How has Australia made the transition from a monument to union-dominated mediocrity to what it is today? Picture: HANNAH JESSUP/123RF
How has Australia made the transition from a monument to union-dominated mediocrity to what it is today? Picture: HANNAH JESSUP/123RF

Travel to and from the land of the kangaroo is easy rather than sumptuous. Qantas dedicates the most derelict hardware of its fleet to the SA market. If I were to compare my last SAA international flight — where the signs of wear and tear were evident but everything still worked — with my last two Qantas flights, where the décor motif was shabby grunge and one of the seat belts didn’t work (!), I’d assume that SAA was in robust good health and Qantas was about to follow Pan Am into oblivion.

As an aside, anyone — even SAA — could offer a better option on the lucrative Johannesburg-Sydney route. Qantas now doesn’t have to make the effort, having acquired its monopoly courtesy of Jake and Dudu (a “gift” worthy of the state capture inquiry). Imagine a 14-hour daytime passage with a patchy inflight entertainment system whose multiple failures herald the same fatigued and slightly apologetic announcement from the purser explaining that the system will have to be rebooted (“and please be patient during the 10-minute delay”).

That said, the Qantas crew would serve as a beacon for all the SA domestic airlines, as would the Qantas domestic business class. Where SA service is good (BA), the cabins and the planes are dross, and where the cabins are passable (SAA), the service makes the term “British” seem like a badge of honour.

My trips to Sydney are not exactly an annual pilgrimage, though they have taken place at much the same time most years since the 1980s. They involve no visible acts of faith. There are no shrines, no high priests, nor any unexpected or life-affirming outcomes. They are more an act of habit than a ritual — a three- or four-day work stint that takes place in unprepossessing spaces; a long, slow, surprisingly arduous act of rigorous calibration, most lately the annual judging of the Three/Five/Six Nations Wine Challenge. The work is the work, it’s part of what I do, though the scale is now vastly bigger than it has ever been, and bigger than any other show or competition I’ve ever sat as a juryman, judge or final arbiter.

But when the sun shines in August, the city is not as wintry as Johannesburg, it’s not as dry, or as austere, or as polluted.
Michael Fridjhon

But it does mean I have been able to track the evolution of Australia’s most populous city, from my first trip there almost 40 years ago when the whole country was in thrall to the unions (SA, take note). Then, nothing worked, while today, efficiency is palpable rather than perfect. Most of the metrics show it’s more egalitarian than it ever was under union rule (ANC, take note) and the continent’s dessicated umbilicus with Europe has finally been severed.

In the 1980s, the posh eastern suburbs of Vaucluse, Double Bay and Rose Bay were the hangout of the Hungarian mafia and the “boat people” (first-wave SA emigrants who had already acquired yachts). Strange state-capture stories made for fascinating dinner-party conversation; of state premiers who arbitrarily by-passed rigorously framed development guidelines to grant building rights to the politically connected (sound familiar?).

In one such anecdote, a well-known objector simply “vanished.” It’s rumoured that when the building in question is finally demolished,  his body will be found set in its foundation stone. No-one can say we don’t share our delicious sense of irony with the Australians.

Today, of course, Australia is “hand-made” — though it would take the naivete we’ve lost as South Africans to believe even a fraction of the claims. When the pats of butter served on Qantas state “hand-crafted … churned by Pepe Saya”, you have to understand that trade descriptions regulations — as we know them — do not apply Down Under. Fashionable restaurateurs have never had it so good. Lucio’s — our equivalent of Mastrantonnio — serves a plate of slippery, slimy, hand-made truffled tagliatelle for almost four times the price you would pay at Mastrantonnio for something infinitely more enjoyable. Nothing, not even labour cost, accounts for the differential.

A restaurant group — having first made voluntary disclosure that, through ignorance, it hadn’t complied with the law — was recently charged with underpaying casual staff. The amount involved was over R75m, admittedly over several years. It’s hard to imagine an upmarket SA restaurant group failing to note an additional R75m on its balance sheet.

But, generally, the food offering is exciting — as long as you’re not bored with the prospect of Asian fusion — and the appeal of home-grown (“native”, as it’s called in the country that dedicated its best efforts to wiping out the indigenous population) has not yet tarnished. Tetsuya’s represents the acme, polished, innovative and much more than food theatre. Even Bentley’s in a Radisson hotel (for heaven’s sake) served the show judges a table d’hôte meal any course of which might have won a food award anywhere in the world.

Sydney, however, even allowing for the banana rand, is not for the indigent — not when an espresso costs R40 and a five-minute cab ride R200. But when the sun shines in August, the city is not as wintry as Johannesburg, it’s not as dry, or as austere, or as polluted. There’s an ebullience, a joie de vivre, and an almost believable thought that this may indeed be the best of all possible worlds.

How has Australia made this transition from a monument to union-dominated mediocrity, where tall poppies (to quote the Australian vernacular) were cut down, to what it is today, and is there a lesson here for SA — assuming anyone is listening?

In a word, it is that Australia is a nation that rewards excellence rather than affirms aspiration, that elects to face the future in preference to being mired in its past. It achieved the groundwork and the infrastructure for these changes in the decade from 1990 to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. If we choose to allow it, it could serve as a model for what SA might become, rather than as an alternative universe reflecting our lost opportunity.