Devastation in Samoa and South Africa


There’s only been one story on New Zealand’s mind this week with devastation in Samoa and Tonga dominating the news with the heart-rending stories of families ripped apart by the tsunami which killed so many and destroyed so much.

I agree with those who say New Zealanders have reacted well. We have taken to heart the suffering of the victims and generous donations from many quarters are helping in the immediate relief effort. It’s as though New Zealand now sees itself as a South Pacific country rather than an outpost of the British empire as it did until not so long ago.

Most of us are Pacific Islanders now it seems which is a pleasant change from earlier decades when feelings often ran high against Pacific migrants coming to New Zealand.

Our government has not reacted with the same generosity of spirit with only a million dollars allocated at the front end of the tragedy and another million belatedly added. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says there will be more and Prime Minister John Key reiterated this during his weekend visit.

However it’s worth remembering the extent to which the New Zealand economy has been built by Pacific Island labour these past 50 years.

Compared to the $2 million the government is donating to the relief effort Pacific Island workers have helped businesses here accumulate billions in capital. This was, and still is, predominantly in low-paid, insecure, family-unfriendly work. These jobs have benefitted the Pacific as money remitted from here helps keep the local economies afloat but the benefits are lop-sided in favour of New Zealand business.

There is always the tendency to see the Pacific as dependent neighbours and treat them paternalistically while eyeing whatever resources and business opportunities they may have available. In reality the dependency is as much the other way round.

It’s important we remember this when it comes to further aid from New Zealand for reconstruction. In Disaster Capitalism author Naomi Klein describes how similar disasters have been used to rebuild economies to the detriment of local people. New Orleans in the US for example was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with so much of the public sector services such as schools now operated via private contracts. Murray McCully won’t be averse to looking for such opportunities to provide “aid” with strings attached. We need to keep an eye on him.

Another story touched a raw nerve with me last week when an armed gang of 40 men attacked the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban, South Africa. Three were killed, many injured and over a thousand people fled their homes. The attack was nominally ethnically based but it quickly became apparent the real target was the very successful Abahlali baseMjondolo (Dwellers in the Shacks) organisation which has its headquarters there.

ABM is the largest movement of the poor in post-apartheid South Africa. It has developed links across the country with other shack-dwellers and while it is politically independent it is deeply resented by the ruling African National Congress. ABM is telling the world the emperor has no clothes. ANC policies are benefiting the wealthy but impoverishing the people.

After the initial attacks the police turned up the following morning and arrested members of ABM rather than investigating the attack. Local ANC officials blamed ABM for the violence and said people wanted ABM out of the settlement. The police chimed in and what has been reported is such a tissue of lies as would do credit to the old apartheid regime. Death threats have been issued against the quietly charismatic ABM President S’bu Zikode and his family and the organisation has been forced to meet in secret.

I visited Kennedy Road in April this year and was privileged to be welcomed at one of ABM’s regular monthly meetings where representatives from many squatter camps come to develop policies and address day to day issues and campaign for a better future. It is a profoundly democratic organisation.

The informal settlement is now run by a local ANC representative with police backing. Attendance at meetings depends on being able to produce an ANC membership card. It is a dark time for South Africans fighting for better government policies to support the majority of the population. 15 years of ANC rule has left most worse off while the number of ANC millionaires increases each year.

Whether the problem has a natural cause, as in the Pacific, or is man-made, as in South Africa, it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most.

ENDS

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