Economic apartheid: The ongoing ethnic cleansing of central Auckland

Daphne Lawless is a writer, musician, political activist, football player, e-cyclist and mother living in Tāmaki Makarau / Auckland. She is the content editor for this issue of Fightback.

This article will be published in Fightback’s magazine on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To subscribe, click here.

In any country with a past as part of one of the Western empires, you can’t sensibly talk about any part of society without discussing the ongoing legacy of white supremacy and racism. Urban geography and the right to the city is no exception. The most famous examples of racism in urban geography are of course the legalised segregation carried out under the names of apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow in the United States, where white and non-white peoples were separated by law and by force. But the destruction of the Pasefika communities of historic central Auckland by a combination of motorway madness, economic segregation and gentrification is also an example of how capitalist racism feeds into how our cities are built – and how the Pākehā middle-class have benefited at the expense of other sectors of society.

Pasefika migration

Aotearoa of course began its colonial era with the forcible removal of tangata whenua from most of their land by the armed forces of the British Empire. For a long time, the cities were more or less restricted to Pākehā of various social classes, due to an informal “white New Zealand” immigration policy which was almost as effective as Australia’s more formal version.[i] This changed after the Second World War, when the economic boom meant suddenly New Zealand’s industries were short of labour. This not only led to the migration of younger generations of Māori to the cities looking for work, but government and business also targeted the peoples of the Pacific Islands – Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and elsewhere. Generally speaking, the jobs these new migrants were those that “a self-respecting British immigrant or Kiwi wasn’t prepared to do” – unskilled and low skilled jobs in expanding manufacturing industries and on the wharves.[ii] The Pasefika population of New Zealand climbed from 3600 in 1951, to nearly 94,000 in 1981, and was 266,000 at the 2006 Census[iii].

At that stage in history Auckland’s industry was clustered around the central city, and cars were a luxury which only the upper classes had access to. At the time, the well-to-do population of Auckland were using this new mobility to head towards the new-built “outer” suburbs of the slowly spreading urban sprawl. So, the suburbs that the new Pasefika migrants settled in were the working-class suburbs of those days – Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Newton, Herne Bay, Freemans Bay, Parnell – which were within easy tram or bus distance of inner-city factories. These suburbs offered “cheap rental housing, much of it consisting of run-down old villas and workers’ cottages with no hot water or inside toilet.”[iv]

Someone who’s not familiar with Auckland’s history might be amazed at that list of suburbs, most of which are now on Auckland’s “most overpriced” list. Just recently, Herne Bay’s average house price reached a staggering $2 million. And it’s no coincidence that its Pasefika inhabitants are mainly long gone.

Motorway madness

The Pasefika community of the inner suburbs quickly put down cultural roots which still make their presence felt today. Today’s huge Pasefika presence in New Zealand rugby, for example, began with the first all-Samoan rugby team playing for the Parnell and Ponsonby clubs.[v] Many of the churches which were the centrepieces of Pasefika communities, and offered valuable social support to those “fresh off the boat”, are still visible in the area.

All this began to change in the mid-1950s, when the first parts of Auckland’s motorway network – including the Harbour Bridge – were built. By the mid-1970s, the suburb of Newton – between the Karangahape Road ridge and Mt Eden – had been almost totally destroyed for the creation of the Central Motorway Junction, aka “Spaghetti Junction”, the heart of the new motorway network. Meanwhile, half of Freemans Bay was replaced by a motorway connecting the CMJ to the Harbour Bridge – perhaps a lucky escape for Ponsonby Road, which was an option initially considered for this route.

As Chris Harris says, there was no need for a Central Motorway Junction at all – Adelaide, a city about the same size as Auckland, gets on fine without one.[vi] It would have been more efficient from a traffic point of view to build a motorway route from Manukau north around the western end of the Waitemata Harbour, avoiding the urban area altogether – something which will only happen this year with the opening of the “Waterview Connection”. Instead, all northbound traffic was sent over the inadequate Harbour Bridge – and right through what used to be Auckland’s working-class and Pasefika suburbs. Quite aside from the impacts on these communities, Auckland has paid the price for these short-sighted decisions with decades of traffic congestion and sub-standard public transport.

In 1951, the Government of the time declared that 96 hectares of Freemans Bay was to be “totally cleared and redeveloped”.[vii] Originally the plan was to replace the old slum housing with modern high-density developments. But as the 1960s and 1970s wore on, it became clear that the ideology of Auckland’s local and national planners was to clear the existing working-class communities from the central city altogether, towards peripheral suburbs along the motorway network. From 1976 to 2008, the Pasefika proportion of Auckland’s inner suburb dwellers fell from 23% to 10%.[viii]


The expansion of the motorway system meant that factories no longer had to be near the CBD to transport goods to and from the wharves. The manufacturing jobs which used to sustain the inner-city Pasefika community began moving to the city fringe as well, to places such as Penrose or East Tamaki. Understandably, many of those Pasefika communities displaced by motorway madness followed their work southward – where, it must be said, the new houses being built were usually of higher quality than the old Newton slums.

This new housing was built on what was then the southern fringes of the urban area: Mangere, Ōtara, Papatoetoe, and other areas which were part of what was known (before the “Super-City” amalgamation of Auckland) as Manukau City. Meanwhile, with Newton gutted by the CMJ, Karangahape Road – which used to be its prosperous shopping strip – began to decline. The big department stores and the Pasefika churches began to disappear, their place being taken by strip joints and sex work establishments – the origins of “K’ Road” ‘s reputation as a “red light” district.

But the decay of Newton and Ponsonby was also the beginning of the process of “gentrification” of the city fringe which gave us the million-dollar suburbs of today. Gentrification is “a socio-historic process where rising housing costs, public policy, persistent segregation, and racial animus facilitates the influx of wealthier, mostly white, residents into a particular neighborhood.”[ix] Ponsonby and nearby suburbs thus had their Pasefika population replaced by young Pākehā “who began to buy and renovate the relatively cheap houses available … to the west of Auckland’s CBD. They have been described as ‘young, socially liberal, tertiary-educated Pakeha’ whose motives went beyond the relatively cheap housing to include a desire for ‘new ways of living’ in an area which had an ethnically diverse population, and a reputation as a centre of counter-cultural lifestyle.”[x]

The “counter-cultural lifestyle” meant, in part, access to inner city nightlife and drugs brought in from the wharves. Notoriously wild-living rock bands such as Dragon or Hello Sailor got their starts on the streets of (what Dragon called in one of their songs) “Rock’n’Roll Ponsonby”. The gay community – social outcasts at the time – were also a vital part of Ponsonby and K’ Road’s new community.

What happened as the hippie era ended and the Rogernomics era began, though, was very different for the Pasefika and Pākehā populations of inner Auckland. As the long post-war boom ended and unemployment began to rise, suddenly Pasefika labour became surplus to requirements. “Overstayers” on temporary visas who were tolerated while jobs were plenty suddenly became the targets of “dawn raids”. The Polynesian Panthers – inspired by the Black Panther Party in the United States – were founded in Ponsonby and became the spearhead of resistance to this increasing tide of racism.

Meanwhile, as the level of owner-occupiers in inner Auckland increased, renters were squeezed out – there was an increasing level of “discrimination against Pacific people attempting to rent a house and many were forced to relocate to state housing in peripheral suburbs”[xi]. Conversely, owner-occupiers who held on until the revival of Auckland’s CBD from the 1990s onwards made massive capital gains as the housing market exploded. A villa in Grey Lynn which might have been available for sale in the mid-80s for something like $50,000 would fetch something in the range of $1 million these days. Thus – without even having to move house – the drop-outs and hipsters of the 1970s became the extremely asset-rich upper-middle class dominating Auckland politics today.


