic confirmed how freedom of thought and speech had been seriously eroded in research institutions and public discourse. This has prompted him to dedicate time to promoting and restoring freedom in science and research.

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