Indira Naidoo
Australian author, journalist and TV presenter
Born in South Africa, moved to Australia in 1970s

What does living in six different countries, covering major stories as a young journalist and being smuggled out of your home country at age 1 covered by burlap sacks make you? Indira Naidoo of course!

Indira Naidoo is a force to be reckoned with in the world of journalism. Her journalism career has spanned 25 years and she’s covered some major breaking news and global wars. She was a familiar face for many years on ABC’s Late Edition and SBS TV’s World News Tonight and is humble and approachable, answering my email request for an interview for The Newcomer almost immediately.

She’s also the author of The Edible Balcony which documents her adventures growing fruit and vegetables on her inner-city balcony and then preparing them into delicious recipes. Indira also blogs at The Saucy Onion.

Indira said she knew journalism was for her from the day she attended her first lecture. I talk to Indira in this fascinating account of her life.

Indira Naidoo

Q. Did you feel overwhelmed at any point because you covered major stories at such a young age?

When I first started and for quite a while actually I really had no idea what I was doing. At first I thought I was going to wake up one day and someone would say there’s been a big mistake and we’ve given the job to the wrong person!

I always thought that I would be uncovered as a bit of a fake. I’ve talked to a lot of professionals even with qualifications and training they feel there’s things that they’re not sure of or whether they’ve done a good job or if they can keep on doing their best work.

In some ways, I think it’s a healthy thing to be constantly questioning yourself. But definitely I look back on it now and think that it was quite unusual and daunting. But then, it was a good way of learning. I think one of the sad things about what went down with the generation that’s behind me is that a lot of them had struggled to get access to so many industries.

So I think it’s really good to be trusted with responsibility at such a young age. I was lucky to have been given that opportunity.

Q. Do you remember much of your life in South Africa? I know you were smuggled out by your parents at the age of one but the family went back after having lived abroad.

I don’t remember a lot of South Africa and the time after I was born there. But we went back to South Africa and Zimbabwe, lived there towards the end of the Civil War and part of the Civil War in Zimbabwe when I was 13 – 17, so I remember that very, very clearly. And while we lived there, we traveled quite extensively through South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Botswana.

I think from 13 to 17, that’s when you become the person you really are. I was hugely affected by what we experienced particularly in Zimbabwe.

Q. Do you think those formative years gave you the qualities that made you so successful later in life?

Now as I get towards 50, I realise I’ve rarely come across anyone that’s grown up in six different countries – it’s unusual. Of course there are downsides to that. The constant change, the moving to new cities, schools, leaving friends behind. Those things can be quite unsettling but the positive thing is that you learn to adapt. You learn to take the essence of places and people with you. So there are important life lessons that you get from living such a nomadic lifestyle.

You learn to take the essence of places and people with you. So there are important life lessons that you get from living such a nomadic lifestyle.

The upside means that I’m not afraid of change. I accept the change happened and it’s a good thing that it happened and it means that I’m constantly re-calibrating how I think and my attitudes.

Q. You grew up as a teenager in Adelaide. The Australia then and the Australia now, do you think there’s any stark differences in how multiculturalism and related issues are viewed especially asylum seekers?

Yes. The first time we arrived in Australia in 1974 was in Tasmania. We arrived when the Labor government was in power. Then the next time we came to Australia, it was in Adelaide where we were going through economic change with the recession and Bob Hawking was in power during that era. Now again it’s another sort of era.

For me, it almost feels like living in three different countries. The Australia of those eras, not only tourists, immigration and multiculturalism, but so many other issues are in very different places.

Compared to the way we first arrived in Australia, when Australia really wanted well qualified immigrants. We were given homes and jobs and all support services that you need in a new country.

I remember doing a story as a journalist on the first detention centre that was set up in Australia, just being horrified at the idea that we were so welcomed and now we were setting up detention centers to hold people.

A lot of people do forget that it was a Labor government [under Paul Keating] that set up the first detention centre [in 1992].

It’s obviously very tragic for me, where we are at the moment, in the way we treat the very, disadvantaged people of the country. As someone who has covered international news in detail, traveled widely to all these countries and even though we were never in any particular refugee situations, we were in situations where we had to leave countries quickly, we didn’t have a lot of money. Some of what refugees are going through I relate personally with.

Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world and as a result we’re one of the most successful economies and one of the safest and welcoming countries as well. So for me, it’s part of the fabric that has made us so successful. If we stop it by dismantling or changing it, I think we’re going to suffer from that. I think that diversity gives strength and – yes we’re challenged at the moment and not nice things are being done.

But I think that the battle will eventually swing back and be won in favour of embracing differences.

It’s really important for people like us to explain why it’s important, why we need to help support these people and show them successful multicultural stories.

That’s why websites and magazines like yours are important because people really need to be reminded about the wonderful contributions people from all these diverse backgrounds make to Australia.

Q.What’s your message for other migrants who have come from another country and they’re living in Australia?

I would like to say welcome, I still feel like it’s the best country in the world.

Generally Australians are extraordinary; welcoming and supportive and great fun to be around. One of the things that I would encourage everyone to do and I was saying this at a conference recently. I don’t walk around assigning labels – even though I am obviously a sum of all my parts. I’ve come from an Indian cultural background, I’m African taught, I’m an immigrant, I’m a woman, I’ve got all of those elements to me but they’re just labels in the end.

It’s not the essence of who I am and I try to engage with people as broadly as I can. Even though you may hold on tightly to something about your cultural, ethnic or religious background, it’s really important to realise that in the scheme of things, those are not the things that hold us together.

It’s actually common values, it’s common aspirations for what we want for our children and what quality of life we want and all those other things fall into place under that umbrella.

But if you go out saying, I’m this type of person and I want to spend time with this type of person I think that there will be trouble.

So if you don’t use those labels to describe yourself, then other people can’t use those labels against you either. I think it’s important to find out who you are separate to your label. Then you can be open, other people can engage with you in a more open way as well.

Then once you’ve opened those doors, you can start helping them with that journey of understanding about what it is to be Muslim, what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a refugee or a migrant.

But I think we need to just keep focusing on the real commonalities that we all have rather than breaking it all down into these labels.