The upshot of all these social changes – caused both by world-wide economic trends and the specific housing and transport decisions of New Zealand’s and Auckland’s rulers – has been economic and ethnic apartheid. The old inner-city suburbs that survived motorway madness have become extremely valuable and sought-after residences for professionals. While 40 years ago Ponsonby Road was a grimy suburban shopping strip catering to the counter-culture and the remnants of the Pasefika communities, today it is upmarket, glitzy and dominated by privileged Pākehā. (Even the gay community, with the exception of what’s known as the “pink bourgeoisie”, have been largely priced out.) A house that a Samoan wharfie might have lived in in 1975 is now likely to be a million-dollar investment property owned by an older Pākehā person – who might never consider that their unearned wealth is the product of a whole ethnic community being displaced.

Meanwhile, the newer Pasefika suburbs south of the Manukau harbour have become a byword for poverty and social decay – 1970s Ponsonby without the rock’n’roll chic. Auckland’s manufacturing base remains in south-eastern Auckland; but in the modern, de-unionised and deregulated economy, manufacturing jobs are no longer associated with security, income and pride. The area of big employment growth is in technical and communications work – which, inevitably, is increasingly based in the central city and the old inner suburbs.

Chris Harris argues that Auckland’s geography combined with its perpetual transport bottlenecks (signs of the failure of the motorway project) have surrounded the central Auckland isthmus between Avondale and Ōtahuhu with “a kind of moat”, which the inhabitants of South and West Auckland find it very difficult to cross. In the current economy, this means that these communities are “isolated from the opportunities offered by good jobs, which are mostly in areas they cannot reach because the transport to get there is non-existent, too crowded or too expensive”[xii].

Karlo Mila has the grim figures on what this has meant for the Pasefika communities of Auckland:

72% of Pacific people live in the most deprived neighbourhoods (deciles 8-10) and only 7% in deciles 1-3. 40% of Pacific children live in poverty… A high concentration of the Pacific population is clustered in overcrowded, substandard housing in low-income neighbourhoods…

The creation of concentrated low income neighbourhoods has had social consequences for the people who live in these locales, and particularly for the young people who form their expectations from the world they see around them… One-third of the Pacific population lives in the area that was Manukau City. There, every ward has the lowest level of community resilience possible and the highest community need. Local council surveys show that fewer than half of Manukau City residents feel a sense of pride in the way their city looks and feels…

More than a quarter of Pacific female high school students feel unsafe in their neighbourhoods. A quarter of all students in Manukau City leave school without achieving credits for basic numeracy and literacy… The Pacific population has the highest growth rate of any ethnic group, with 38% of the population under 15 [while] no groups are as unwanted as Pacific and Māori young people.[xiii]

Although Pasefika people moved from the slums of 1960s Newton in search of a better life, clearly not much has changed – except that privileged white folks no longer have to pass through their deprived suburbs on the way to the CBD. The workings of the market and government policies have therefore shifted Auckland’s working-class Pasefika community “out of sight and out of mind” of the central-city chattering classes, almost as efficiently as South African or American legal segregation did. Moving social problems away makes it much easier to pretend that poverty, drugs and urban decay are someone else’s problem – a particular pathology of a racialised “South Auckland”, rather than the outcome of the same social changes which have massively enriched other sections of the population.

Ironically, since many Leftists opposed it, the Auckland “Super City” may help Pasefika communities to regain some ground. Representatives of South Auckland now once more get a say in the affairs of the parts of town from which their previous generations were excluded.

Our lessons

The lessons for leftists in this are:

1) Housing and transport are exactly the same issue. Choices about what kind of houses we build intimately reflect the kind of transport we build. Quarter-acre single-dwelling houses sprawling across former farmland go along with motorway madness, and vice-versa. On the other hand, dense housing built around urban centres and places of employment encourages public transport, cycling and walking, and vice-versa.

2) It must be our priority to fight social apartheid. It would certainly be easier to build high-density, eco-friendly housing in the working-class suburbs where land is cheaper. But this will do nothing to help working-class communities break out of their geographical isolation from the central areas of town which are richer in cultural, educational, and employment opportunities, and will in fact reinforce economic apartheid. Affordable high density housing must be built in the pleasant, liveable, central suburbs, while rapid public transport links must be built to connect these places to outer working-class suburbs, so that all can benefit from the increased wealth and opportunities that the rebirth of central Auckland brings. The City Rail Link taking 10 minutes off the train journey to West Auckland – and also enabling another light or heavy rail link to the airport, connecting Mangere and Onehunga to the CBD – would, as Chris Harris says, “repair part of the broken social contract with south and west Auckland”.

3) Likewise, we must fight the stranglehold that the beneficiaries of central Auckland’s gentrification have on the politics and development of our city. Daniel Older argues that gentrification is in fact “violence couched in white supremacy… the central act of violence is one of erasure” of working-class communities and their history. In this way, it replicates the colonial expropriation of Aotearoa which set up New Zealand’s unequal and racist society in the first place. The asset-rich beneficiaries of this deeply unfair and exploitative process now self-righteously stand against any developments which might re-open the central city to young people and workers. They must be politically defeated.

4) We must also support the actually-existing organisations in the new working-class suburbs – the spiritual descendants in many ways of Ponsonby’s Polynesian Panthers. Community groups in Glen Innes have been at the forefront of resisting the dispossession of State house tenants and the forcible gentrification of their suburb; while the “Respect Our Community” coalition, based in Mangere, have not only blocked a new motorway extension which would have demolished many houses, but are leading the fight against turning ancestral Māori lands at Ihumatao into more housing sprawl. Older argues that a central narrative of gentrification is a “discourse that imagines neighborhoods of color as pathological and criminal, necessitating outside intervention for the good of all.” But initiatives like the above prove that working-class communities in notorious “South Auckland” can fight back.

[i]               Misa, Tapu. “Auckland: The Pacific comes to Auckland”. New Zealand Herald, 2010 August 27. Available at:

[ii]              Mila, Karlo. “Only one deck”, in Rashbrooke, Max (ed.) Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2013. pp. 91-101

[iii]             Misa, op. cit.

[iv]             Misa, op. cit.

[v]              Misa, op. cit.

[vi]             Harris, Chris. “A divided Auckland?” in Rashbrooke, Max (ed.) Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2013. pp. 102-4.

[vii]            Friesen, Wardlow. “The demographic transformation of inner-city Auckland.” New Zealand Population Review, 2009, 35:55-74.

[viii]           Friesen, op. cit.

[ix]             Older, Daniel José. “Gentrification’s insidious violence: The truth about American cities”. Salon, 2014 April 9. Available at:

[x]              Friesen, op. cit.

[xi]             Friesen, op. cit.

[xii]            Harris, op. cit.

[xiii]           Mila, op. cit.

We need to stand for Niki, because she is standing up for you


Source: Stuff.

Vanessa Cole is a member of the Tāmaki Housing Action Group.

This article will be published in Fightback’s magazine on Urban Revolution and the Right to City. To subscribe, click here.

Elderly tenant Ioela ‘Niki’ Rauti has made headlines for refusing to be moved from her house on Taniwha Street, Glen Innes. While she has received support from many people, the backlash from some commentators have tried to derail her struggle by framing her as selfish for holding on to a three-bedroom home during a housing crisis. Niki’s struggle is not an individual struggle, but a struggle of people against the processes of capital accumulation and its manifestation in the state-led gentrification of Tāmaki.

