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The ACS, QVS and Marist gangs, and my gang: a need for Principled Non Gang Persons [The Fiji Sun, 14 November 2008]


[My contribution at a leadership forum organized by the ACS Old Girls Association, held at Marine Studies Lecture Theater, USP].

For a number of reasons, I was reluctant to speak at your forum.  But I thought a bit more about the request from Dr Sereana Kubuabola where she stated (and I quote)

“The last 18 months period has been a very challenging time for our members some of whom have been directly impacted through loss of employment, loss of family incomes, and a sense of being lost in Fiji.”

The “sense of being lost in Fiji”, struck a chord, interestingly, as it could also be used to describe the state of mind of many Indo-Fijians who have opposed the 2006 coup.

Sereana went on  to say that while the ACSOG would like to become involved in the development of the nation, their good intentions had been overtaken, and I quote again, “by the lack of self confidence and proficiency”.  That I quite disagree with.

No one really knowing the persons and professional lives of Amelia Rokotuivuna, Suliana Siwatibau, Taufa Vakatale, Susanna Tuisawau, Dr Esther Williams, Dr Eci Kikau or Markareta Waqavonovono would ever conclude that ACS Old Girls lacked confidence or proficiency.

Indeed, looking around, I am asking myself, is USP being controlled by an ACS Old Girls mafia (except for a few blokes here and there)?

But, given the huge depth of talent they clearly have, why on earth should ACS Old Girls feel discouraged from “becoming involved” in national decision-making?  Why on earth should they have any sense of being “lost inFiji”?

Your theme “Empowerment of women: dismantling boxes” is appropriate.   But what we do need to question is that very ambivalent concept of “silence” – supposedly an intrinsic part of  Fijian “culture”, and further, its gender dimension.

We could also usefully examine the interesting phenomenon of  “male gangs” which never feel lost and which very overtly have always seemed to empower Fiji’s men-folk.

I will begin my personal and somewhat bitter-sweet experience of  “gangs” I have known over the last three decades, and how differently affected they were by the coups of 1987 and 2006.

The 70s Radical Gang

   My first real gang developed in 1973 when I got involved in a project organised by the USP Student  Christian Movement, to document the dominant control of Fiji by foreign mainly Australian capital.

We produced a booklet called Fiji a Developing Australian Colony. and spoke on it throughout Australia and inFiji with unions and other NGOs.

That gang was seen by Ratu Mara and his ministerial colleagues  as dangerous and possibly communist.  Who else was in that intrepid gang?

A leading light was your great ACS alumni, the late Amelia Rokotuivuna, then the Director of the YWCA.    While others in that gang have dropped out of sight, some are very visible today: Rev Akuila Yabaki,  Jone Dakuvula,  and John Samy.

Three decades later, these three are in a totally different gang from me.  You can guess which gang  Amelia would have been in, had she been alive today.

But one lesson I have certainly learnt, if you stick to your principles, your gangs will have a habit of changing- you are an “insider” today, Albert Camus’ “outsider” tomorrow.

One effect of the 1987 coup was that it pretty well broke up that gang.

A QVSOB coup in 1987?

   Soon after the 1987 coups, I was joking with a very prominent QVSOB civil servant (married to a sadly now-deceased ACS Old Girl) “You QVS Old Boys are behind all these coups”.

I was only half-joking.  Because there were QVS Old Boys springing into high places all over the place, even civil servants suddenly appearing in uniforms.

But my friend growled back “What about your Marist gang that has controlled Fiji for the last twenty years, with the help of Ratu Mara?”

Well, I had never thought about that.    Was there really a Marist gang in the 70s?

A Marist gang?

   In hind-sight, I could see that in the 70s there were an unusually high number of Marist Old Boys in high places- in Government, in statutory organisations, and semi-private sector companies like Air Pacific.

No doubt partly because the first Prime Minister ofFiji, Ratu Mara, was a Marist Old Boy and a Catholic.

