UniLifeMag sent two of our team to Whyalla in a whirlwind weekend tour. Leaving Adelaide at 8am on Saturday and getting back in time for tea on Sunday, the two journalists spent all but the ten hours driving and seven hours sleeping (these two activities did not overlap) talking to people in Whyalla and attempting to get a feel for the town. The following article documents our experiences in the town, and while we could not hope to understand all of the issues for youth in Whyalla, the time spent there has given us a far better view than talking down a phone line ever could.
Photography by Angus Randall
On the road into Whyalla, a couple of kilometres out, five large stone tablets jut out of the earth. They’re a dull red, the same colour as the ground, and the road, and the caking dust. Each has an iron sigil affixed to its face – one is a set of cogs, another two hands grasped in a firm handshake. Small iron letters read “1901 – Whyalla Centenary – 2001”. There’s a syringe and a shattered beer bottle sitting at the base of one of the tablets. In the background, smoke curls away from a OneSteel smelter.
“I stayed here for a year. And I was like – get me out of this fucking town”, Bree* says. On a Saturday night, she’s drinking with friends at the Roopena Football Club Clubrooms. She grew up in Whyalla; her father works for OneSteel. A year after High School finished, she moved down to Adelaide – her parents paying $500 a week in living expenses. “I had to get out of this town”, she says, a hint of claustrophobia in her voice. She’s back now, though.“I never thought I’d ever, ever move back to this town; but unfortunately, boys make you do crazy, crazy things”, she laughs wryly.
For young adults like Bree, making the transition from small regional towns to Adelaide is tough. The costs are exorbitantly high; Elle, a blonde mother of two twentysomethings, was fortunate enough to be able to send her kids off to Adelaide for uni, but says “it is a huge financial commitment”. Marie Ackland, another Whyalla mother, has a son with ambitions of studying in Adelaide. “I think we’re financially sound that we can let him do whatever he wants to do”, she says. When Bree moved up, her parents could only pay her room and board for so long; there was immense pressure to get a job. At best, Youth Allowance pays out $377 a fortnight – some degrees require a set of textbooks that cost more than that.
Marie’s son will have the opportunity to choose Higher Education; Bree was able, with the help of her parents, to have the opportunity to go to Adelaide. For those in the city, opportunity is taken for granted – there’s always something there when we want it, new ways of challenging and pushing ourselves. We’re limited only by our talent and our imaginations. In Whyalla, and other small country towns around the State, the spectrum of opportunities is much narrower. Courtney, an Adelaidian working in Whyalla as a High School Teacher, says Whyalla’s youth have “exactly the same dreams as metropolitian [kids] – they wanna be hairdressers, they wanna be teachers. They have the same aspirations that any other child wants”. But when they graduate year 12, the opportunities and options aren’t the same.
Whyalla has three public schools and a private school. Elle’s children went to the private school, Samaritan College – in the hope, according to Elle, of giving them access to as many opportunities as possible. “Our children went to the private system here, and certainly it was quite focussed on uni. A lot of their peers went. [but] I don’t think anywhere near as many kids from the public system go to uni”. The kids with rich families who can support them go to uni; the poor kids don’t get that chance.
That separation by socio-economic level says a lot about Whyalla. Along the Spencer Gulf shoreline, in old Whyalla, a relaxed yellow sun warms alfresco diners lunching at expensive eateries. On the main street, a restaurant sells kangaroo steaks on a bed of mashed sweet potato and gnocci – $45. A few kilometres westward, in Stuart, the bus shelters are made out of corrugated iron instead of glass, and big, expensive cars are parked next to piles of trash on dustbowl front yards. The local kindergarden has barbs on top of its fence, and locks on its swings. The town is split – Kelly, a local teen with raven hair and a shy smile, inks a thick blue line across the map, cutting between Sturt, Norrie and Old Whyalla. The “rich” are on one side, and the “ferals” on the other, she says. Courtney says her students “come from a very low socio-economic background. The students are extremely rewarding, but extremely challenging”. Stuart High School’s website puts it more plainly – more half of all kids at the school hold school cards, meaning their parent’s income puts them below the poverty line. To qualify for a school card, combined parental income must be below $32,000 a year. With that sort of an income, sending a child off to Adelaide for higher education is simply not an option.
OneSteel dominates Whyalla. Nearly 20% of the town are employed in the smelters; the company’s industrial estate, on the Lincoln Highway from Port Augusta, features metal barricades, a sub-audibly-buzzing electricity substation, and a flagpole bearing a red OneSteel flag as big as two trucks. The town’s tourism authority even offers guided tours. According to the company’s website, OneSteel Whyalla “exploits the competitive advantage of access to low cost iron ore reserves in the Middleback Ranges of South Australia”, before smelting the ore into steel – which is used to produce “products including structural, rail, rod, bar, wire, pipe and tube products”. The mill also produces a red, ferrous dust. It covers everything. Houses are red. Trees and shrubs grow dull red trunks as the dust seeps in. Stobie poles are bright red at the base, then slowly transition to dirty-concrete white higher up the pole. Roads are an uncomfortable shade of mauve.
For young kids growing up in Whyalla, OneSteel offers an incredible and unique opportunity. The benefits of the mining boom, and the barges of steel sailing across the Pacific have led to immense wages for resource workers. Stories abound in town of workers earning anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 for driving a truck. On the far western side of town, out past the ferals of Stuart, new housing developments are springing up. McMansions are being built in the dust, Californian bungalows with Greco-Roman pillars; all money, no class. They house the new rich of Whyalla. And the wealth is open to all.
OneSteel actively targets kids in year 10, 11 and 12 – going out into schools to offer apprenticeships. For a 16 year old, the idea of earning $80k a few years out of school is enormously attractive. But it comes with a downside. For workers going into manual labour so young, the job growth prospects are low. Nicole Figueroa, a mother working the bar at one of the town’s pubs, says she it ‘hoping’ her son won’t end up working for OneSteel.
“I’m hoping my son won’t go to OneSteel, cause then he’ll get stuck in a rut like most people.” Asked what happens to people who work at OneSteel, she says they stay there, in Whyalla, “forever, forever.”
*Some names have been changed.
Read the original article that caused such an uproar – Whyalla: A Failure of Expectation
Check out one of the emails UniLifeMag received from one of Whyalla’s residents