In The New Zealand Experiment, Jane Kelsey shows New Zealand’s historical habit of blindly following economic ideas that had never been trialled elsewhere in the world. The Tāmaki experiment is much the same – adopting urban planning and privatisation which have failed internationally. The transfer of 2,800 state houses in Tāmaki (Panmure, Point England and Glen Innes) to the Tāmaki Redevelopment Company (TRC) is privatisation by stealth. The insidious language used by the TRC frames this transfer as urban ‘regeneration’ – a grand project which will see the building of more homes and the revitalising of a community which embodies the problems associated with the geographical concentration of poverty.

The experiment in Tāmaki is a well-orchestrated campaign. The reality of these policies, without the spin, is mass privatisation of state housing, the displacement of the poor through state-led gentrification processes, and destruction of working class communities by private developers into a desirable and attractive landscape for an incoming middle-class. If Tāmaki was the experiment for the rest of Auckland, and for the rest of New Zealand, then it is a failed experiment. While the redevelopment has received public attention and criticism, the discourses and myths produced by the Government are powerful in justifying and dampen the violence of dispossession.

Paula Bennett promised that freeing up public land by removing state homes in Tāmaki and building more houses will help alleviate the exorbitant increases in house prices and build more houses for those in need. Yes, more houses have been built, but providing public land to private developers has led to exploding unaffordability. The median land values in Glen Innes, one of the first areas to be redeveloped, have increased from $400,000 to nearly 1 million since the redevelopment begun in 2012. The housing market in Tāmaki demonstrates that increasing supply and density of housing does not necessitate affordability. One reasons is that our existing affordable housing (state housing) is being replaced by a large amount of private housing, and property developers are not interested in the reduced profits of “affordability.” State housing once functioned to stabilise the housing market in particular areas, meaning that surrounding rental properties were cheaper. Very few people will be able to rent an affordable house in Tāmaki once this project is completed, particularly if landlords continue to capitalise on the increasing land values in the area.

As for the argument that “mixed-tenure communities” will provide better access to resources for the poor and solve the social problems facing unevenly developed communities. Most of the international research suggests that this new urban planning logic does the complete opposite. The logic of social mixing is built on classist ideas of middle-class neighbours teaching the poor how to behave and providing aspiration for mobility. This is a logic which ignores the economic processes which occur when capital moves into low-income communities, processes which lead to displacement and social cleansing.

Developers in Tāmaki have to build a certain proportion of social and affordable houses as part of the deal of buying and accessing cheap public land. Their main goal, however, is to profit from speculating on land value increases. While the TRC have promised tenants that they can remain in the area, this was a reluctant concession following years of community resistance, and does not account for other forms of eviction through the Social Housing Reform Programme (SHRP) which begun in 2013.

The establishment of a social housing market by means of transferring state housing to Community Housing Providers (CHPs) is occurring under the rhetoric of efficiency. Tāmaki Regeneration, a company set up to regenerate and redevelop Tāmaki, is now one of these new ‘social’ landlords, given 2,800 households to manage. As part of the company Tāmaki Housing Limited Partnership manage the tenancies, and Tāmaki Regeneration Limited are in charge of redevelopment. The Government will argue that this is not privatisation as the TRC is currently owned by the New Zealand Government (29.5% Bill English, 29.5% Nick Smith) and Auckland Council (41%). The TRC, however, was set up in the interim period to manage the properties and the tenancies. Soon, however, the tenancies will be transferred to various different social housing providers and the land will eventually be sold to developers and investors to build the mixed tenure housing.

If we look to the UK, this process of transferring management of public housing stock to private organisations lead in many cases to privatisation. Without sufficient subsidies to support management of properties, private developers are the only organisations that can withstand the costs. The Salvation Army have already backed down from taking on state housing stock for this very reason. The most concerning issue here is the foreshadowing of large scale privatisation in which the private market is held as the sole supplier of the basic human right to housing.

While we are promised to reap the benefits and efficiencies of privatisation, history has shown that the private market does not provide affordable and secure housing for the working class and unemployed. Housing is a right, and an essential material need. To sell it off to private developers or transfer it to private housing providers is to commodify something that should be for living. When Niki is standing up against the redevelopment of her home, she is standing up against the economic processes by which capital dispossesses the poor for the profit of the rich. We need to resist the narratives of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and fight for the right of all to affordable, secure and public housing. We need to unite to dispel the myths of regeneration and to fight the historical and continual dispossession of people by capital. We need to stand with Niki, because she is standing for you.

Migrants are welcome – Leftist xenophobia is not


By Daphne Lawless

When I was a young Alliance activist in Wellington in the 1990s, I knew Frank Macskasy well as a staunch colleague in the fight against the neoliberal assault on workers. It’s very sad to see him now promoting the xenophobic agenda of Martyn Bradbury’s The Daily Blog, known as the “Breitbart of the NZ Left”.

TDB is part of the current which I’ve called the “conservative left” – those activists who have taken a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude to the rise of Right-wing populism worldwide, including the Brexit movement in Britain and the Trump movement in the US. I’ve argued that many activists, having spent so long fighting neoliberal globalization, have ended up in a position where they think that anything neoliberals want must be bad. Most unfortunately – in the NZ context – this has turned into a belief that since neoliberals want more immigration, the Left should want less.

Frank’s TDB post harps on the idea that the National government is encouraging immigration as an easy way to “artificially stimulate the economy” (an argument heard recently out of the mouth of New Zealand’s master of xenophobic politics, Winston Peters). The first obvious question should be: if it were that simple to grow the economy, what would be wrong with it? What is wrong in principle to allow anyone willing to come here, work hard and be part of our community to do so? In particular, no Pākehā New Zealander should have the bald-faced cheek to suggest that migration to this country should be treated with suspicion.

Frank skates over the contradiction between the idea that immigration “stimulates the economy” and the idea that it’s problematic “at a time when unemployment was still high.” A stimulated economy means more work available… right? Leaving aside this little problem, Frank goes on:

“The downside to high immigration has been to put strain on critical services such as roading and housing, and reduce demand for locally trained workers to fill vacancies. There is a downward pressure on wages, as cheaper immigrant-labour is brought into the workforce.”

Both Frank’s links go to NZ Herald articles. The first is a column concerning the last Budget, which contains the comment:

“The rise in net migration, on top of natural increases, is putting pressure on the health system, schools, housing and transport.”

I’ve underlined the bit that Frank seems to have missed out. The issue is that population growth is putting pressure on our infrastructure. In Auckland in particular – despite the scare stories from the xenophobic Left and Right – “natural increase” (that is, people having babies and not dying) is a significantly greater contribution to population growth than migration. So where is Frank’s worry about that section of population growth? Why is he not calling for a Chinese-style one-child policy, if the issue is really just about “more people” – rather than the murkier issue of “more people not born here”?

Frank’s second link goes to a report on advice given by Treasury – not generally considered a reliable source of good economic advice by Leftists (except when it confirms their prejudices?) There is of course a real problem with cheap migrant labour. But it’s nothing to do with “New Zealanders being priced out of low-waged jobs”. Firstly, just like it’s always been in this country, migrants tend to do the low-status jobs that New Zealanders don’t want to do – fast food workers or security guards, who might be qualified professionals in their own country, can tell you about that. Secondly, the reason migrant labour is cheap is because of employers cheating the system. We’re talking about migrants having their passports confiscated, and forced either into virtual slave labour, or work of a kind they never wanted to do (such as sex work).