No doubt also, in those years there would have been many capable Old Boys and Old Girls from QVS, RKS, Natabua, Xavier,LabasaCollege, MGM who were turned away from jobs they deserved, because some Marist Old Boys were favoured.

But I also know that many Marist Old Boys coming from poor, uneducated, unimportant non-Catholic families received no advantage as “Marist Old Boys”.

For me, the myth of a “Marist Old Boy solidarity” was sadly exposed after the 1987 coup.  Those who opposed the 1987 coup were seen as enemies by those in power, then including not just Rabuka and the army, but also Ratu Mara and his ministers, also Marist Old Boys.

I also felt a great sense of alienation then, when many Marist Old Boy friends (through cricket, soccer, or squash, or even teaching colleagues) would cross the street, rather than be seen talking to me.

A few part-Fijian Marist Old Boys changed their ethnic identification, as it became useful to be a Fijian, and not a kailoma or a part-Chinese.

Many ensured that their part-Fijian children were registered in the VKB, while a certain Savenaca Siwatibau, the great Fijian icon (and a QVS Old Boy), was facing expulsion from the VKB, on suspicion that he had Indian or kailoma blood.

For me, the supposedly multi-racial glue of Marist Old Boys disappeared into thin air, when challenged by the racism and politics of the 1987 coups and its aftermath.

And a Marist Catholic coup in 2006?

   In 1987 and 2000, the Methodist Church faced a lot of public criticisms – no doubt because of the very visible involvement of the Methodist Church hierarchy.

But in the last two years, the blog-sites have been alleging that the 2006 coup is a Catholic “Marist Old Boys” coup.

Perhaps because the Commodore, some Interim Ministers, and new board appointees are Catholics.  Perhaps more so because the Head of the Catholic Church and some of his priests have taken a very prominent role in publicly justifying the NCBBF, the Charter, and the alleged need for electoral reform- all of which are coup-related initiatives.

But while easy, it would be factually quite wrong to conclude that the 2006 coup is a Catholic Marist coup, or that the 2000 and 1987 coups were Methodist or QVSOB coups.

While it is very human to label any group doing something together, as a “gang”, gangs are often not what they appear to be.

The truth is that all the coups have been supported by mixtures of all kinds of people drawn from different religions or Old Boys networks.

The 1987 coup may not have succeeded if Ratu Mara and other Ministers of his (some Catholic) had not supported it.

The 2006 coup would not have survived to this day without the support also of the Fiji Labour Party and the Hindu organisations, like the Arya Samaj.

Equally, we can also say that coups have also been opposed by people drawn from different religions and Old Boy or Old Girl networks.

And whenever individuals oppose a coup that their normal “gang” supports, there naturally arises the feeling of “alienation”.

Why alienation?

   When Amelia publicly opposed the 1987 coup, she also went against her chiefs, the hierarchy in her religion, her community, numerous of her friends, and even many members of her family.  She was physically traumatised.   In 1987, your famous ACS alumni may also have felt a sense of being “lost inFiji”.

But the hall-mark of a great individual is the strength of moral conviction to say “let us stay on this track, let us not give in to political expediency”, when everybody else is saying “let us go off the track”.

After this 2006 coup, there are many Indo-Fijians also feeling “lost  in Fiji”.  They face a cold shoulder from the majority of Indo-Fijians and their leaders, and indeed other former friends of all races, who actively support the 2006 coup.

But today, I take comfort that I do have an invisible college which opposes the 2006 coup.  You can call it an “intellectual  gang”, because it hardly ever gets together socially.

And this “intellectual gang” is drawn from all religions, ethnic groups, professions, and rankings in life.   It contains Old Boys and Old Girls  from Labasa College, St Josephs, QVS, RKS, Ratu Sukuna, ACS, Grammar,  and yes,  still the odd one from Marist.

I do not “feel lost inFiji”.

So why would some ACS Old Girls feel “lost inFiji”?

Culture of Silence or Cunning?

