‘Race suicide’: Sir William Walkley’s unearthed report on apartheid South Africa reveals birthrate fears

<span>Ampol founder William Walkley saw the low wages of South Africa’s ‘coloured service station attendants’ as an advantage of investing in the apartheid state.</span><span>Photograph: SuperStock/Alamy</span>
Ampol founder William Walkley saw the low wages of South Africa’s ‘coloured service station attendants’ as an advantage of investing in the apartheid state.Photograph: SuperStock/Alamy

The Ampol founder, Sir William Walkley, derided apartheid South Africa’s failure to attract white migrants as “race suicide” in 1958 and warned the country faced a potential bloodbath if a communist leader emerged who was “perhaps a half-breed with the white man’s intelligence”.

The comments are contained in a report produced by Walkley – whose Walkley Foundation still runs Australia’s most prestigious media awards – on a four-week tour of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to assess the prospects for Ampol expanding into those countries.

The report, which also includes newspaper clippings and personal notes, forms part of his personal papers, housed in the New South Wales state library.

As part of his assessment, Walkley listed what he saw as the advantages and disadvantages of investing in South Africa. The word “apartheid” does not appear on Walkley’s list of disadvantages, though he does note the “Hitler-like” policy of press censorship.

As an advantage, he writes, “the wages of the coloured service station attendants are low and their idea of cleanliness of uniforms is even lower”.

Related: Walkleys end media awards sponsorship deal with fossil fuel company Ampol

Last year Osman Faruqi wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about a 1961 editorial Walkley wrote for the same paper, which included the lines:

“Today Australians are but a drop of white in a sea of colour that teems with more than 1,200 million land-hungry Asiatics. As population pressures increase in Asia, so will the demand become more emphatic that we open our gates to coloured migrants.”

In September 2023, the Walkley Foundation and its board of directors condemned and expressed deep regret for racist views expressed by the founder of its major awards Sir William Gaston Walkley in a newspaper column in 1961.

After being approached for comment, the Walkley directors said their condemnation extended to any racist or offensive comments Sir William Gaston Walkley may have made during the course of his life.

The board reiterated its statement: “As an ethical organisation, we must call out the mistakes of the past. His [reported] views do not reflect the values, views and ethics of the Walkley Foundation. We apologise for the deep hurt and offence these statements will have caused for journalists and the broader community.”

Last week the Foundation announced the end of its formal partnership arrangement with Ampol, owing to the company’s continued profit from the selling of fossil fuels, after it faced a boycott campaign over the arrangement.

The comments now unearthed on apartheid paint a more detailed portrait of a man who recognised its obvious injustice but who viewed the world through a strict racial hierarchy, with white Europeans at the apex.

Fixated on white migration

Walkley began his working life as an accountant in New Zealand before migrating to Australia in 1935 to set up the Australian Motorists Petrol Company, the precursor to Ampol.

The company grew quickly but it wasn’t enough for Walkley to own the country’s petrol pumps – he wanted the oilfield and the refinery, too. He would get it in November 1953 when a crew working for West Australian Petroleum, a joint venture between Ampol and Caltex, found oil at Rough Range-1, near Exmouth.

This find made Walkley Australia’s first oil baron and by the time of the South Africa visit, he had risen to a position of enormous influence. In 1956 his name was etched permanently on to the media landscape when the Walkley awards were given out for the first time.

In the report back to his executives on the situation in South Africa, Walkley largely washed his hands of any moral judgment about apartheid, saying it was “a matter entirely for the people of South Africa and not for me on which to pass comment”.

He was not blind to the reality. At one point he noted “the utter repression of the black man” and after a visit to Durban he wrote that the Indian population had been removed to “what looked no better than concentration camps”.

He also tried to interpret the origins of apartheid.

“The Apartheid Policy appears to have developed out of fear – fear that the black and coloured people may in years to come by sheer weight of numbers gain control of the country,” he wrote.

Related: South Africa marks 30 years since apartheid amid growing discontent

“As in Indonesia, an element of selfishness may be a minor contributory factor. By selfishness I mean that the whites may want to reserve for themselves all the privileges which they at present have.”

At a time when Australia was encouraging European migration under the White Australia policy, Walkley wrote with disappointment that South Africa had attracted just “3,620 souls” through its migration program over the eight years before his visit.

“In the light of the fact that the blacks outnumber the whites by more than three to one and that the black and coloured birthrate is three times that of the white, this migration policy to my mind is nothing more or less than race suicide,” he wrote.

Walkley maintained his views on birthrates for much of his life. He outlined them in the 1956 editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald and returned to the idea in a speech to the Australian Institute of Management in Townsville on 14 May 1961. There he told his audience: “Hitler’s Germany failed to defeat the Russians not because the Russians were better soldiers, but because there were too many Russians.

“We can lose Australia because there are too few Australians.”

Walkley repeated this line in another speech on 19 October 1965, suggesting northern Australia “must appear a ripe plum to the have-nots and others” before ominously adding: “Let us be warned in time.”

Foreseeing violence in South Africa

Walkley derided South Africa’s inability to attract migrants as “stupid”, both because it compromised the ability of white Europeans to maintain control of South Africa and because it inhibited the economic growth generated by migration.

“Quite apart from the coloured problem, this policy must result in a slow economic growth in the Union and at the same time it exposes industry to grave dangers from its enemies within and without the Union,” he wrote.

Those enemies ranged from communist insurgents, black liberation movements and even the Manchester Guardian, as it was then called, whose reporting on apartheid drew a “bitter reaction” from the South African government officials Walkley spoke to.

Related: ‘Realities of apartheid’: South African artist wins Deutsche Börse photography prize

Walkley foresaw violence in South Africa.

“I am told that the Communist Party is banned but to me that does not mean a thing because the Communist technique is to work underground in the early stages and, should a leader (perhaps a half-breed with the white man’s intelligence) arise, the country could be involved in a blood bath,” he wrote.

But he thought any criticism of the apartheid state from Australia could represent a business risk.

“White South Africans are a proud people and they have every reason to be proud of their country,” he wrote. “They are intensely resentful, both nationally and politically, of what they call ‘overseas’ criticism and I can envisage perhaps wild criticism in Australia or by Australians at the United Nations which could easily result in a vindictive attitude towards Australian investors.”

In the end, Walkley decided South Africa simply did not offer the prospect of a worthwhile financial return for Ampol.

On a 12km stretch of highway between Kimberley and Bloemfontein, he counted 36 cars, eight utilities, one motorcycle, one ambulance and three army utilities – numbers he assessed could not justify a new chain of petrol stations.

“Applying my own formula to the question of investing money in South Africa, namely would I invest my own money on a long term basis, my answer is emphatically ‘no’ – at least, for the present,” he wrote.

“This is a grand country with a great future if only the people could work together and the Government become adult in its thinking.”