These are real problems. But they are not problems caused by migration. It is caused by migrant workers not getting a fair shake on the basis as all other workers in this country. Get rid of the incentive for human trafficking provided by the current immigration scheme – by giving all those who want to work here the legal right to do so, cracking down on unfair labour practices, and encouraging migrant workers to join unions and fight alongside all other workers for their rights.

Frank and his colleagues at TDB are irresponsibly stoking the forces of racism and xenophobia in this country. Some may be doing so out of nostalgia for a simpler, less culturally diverse New Zealand of the pre-neoliberal era. Some may be doing so out of cynical calculation that migrant-bashing is a way to defeat the hated National government. But it’s a slowly growing sickness on the Left in New Zealand. The Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign has been set up by socialists, unionists and migrant communities who want to stand up and say unashamedly that we are pro-immigration, and pro-worker, and we can’t allow the conservative left to speak for the rest of us.

Pasefika Issue: The Unbearable Lightness

Poem by Faith Wilson. Also published in Fightback’s special Pasefika magazine issue.

My mum will always lose your mama jokes

cos they’re true. Your mama’s so poor

she mixed tomato sauce with water and pretended it was soup.

Your mama’s family so broke they break

into neighbours houses but they don’t steal

TVs and radios they steal food.

Your mama’s so damn poor that 11

people live in their tiny Tokoroa state

house and they didn’t get a car til she was 14.

My Papa, worked long hours at Kinleith

that made his heart and brain think

that happiness is just pulp fiction. He milled

paper but he didn’t make any and he died

of a brain tumour the size of eight

kids and a mortgage yet they will call

his labour unskilled. This ain’t a show

without punch I’m just telling you to go to Tok

and feel the poverty and try tell me that it comes down to

‘just get off your arse and get a job’.

But my mama’s different cos she got out of there.

Ooooh gumma mumma! Yeah my mama’s so smart

she married a white man built a house from wood.

My daddy’s so smart he sent us to a white school

and we suffered cultural dislocation but as long

as we’re educated it shouldn’t matter, right?

And now I’m so smart because I got so much

debt but some o dat paper

that says I can write about it.

And I’m so smart because I finally figured

out irony even if I’m a generation too late

so my understanding is more like a self-discovery.

O! If only breaking the cycle were as easy

as an existential crisis or the flip of a coin

or as smooth as a crisp bill rolling out of an ATM.

Because you care about breaking the cycle.

You care about poverty eh?

You care about what I’m saying.

But I don’t care about you.

And this writing isn’t for you.

And you, you will continue to care

in the face of blatant rejection.

Give me a penny for my sorrows

and I’ll give you a burden to bear.

Pasefika Issue: Decolonisation unplugged – my meeting with West Papuans in Indonesia

This article, by Shasha Ali, is also published in Fightback’s special Pasefika magazine issue.

This article is not easy to write. We live in a world with less than 8% of the global wealth distributed amongst the poorest, with indigenous women and children being predominant victim statistics of violent crimes and the impending crisis of climate change in the Pacific. Specifically for us in a post-TPPA signed Aotearoa New Zealand, it is clear that more than ever New Zealand as administered by the current Key government, is facing our own backyard crises from the most basic rights to clean water and shelter to widening income, access and opportunity disparities by gender, class and race.

So why should we care about West Papua?

This question resounded in my head when a rather random Facebook faceless-profile person from an Auckland-based Indonesian student cultural group messaged me during my shared postings of the West Papua campaign calling for peaceful demonstrations and observances to commemorate the Broken Promise of 15 August 1962, when the UN administered Dutch colonialists to hand over West Papua to Indonesia. The controversy remained as to whether a democratic voting process was fairly held with Indonesian government claiming they did things fair and square and a huge proportion of West Papuans who claim otherwise.

“You’re not even of Indonesian nationality,” this troll says to me in Bahasa. “ Why do you care so much about West Papua?”

Okay, obviously sophisticated notions of diaspora and cultural identity is not to be discussed here. In many activist spaces I can talk about identity from a longer memory, my longer Java-Malay tribal origins across Madura and Bandung whakapapa, my subjectivity as a tauiwi person in Aotearoa, and as an indigenous person deprived of her own indigeneity in her birth country of Singapura. However, that kind of talk will fall on deaf ears to people like this, because as long as I wasn’t born in Indonesia, apparently I’m not Indonesian enough to speak with any authority about Indonesia.

I try talking to him instead about Dutch colonialism, and how we can view Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua as a version of imperialism perpetrated by Indonesia. “Isn’t it enough that our forefathers and foremothers had to go through that? All the heroes we lost in the revolution for independence? Shouldn’t we try to make peace?” I typed out, attempting the most diplomatic version of my usually impatient, radical self.

Interestingly, the conversation halted. In the larger Facebook group where this thread began, 32 comments emerged very respectfully posted by a mix of Indonesian youth and mature postgraduate students in response to my call for solidarity for West Papua. There is consensus that this topic is a “very sensitive” issue, and that Indonesians would “kindly request” that I post instead a “legitimate mainstream media article” covering the situation on West Papua such as the Jakarta Post, as alternative and social media sources are “unreliable”.

At this point, I do not think it would make any difference for me to tell these 32 online commenters that when I was in Yogyakarta two weeks ago, I actually met with a young West Papuan who witnessed his uncle killed by the Indonesian military, and whose footage of his uncle being beheaded is in the end minutes of Run It Straight film. If the words and accounts of those who survive are not ‘legitimate’, then how exactly are we to dialogue further beyond the mediated catchphrase to ‘agree to disagree’.

It is promising to remember however that while I was in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, there were actual Indonesian activists, from Muslims, LBGT, women’s rights and human rights advocates who care and work in solidarity with West Papua freedom movements. You see, Yogyakarta has a very interesting and special history of being a state for thinkers, artists, academics and creatives of all kinds – from the traditional artisan to the contemporary. You can witness the city unravelling itself with its political graffiti art and tagging amidst short dwellings and rickshaw traffic, a type of punk attitude to life and society at large. The demographic is fairly youth-dominated with a huge student population and it is known to be historically the breeding ground for many famous artists, activists and left-leaning politicians.

But apparently 2016 is the year things started to look less than cool in Yogyakarta. I spent four days on a visitor internship at this non-profit social and environmental justice group called EngageMedia who told me they could not disclose their physical address to increase security since the Police attacks on LBTQ groups and West Papuans whom they support. I am so grateful to this organisation for without their support, none of what am about to share here would have happened. It started with a small morning tea for me to meet with the West Papuan student activists that were caught in the Police arrests in the city prior to my arrival.

That morning tea became an entire day spent until the late hours of evening! I met three young men, and two of their friends who somehow couldn’t make it (but was constantly on the phone saying they are on their way) to the office. Interestingly, they are more fluent in Bahasa Melayu (my first native tongue) than Bahasa Indonesia (the national language of Indonesia), and for a moment I felt immersed in a strange world of seeing them alike my cousins.

We watched the film “Run It Straight” directed by Tere Harrison, as a resourceful opening to introduce myself as an activist from Aotearoa New Zealand. Of course, luckily the EngageMedia facilitator realised that there was no subtitles so between her super-Bahasa skills and my average-Kiwinglish skills she amazingly translated and subtitled the entire film on their platform prior to the morning tea session!

I presented to them a ‘kia kaha’ pack of vegan-friendly peanut butter cookies, the tacky “New Zealand breakfast” tea set, music commemorating October 15th Raids in Aotearoa, and some West Papua Action Auckland-made stickers and flyers. They greeted me back with honour, “Wah Wah Wah” and video’ed the entire moment like it was to become history.