   I suspect that there are two inter-related reasons- one because the ACS Old Girls are largely indigenous Fijian, and second, that they are females.

I am sure that there is no consensus amongst  ACS Old Girls on the 2006 coup.  Nor should there be one.

But what should be of concern to the ACSOG Association is that while the majority of the Fijian community oppose the 2006 coup (for whatever reason), there are so few ACS Old Girls who publicly stand up for the principles of constitutional law and order.

It was so much harder for Amelia when she opposed all the powerful people in her community, including her friends.

This “silence” from your Fijian elite is often defended by anthropologists, often with implicit sympathy,  as an element of   Fijian “culture”.

But there are critical sociologists and observers, who point to other very Machiavellian reasons for this “culture of silence”:  prominent would be elements of convenience, cunning (euphemistically called “strategizing”) , and perhaps even cowardice.

Do the Fijian rank and file remain confused and “feel lost in Fiji”, because the Fijian elite are strategically staying silent , not taking a public position on a controversial issue in case they are punished, just waiting to see which side wins, perhaps before joining the band-wagon?

Historically, such cunning behaviour was associated with male Fijian leaders .  Read Derrick’s history of pre-CessionFiji-it also explains a lot about today’s Fijian politics.

At the QVS Old Boys Forum last year, in the aftermath of the suspension of the GCC by the Commodore, I listed ten criteria by which the chiefly system could be judged. The Fiji Times published a full article- “A Wake-up Call for the Chiefs”.

No Fijian leader publicly responded.  Ironically, the only response was from the Commodore’s Task Force who asked me to help in their Review of the GCC (which I declined).

A good question for ACS Old Girls to ask: are the Commodore and his military  personnel so dominant today in public life, only because of the huge leadership vacuum left by those who should be Fijian leaders and are not?

Today, we also have to ask these questions of female Fijian leaders, including the elite from ACS Old Girls, who no doubt suffer from an additional burden.

The gender burden

    While QVS Old Boys or the Marist Old Boys have been readily accused of coups, why has the ACS Old Girls not shared in this dubious honour?

Well, firstly, ACS Old Girls have had to marry Old Boys of other schools- in the early years mostly the dominant men from QVS, RKS, Ratu Sukuna, and Lelean.  Within their households, their husbands views, and the “male gang” views, would usually prevail.  The ACS Old Girls are merely “servers of other agenda”.

Secondly, ACS Old Girls within the Fijian community, regardless of their education or professional seniority are simply not allowed equality in decision-making alongside males.  It does not matter whether they are Education Ministers or USP Vice Chancellors.

Not surprisingly, ACS Old Girls have probably never explored their potential to be a “political gang”  having an impact on national politics or development debates, or doing coups.

But, surely that is a good thing.

The challenge today

    As in 1987 and 2000, today there are ACS Old Girls who actively support the 2006 coup.  Just as there are those who vehemently oppose it.  Perhaps the relative numbers have changed over time.

The real challenge for ACSOG as an organisation is to encourage your Old Girls potential leaders to come out of their “culture of silence” and to assert their views- whatever they are.

I am sure that part of the reason why many ACS Old Girls feel “lost inFiji” is the failure of the ACSOG elites to be “intellectual beacons”, of whatever colour and whichever direction, in the way that Amelia was.

ACS Old Girls should not be asking “how did ACS produce someone like Amelia”.  They should be asking “why are there so few Amelias?”.

ACS Old Girls need to not just exercise their full political rights as equal citizens and voters in this country alongside the males, but to also provide political leadership, to “stand up and be counted” on critical issues.

They do not need to dwell on how special they are as “ACS Old Girls”.

They need to express their solidarity, on shared principles and beliefs, with the Old Boys and Old Girls of any other school, not as a united ACS Old Girls “gang”, but as PNGPs- Principled Non-Gang Persons.

That is what would lead to sustainable empowerment of women, bringing them out of their “boxes”, for the good ofFiji.


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