Our conversations were very fluid. These young men, postgraduate students in International Studies, Broadcasting and one doing a course in Agriculture, were highly competent in video advocacy and started showing me their footage from the demo, including how the Police arrested their fellow member Obby who was released on conditions, during the time of our meeting. “What exactly did Obby do that singled him out?” asked the EngageMedia group facilitator. The young men shook their head and said, “Same thing that we did – just walking to our campus.”

I watched how the Police pushed and tightened their hold on Obby, who was unarmed and was not resisting the arrest. Several people with cameras and mobile phones recorded the entire proceeding from different angles. Later I was told that two of the journalists there who were Indonesian, were also arrested.

We needed to make sense of this entire madness, and it was hopeful to know that these young activists are aware that this is only one of the many challenges they need to get used to if they were to continue their struggle for freedom and Independence for West Papua. I have to admit, it was so energizing to hear this. My heart fell so hard just thinking about the atrocities their families and relatives are facing back in West Papua land, while they are faced with racial abuse slurs, being called “monkeys”, “dogs” and “blacks”. However the worst deragatory remark they are currently trying to campaign against, is being called separatists.

“This is the new dirty word by Indonesian religious extremists and attackers,” says one of the activists Johnny. “This is the dangerous word that makes us look like we are trying to stir up trouble.”

While I listen to their stories, I interrupted and asked where the Papuan women at. The boys said, no no, they are part of the movement, there are quite a few of them, and Johnny suddenly remembered he forgot to ask two of them to come to this meeting, and started calling someone named Maria. Myself and the EngageMedia facilitator (both of us cis women) laughed at their sudden panic to remedy the situation.

Towards the end of the meeting, we finally got to meet Maria. She was quiet, shy and reserved at first and also tired, as she rushed to the meeting straight after work at a local cafe. I asked her what she was studying: English Literature, she responded. I felt so happy to hear of this, and she started telling me about her hopes to become a teacher and her passion for environmental issues as her hometown, a seaside village in West Papua has been deforested for palm oil industrialisation.

And then she told me, “You know when I was in West Papua, I was told I am Malay.”

I was confused. “What do you mean?”

“We have been brainwashed since birth to think we are Malay peoples, like Malaysians, like..”

“Like me?” I smiled.

“Yes,” she smiled back.

“It was only when I went to college here, that someone said you are West Papuan, that I suddenly realise, oh my god, I am West Papuan?”

That revelation to her, was heartbreaking for me to hear too. It brought me back to my own self-awakening, the memory-realisation that I am indigenous too , something I only truly confidently asserted, after being exposed to te Tiriti history and tino rangatiratanga movements in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I suppose in many ways, we are a family. An Asia-Pacific networked family of indigenous peoples in their own right. But in any family, our differences mark how we relate to each other and how we grow into our own being. We are brown, we share Austronesian roots, yes. That is a great source of potential for solidarity but it should not form zealousness to override our role as supporters for each other’s diverse histories, cultures and unique processes for self-determination. I think this is the bit that makes certain people forget why West Papua rightfully deserves their Independence from Indonesia. I also think this is why finding solutions for the West Papua-Indonesia divide, needs to emerge from a framework of restorative justice of sorts – this is about two colonized peoples, hurting socially, economically, politically and spiritually, through a long history of Western colonialism-white capitalism. The dialogue needs to be deeper than a black-and-white analysis of decolonisation that we are so used to applying, when situated in western settler nation-states like New Zealand.

We continue to bond, all of them keen to know more about Maori activism in New Zealand, and the other young men joined us to discuss future projects and activist solidarity actions that we can plan together on. Advocacy was a priority, and EngageMedia also informed of the funding challenges they face with international agencies. “Nobody wants to fund projects on West Papua,” the facilitator said. “They don’t mind Indonesia human rights stuff… but West Papua… no money…” she said, disheartened but hopeful that we should find a way to keep going and support these grassroots activists to organise their advocacy work sustainably with their own organisational status.

We exchanged contact details, had some food, took photos and promised to keep in touch, adding each other on Facebook instantly.

One of the key ideas we left with was setting up a youth/artist exchange programme where West Papuans can visit New Zealand and New Zealand indigenous youth can visit West Papua, to share experiences, build knowledge and explore strategies for movement/community building. Yes, the thought may already cause alarm bells about security risks for all, but we will need to look at ways to make this happen if this is what it takes to support their self-determination process. We imagine it will be a long term Asia-Pacific programme that will need the crucial involvement of the Pacific community. We can begin with awareness raising in our own home countries, increasing the profile of campaigning across all sections of society. And of course, we can make as many efforts to fundraise for projects that these amazing young Papuans need to do to strengthen their capacity for movement-building into their futures. As allies and supporters, I hope that is a promise that we can at least work to keep, while these courageous activists continue their inter-generational struggle against all odds, for the right to be free, independent and sovereign in their own nation.

Pasefika Issue: Untitled

This article is also published as a part of Fightback’s special Pasefika magazine issue.

When the first European ships travelled through the Pacific, their sails cut into the clouds of the skies. Papalagi, ‘cloud breaker’. In the lands of Samoa, our people prayed to these sailing gods, that they may not enter our shores. We prayed for them to pass us over, because they would bring death and disease. These papalagi would bring the death of our people and the death of our ways. And so it was foretold.

A couple hundred years later, we live across the world, within and away from the homeland – our languages, our systems, lost and polluted. We no longer need well-meaning missionaries to instill shame in our people. It is built into society. The savagery and simplicity of the ignorant, the illogical, the delusional, the uneducated heathen. This image, this idea is sewn into every institution, every system, every tool and every product of colonisation. As we come to confront the great power that is colonisation, we need to understand that it is a process. A process that has spanned countless generations, a process that we often blind ourselves to in our struggle to overcome its institutions. Without recognising and holding ourselves accountable for the ways in which we participate in the colonisation of tangata whenua, we cannot begin to overcome or deconstruct colonisation – we can only change our roles and relationships within the model of oppression. And so, because we all have a role in this system, we must first understand two things: first, the goal of colonisation (of any form), and second, the accountability of we, the settlers.

We have all, at some stage, lived in complicity. We have all participated and harboured attitudes and behaviours that continue and uphold the colonisation of tangata whenua. We are made aware of our own oppression, and the forced assimilation of our communities instills a very specific anger. We learn, through institutions of the coloniser, about our oppression. Hurt, we come to blame his systems for withholding what we should be entitled to. While fighting him, we employ his methodologies, prioritise his systems, his frameworks – and still carry with us, the image of the uneducated savage. This is how the process works. These ideas, attitudes, behaviours, value systems – this culture of complacency, complicity and removal of accountability (sometimes referred to as ‘settler colonialism’) becomes natural to us, because we, like the missionaries, have found bibles in academia. We have been enlightened, we are the product of advancement. We understand and will bring to pass the greater good. We refuse to ‘look back’ because we think they are gone. They do not exist anymore. Assimilation succeeds, colonisation prevails because his knowledge is higher than the savage’s.

Whether we do this to survive, whether we do it to maintain the comforts settlership offers us, our assimilation brings us in closer proximity to the coloniser. We may not have the power he has over us, but our willingness to compromise the welfare of indigenous people and systems places us in his role. We are his products, we are his tools. But, we get to choose. All things are imposed on us, but once we are made aware, we must understand that an ability to choose our attitudes, our behaviours means we can choose to resist white culture. We can decentre white structures and cultures, prioritising the knowledges and systems of indigenous peoples. We can also choose accountability. Our belonging to oppressed communities does not remove our ability to oppress. Convincing ourselves otherwise is an attempt to distance ourselves from the nasty connotation of ‘oppressor’, from accountability.

fa’apalagi. In the way of the palagi. In the way of the cloud breaker. In the way of the white man. whiteness.

In the context of stolen land and settled colonisers, whiteness pertains to the adoption of the colonisers’ worldview. In the context of colonised indigeneity, white is the other. The other is white. fa’apalagi. Culture is complex, but what is very simple is that we choose the ways in which we fight or uphold colonisation. When we are made aware of our assimilation, our internalised whiteness, we have a choice to make. What we choose is up to us, but we must be honest about it. Because when you claim to fight against racism, against colonisation, while refusing to hold yourself and your white colonial ideologies accountable, you are manipulating the oppressed. You offer false notions of trust and solidarity, placing these ideas in the hearts of the vulnerable, whose power and mana have been taken from them. They will entrust you with their hearts, their souls, their spirits and your dishonest solidarity will break them. Your dismissal of accountability will shield you from critique, from reflection and you will never know, simply because you do not care, that you will replace the well-intentioned, unaccountable coloniser – you will become the missionary who violated and destroyed the mana of the people. The arrogance of whiteness, of colonisation, lies in the fundamental belief that your white frameworks and methodologies can more successfully overcome colonisation than systems that predate it.

In the beginning, there was the word.

And the word was with We, the Settlers.

An uncomfortable conversation: Greens still wrong about immigration


‘Justice for Migrant Workers’ protest.

Article by Ben Peterson, originally published on

The Greens new interpretation of their immigration policy has generated a lot of discussion on the left, both on this blog and elsewhere. James Shaw’s comments committing the Greens to halve immigration numbers have been controversial. In response, immigration spokesperson Denise Roche has offered a defense of Shaw’s comments saying that “The Green kaupapa on immigration is focused on people.”

I respect the work that the Greens have done to support international students and exploited foreign workers. And I respect the Greens when they say “we need to be able to talk about political issues that people care about, even when they make us uncomfortable.” Bring on the uncomfortable conversations!

Unfortunately, the discomfort isn’t leftists sticking to abstract principles. The reaction is caused by Greens new policy discussion being based on untruths.

“Issues people care about”

Roche’s article says that “We need to talk about immigration because failing to do so means that we let that conversation be dominated by fear, intolerance and misinformation.”

True. Progressives should be entering this debate, but lets not overstate its importance. Immigration is not the chief concern of Kiwis. Many times more people are primarily concerned by housing, wages and inequality than immigration. By dipping into immigration debates so publicly the greens have already failed to keep focused on the primary concerns of ordinary people and are turning to a small minority.

This is problematic in itself, but the issues go deeper. Rather than challenging the fear, intolerance and misinformation the Greens are reinforcing it. Instead of challenging xenophobic myths, Roche’s article accepts them.

“It is obvious that there are not enough houses in Auckland.”

Actually that’s not true. There are tens of thousands of empty homes in Auckland. The problem isn’t necessarily that there’s no options, its’ that investors are pricing many out of the homes that do exist.

“We need to build up houses, public transport, schools and hospitals to a level where they are a good fit for the population. After eight years of National’s dismal under-investment, there is a lot of catching up to do.”

I agree. Why are we talking about these problems and immigration in the same sentence? The selloff of public housing, and the degradation of public infrastructure go back to the neoliberal reforms of the 80’s. The trend of falling homeownership and rising housing costs likewise go back decades. When you know these are decades long trends, and only 5 years ago there was a net migration loss, why on earth would migration and infrastructure be part of the same conversation.

Put simply- It is an untruth to put the blame for these long term trends onto migrants.

The Greens are should know better than this- and trying to say they’ll cut immigration because of housing, but also saying housing is the governments fault, confuses the conversation.

Greens message makes no sense.

So Roche rightfully says “Immigration is – categorically – not to blame for these issues…
Bad Government planning is to blame.”

If immigration isn’t a social problem, why the new announcements saying the Greens are for a dramatic reduction? If immigration is going to be dramatically reduced, how do the Greens honour their commitment to raise the refugee quota, raise the family reunion quota and open up pathways for work visa holders to gain residency?

If immigrants don’t drive the housing crisis, why are the Greens bringing it up as a justification for dramatic immigration cuts?

Instead of providing a clear progressive alternative, the Greens position seems confused. A series of contradictory angles doesn’t challenge xenophobia, it fails to provide a coherent alternative..

A progressive alternative

Building a progressive political alternative is critically important and there has never been a better time to do so. The issues of most concerns to Kiwi’s is inequality, and the political mainstream has no answers on how to address this issue.

A progressive alternative has to provide clear answers on housing, infrastructure and inequality. A progressive alternative on immigration has to be clear and unequivocal- immigrants are not the drivers of the housing crisis or the reduction in work conditions.

This conversation on immigration should be uncomfortable. But this ‘uncomfortable’ conversation is not that we need to confront the gap between realpolitik and progressive principles. The uncomfortable fact is that some of our friends are suggesting that we accept and accommodate popular myths that are untrue.

That’s unacceptable, and we should expect more from the Greens.

Comments welcome below.

Leftwin seeks to host a discussion on building a new left politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Be part of that disscussion here 

Pasefika Issue: In/Visible

This article is also published as part of Fightback’s special Pasefika Fightback magazine issue. Article by Luisa Tora,

I’ve been asked to discuss why the visibility of the Pacific lesbian community is important to me, and why I think this community is invisible. I’ve also been invited to speak about an exhibition that I am co-curating of emerging artists who identify as lesbian, bisexual, and queer. I feel it’s important to include the brief given me as I believe that sometimes questions inform us as much as the answers we receive. This is not in way intended to shame the person who asked me the questions. I appreciate this opportunity to unpack some of the themes and issues surrounding Pacific lesbian visibility.

I’d like to start the talanoa by placing some limitations on the discussion. Not to censor the talanoa so much as to sharpen its focus. I can only speak to my experience as 42-year old Fijian woman who has lived in Aotearoa for the last seven years.

I came out when I was a precocious 17 years old Foundation student at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. Even though I dived headfirst into my new lifestyle with my newly acquired girlfriend, I didn’t come out to my parents until almost two years later. It was my Mum who coaxed it out of me saying that she and Dad would love me whatever my sexuality was. My then girlfriend lived with us and our families were friends. Three decades later I can’t remember why 17 year old me didn’t just tell my parents. Perhaps I was afraid. Perhaps I thought it was obvious. Perhaps I thought it wasn’t anybody’s business. Perhaps I was just a self-centred 17 year old and it didn’t occur to me that I had to ‘come out’ to anyone.

Whatever the reason, I was out and my family and friends totally ran with it. My parents have invited scores of queer friends into our family home and their hearts. I’ve spoken on occasion about having a gay army in Fiji. We’re everywhere. I didn’t really think about it until I came to Aotearoa and had to start from scratch. (My sister and I were heartened to see these same people at both my parent’s funerals.) When my sister came out, they invited her girlfriend(s) and friends home. I remember my parents and I going to a girlfriend’s home once for a party. Mum told me later that she and Dad had a heart-to-heart with my girlfriend’s parents about their only daughter’s sexuality. She told them “You either love her as she is or you will lose her. It’s your choice.” I remember going to a drag night with a girlfriend and my Dad another time. My usually stoic father (unless you got to know him) told a homophobic heckler, “We’re here to enjoy ourselves. If you don’t like it you can leave.” Mum would introduce me and my girlfriend to new people – This is my daughter, and this is her partner – and embarrass us no end. My extended families on Mum and Dad’s sides also embraced mine and my sister’s lifestyles and girlfriends. When we both started volunteering then working with non-government organisations, our extended NGO family embraced us and the LGBTQI+ issues that we championed.

I share this brief insight to start to answer the first question about why Pacific lesbian visibility is important to me. My sister and I were blessed with a supportive family, social, and professional environment. Thanks to our parents, families, and friends, we were able to live open lives at home and to carry the confidence that comes with that grounding outside our home.

However, that sentence is not accompanied by a video clip of goat kids frolicking in a sun-splashed meadow as birds chirp in the sky as we eat mangoes and cast beatific smiles at people walking by. There’ve been some horrific break-ups and broken hearts, and girlfriends’ families haven’t always receptive to the idea of having a daughter-in-law instead of a son-in-law. Friends have been bashed and raped by male family members to remind them of their ‘place’ as women. Gay male and transgender friends and acquaintances have been murdered by homophobes. We’ve had to defend our constitutionally protected LGBTQI+ rights in the media, before parliamentary committees, in the international arena against an array of adroit Fiji governments playing political football. We’ve been kicked off and excluded from national HIV committees and called dissidents. All of this happened between and during cyclones, coup d’états, and so many poetry readings.

All the reasons above and more are why the visibility of the Pacific lesbian community is important to me. The love you find in relationships with lovers and family, the support and laughter and shoulders to cry on and lean on that comes from your community and those who support you, the role models and crushes that we make for those who are closeted or curious to pass on the street or read about in the newspaper, the good, the bad and the ugly poetry we write and inspire, just so you can say ‘cheers queers!’ at a party, not having to explain why you like girls or why you only like girls who wear fades and cable knit sweaters or girls who wear glasses and can’t look you in the eye, being able to speak about your own culture to someone ‘like you’ in your own language or bits of your own language, seeing someone from your own culture at a lesbian party even if you spend the rest of the night avoiding each other, because it’s nice knowing you aren’t literally the only gay in the village.

I think about why lesbian Pacific islanders aren’t more visible around Auckland. I’m not the most social person, but I try to be conscious of the people around me when I am outside. Also, I live in South Auckland so the chances of me seeing Pacific anything is much higher in my neighbourhood. But still, we are few and far between. Or we are really good at blending in? Which begs the question: what does a Pacific lesbian look like anyway? I once read a paper about migrant lesbians who live with their families in the diaspora and how their sexuality is subverted by their dependence on their families for family, immigration, financial, and language support. Many women either decided to conceal their sexuality or did so under threat of being ostracised or being sent ‘home’ if they didn’t conform to heterosexual norms. The struggle is real for ethnic minorities who are also sexual minorities living in the diaspora.

This in a small way brings me back to the question or the framing of this conversation. My experience aside for now, is it necessary for people to come out or to be visible? Is the lesbian experience enough? Do we need to be visibly and audibly lesbian? I am intrigued and a little disturbed by pressure from some LGBTQI+ circles for people to ‘come out’ as well as shaming people who don’t or can’t come out and therefore live life on the DL. If some of us are happy to stick our necks out, does this somehow make up for those who draw theirs into their shells?

Which brings me to the exhibition I’ve developed with Molly Rangiwai-McHale and Ana Te Whaiti featuring artists Tasi Su’a, Jamie Berry, Sangeeta Singh, Emma Kotsapas, and Kerrie-Anne Van Heerden. The exhibition statement states: “‘When Can I See You Again?’ offers a public invitation into a private, contemplative space. This multimedia, multicultural, and multi-regional exhibition of emerging artists explores female sexualities, desire, power, and safe spaces. This collectively curated gathering is an attempt to build what bell hooks calls “a community of resistance”1. A “central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (206).

Women’s voices and bodies are privileged and amplified in new works created by Ana Te Whaiti, Emma Kotsapas, Jamie Berry, Kerrie Van Heerden, Luisa Tora, Molly Rangiwai-McHale, Sangeeta Singh, and Tasi Su’a. ‘When Can I See You Again?’ is strategically aligned with Auckland Pride Festival 2017.

‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness’ from Yearnings: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Routledge, 1989).”

To bring it back to the talanoa before, another aim of this show is to ‘build our own archive’ as discussed by Dr Teresia Teaiwa. If you are missing from the narrative, write your own then share it with others. If you are missing from the landscape, insert yourself into it. I am reminded of a young woman I met once when I was neck-deep in the LGBTQI+ lobby in Fiji. She quietly introduced herself and told me that she’d read an interview I’d done in the local media. She said it was the first time she’d seen the word lesbian discussed in a positive way in the newspaper. We hope that this show will provoke some interesting dialogue about all things lesbians. I would be happy if a quietly lesbian woman of any ethnic descent inputted gay woman/lesbian/queer/LGBTQI in Aotearoa/New Zealand into a search engine and quickly pressed enter – and then she found us. Kia kaha!


Pasefika Issue: Half Cast Away

This article is also published in Fightback’s special Pasefika magazine issue.

When I think back to my childhood, I am a Mowgli-like child sitting crossed legged in my Uncle’s living room. Second hand furniture surrounds me; a clutter of memories piled high in every corner of every room. My cousin’s 21st keys, family photos extending back to the Islands, dusty records and old radios. The room is a mixture of adult chatter, laughing Samoans, the smell of chop suey, corned beef, and roast chicken. My Nana sits atop her throne, the only comfortable chair in the house, laughing without her dentures in. She, a 4ft something Chinese/Sāmoan woman, silver hair always tied in a bun, wearing a tree- bark brown mu’umu’u. She calls me over with a wave of her arm, speaking to me in a language I don’t understand. She sizes me up, pinches my tummy and cheeks, says something in Sāmoan, laughs and kisses my baby face. I laugh with her, because it is polite, because she’s given me a cue. She nods at me and I take it as a sign to leave now, her cheeky smile watching as I run off to play with my cousins. This interaction happens every time we meet; she speaks and I do not understand. I laugh and she laughs, then she nods for me to leave.

Only now am I realizing the vastness of the space that was between us. The disconnect between two bodies of water, like she must have felt venturing to Aotearoa. Scooped her five kids under her arms and rowed to white shores for a better life. At 10 years old my Nana passed away, taking with her the Sunday lunches at Uncle’s house, the language so effortlessly spoken, and the best source of finding out where I come from. My mama tries to remember, but was too young to recall the villages, or the names of the people that might serve as a compass. She, a 5ft Chinese/Sāmoan woman, breathes compassion and fire. Her long, straw like black hair frames her gentle coconut skin. She married a white man and spent 25 years trying to abolish the myth that his family held about the brownness of our skin. Buried her culture in the barrels of their loaded shame, trigger tongues sit upon ivory towers. Made my mama ‘prove’ herself, whatever that means. It looked like a forgotten language and the trimming of branches, cutting limbs off in order to grow new ones. Her body, a patchwork of pride and shame stitched together by the taro leaves she tried to outgrow.

My parents’ marriage died the same year my Nana did. I ended up being raised by my father, who spat poison back at the Pacific, damned us all. So as I grew, my culture became strangely foreign land. Hidden behind shame, a spitting image of my mother. Always too white for the brown kids and too brown for the white kids. Our legs were planted in taro patches and everything that helps the plants grow. Only to be uprooted and forced to watch as the fields went up in flames. Burning the landscape of my Nana’s eyes, and all she called home. I refused the stars when they tried to lead me back, told them I don’t know where I belong. Forever searching for a safe place to lace my work boots.

My mama says I got warrior’s blood in my veins, but I’m just a worrier these days. It’s funny how it all comes 360, now I’m ashamed of that which I do not know. I couldn’t tell you anything my Nana said. I could not. Tell you. Anything my Nana said. My village stokes the fire to light my way home, laying out blankets of food, and sweeping the fale in wait of my adventurer feet. I still can’t see that welcome mat. I could not read any signposts leading back. Every year that passes, those stars seem further away to navigate, almost an impossible feat. Standing at the base of a mountain trying to will myself up. When the debris falls and the dust clears, what will be left? A silly boy who never seized the opportunity to go home? Who never sat at his Nana’s feet long enough to hear her speak? I have learned that it is no good to sit at a table offering no food to eat. Saying grace through a lazy English tongue. Cut it out so I can start again. Let me lash back at the forgotten war crimes waged on the bodies of my grandmothers. Let me sew my language to the roots of my spine. Let me learn the stars through my mama’s outstretched palms. She’ll smile and tell me, you belong here, little one, and whatever you are is enough.

Pacific Panthers and International Solidarity: An interview with Teanau Tuiono

Fightback sat down with educator and Pacific Panther Teanau Tuiono to discuss his experiences, and lessons, as a political activist.

How has your whakapapa factored into your political work?

I had a bicultural upbringing. On the one hand I’m a first generation pacific islander in Aotearoa: my family migrated here from the islands for work and educational opportunities. I am also tangata whenua from Ngāi Takato and Ngāpuhi with connections throughout the Tai Tokerau including Ngati Hine.

Within our own communities we are the norm. We have our languages and our cultures. But I am acutely aware that I am from two minorities. So I’m quite used to comparing the differences and similarities between the two cultural groups that I come from. Moving between them is something I’ve done my whole life. People who are both Pasifika and Māori will know what I am talking about. Navigating how you interact with the majority culture is something that you must learn as a minority. My grandfather would tell me stories about when he first came to NZ, and how tricky it was because he could not speak English well.

Sometimes when you are a minority you try and find the corners and the cracks to hide. It’s the whole idea of the Other, something Edward Said talks about. Othering in colonialism is habitual between marginalised peoples and colonisers. The Other is seen as inferior and in need of “educating or saving”. Colonisation seen through that lens is benign, as opposed to being incredibly violent to indigenous peoples. This is something that Gramsci also touches on when he talked about cultural hegemony.


What have you learnt from the experience of the Polynesian Panthers, and what is new about this project? Tell us about the Pacific Panthers.

The Polynesian Panthers are an inspiration, particularly for us NZ Born Pacific Islanders. Staunch Islanders with leathers and afros – standing up for our communities. I fucken love that shit. Their political activism, running of food co-ops and homework centres, advocating for tenants and promoting Pacific languages are things to continue to aspire too. I was a kid during the Springbok tour protests of 1981 and I lived in the inner city Auckland. The polynesian panthers were active in those protests in the patu squad challenging both the racism of the apartheid regime of south africa and the racist NZ muldoon government.  In those days the inner city suburbs like Grey Lynn and Ponsonby was full of immigrants and minorities it was alive and bustling with diversity. These days it has gone completely to the dogs and is full of rich white yuppies sipping on $20 lattes. The Pacific Panthers came out of a fono we had out of Palmerston North it was to learn about the past struggles and look at how we can move at Pacific peoples in our activism.

The Polynesian Panthers drew inspiration from the Black Panthers in the US. How do you think the interface works between international inspiration and local adaptation?


I can’t speak for the Polynesian Panthers and I was a child during that time period. I imagine that they saw themselves in that struggle. Poor brown kids getting kicked around by the government – much as it is here. For myself most of my activism has come from meeting the people themselves either while travelling or being with them in their homelands and learning from them directly. I guess you can learn a lot of this stuff from books but you can’t pick up every nuance, the smell and feel of a place or the hospitality of people if you go there and meet them. The interface then is when you see yourself in each other’s struggles – not the appropriation of other people’s struggles – because that’s just going to piss someone off sooner or later, but rather a genuine recognition of mutual solidarity and respect.

You are a climate change activist. What is the intersection of ecological violence and colonial violence in the Pacific?


I don’t think there is an intersection as such – it’s the same bunch of wankers really. People may remember news headlines from last year that focused attention on Ioane Teitiota, a self-identified climate change refugee. Teitiota was imprisoned in Aotearoa, where he had sought refugee status after fleeing his home on Kiribati.  


As a part of the Cook Islands diaspora living in Aotearoa I am acutely aware that the borders separating the Cook Islands from Kiribati are a part of New Zealand’s colonial history in the region. Teitiota’s ability to stay or not stay in the country is dependent upon who drew the colonial borders around our Pacific nations. The government ultimately deported Teitiota back to Kiribati. The question of movement of peoples is also a question of decolonisation. Our assertion of our whakapapa (that is our connections with each other) and the need to dismantle the borders and barriers that separate us. We need to understand why those colonial lines have been drawn and at the same time erase them.

Can you tell us about your time in Cuba? What did you learn during your visit?

This was 20 years ago so the memory is a bit fuzzy. I had just finished uni. I had been staying with First Nations people just North of Albuquerque. I made my way down to Texas and walked into Mexico. I remember crossing the border over the Rio Grande which was more concrete and barbwires than river – and there was a massive mural of Che Guevara painted facing the American side with some anti-imperialist slogan. I figured I was going the right way. I made my way down to Mexico City met up with Communist comrades from Aotearoa and we flew into Havana. At that time Cuba had just come out of the special period – the Berlin wall had fallen just 7 years or so before and with the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s dependant economy collapsed with the US embargo still in place since the revolution they had to be heavily self-reliant particularly with nothing coming in and out of the country in terms of imports and exports. I had a job one day straightening nails because they had to reuse them – no hardware store up the road where you could buy straight nails. They also had all these old classic cars still running on the roads – no one makes parts for them so every time something broke you had to find someway to fix it. The people I met were proud of who they were, hardworking. I learnt about their struggle, drank rum, and smoked cigars with all the other politicos I met there. They took us up to Sierra Maestra mountains where they based the revolution in its early years – the rich history of the place is something to be appreciated.  One of the most interesting conversations I remember was with a Cuban diplomat, Miguel Alfonso Martinez, he heard that I was a Māori and was interested in the Treaty of Waitangi – all the way in the Caribbean and we were talking about Waitangi. Cool. He talked about ‘the old man’ Che Guevara. His boss when he was younger was Che Guevara. It was 2 years or less after NAFTA and the Zapatista uprising. He said the British used to talk a century or so ago about the ‘Freedom of the Seas’ and that’s because they had the biggest navy,  same thing with trade. Those that push ‘Free Trade’ or advocate for some freedoms over other types of freedoms do so in line with their power interests.

I bumped into him years later in Geneva at a UN meeting. At the United Nations he was a founding member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. He wrote an influential document called the “Study on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states and indigenous populations.”




How does capitalism impact on Pacific communities?

Well when I lived in the Islands for a short time as a child – I went there after the Springbok Tour – it was an agricultural economy – plantations that sort of thing. We’d go to school and then work in gardens after the disaster that was the 4th NZ Labour Government – the relationship with agricultural goods disappeared. Suddenly the Cook Islands had to change into a tourist industry. The impact on our communities both here and back in the Islands are dictated by the whims of the white settler states of NZ and Australia. I hate that shit.