A Racist Democracy Is No Democracy

In 1981 Gisborne had something to say about racism

It was the Springboks tour of New Zealand. South Africa was still ensconced in the draconian and racist policy of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for speaking out against this regime (you see, that is what an actual denial of free speech looks like). The people of the land in South Africa were being oppressed, and Aotearoa heard their cry. Our government didn’t respond, NZ Rugby didn’t respond, but we did.

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Isn’t it funny how things move in circles.

Move forward 37 years, we have a South African Gisborne District councilor leading a Code of Conduct Committee investigation into a complaint laid against a Māori councilor who heard her colleague make a racist, hateful statement about the people of this land, and decided to speak out.

All in the context of a national dialogue about free speech, and racism.

But perhaps I’ve jumped too far forward in our story, let’s take a step back and recap the past few weeks.

While Aotearoa was caught in the grip of discussions about, and protests against, racism, white supremacy, and hate speech disguised as free speech. Gisborne District Councillor, Meredith Akuhata-Brown was in the USA attending the Freedom Writers gathering. The Freedom Writers were made famous by the film starring Hilary Swank, which spoke to the power of courageous writing, the power of speaking your truth. Our ability to write our way to freedom. Our ability to write our way to justice.

Upon returning to Gisborne, it was the birthday of Nelson Mandela, and Meredith was in council chambers when she overheard a discussion about the arrival of James Cook in Turanganui a Kiwa. When the story arrived to the point where our ancestors were shot and killed – Meredith heard her colleague comment that “not enough were killed”.

What was Meredith to do?

She had become quite accustomed to racist comments in council. In one session alone she recorded, and wrote down, 15 racist comments which she took to the head of the ethics committee and was promptly told to forget them.

On that same day, the councilor column on the events in the GDC was due to be submitted, and it was Meredith’s turn to write the column. With the Freedom writers, Nelson Mandela, and her tipuna on her side and in her heart, Meredith wrote her way to freedom.

Freedom from complicitness with a hate crime. Freedom from the burden of hearing her people derided in the halls of decisionmaking, and her own objections being ignored. Freedom from the façade of racial harmony in Tūranganui a Kiwa.

In less than 24hrs she had a Code of Conduct complaint laid against her for bringing the council into disrepute.

This is the Gisborne we live in.

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An email received by GDC councilors following Meredith’s column

The Chair of the Code of Conduct Committee, Rehette Stoltz, is the current Deputy Mayor, an ex-pat South African who first came here herself in 2001, and a member of the Te Hā Sestercentennial Trust, the mandated body for the impending events to mark the 250th anniversary of the arrival of James Cook.

Now let us again consider this situation. A member of the Trust responsible for promoting and profiling the Cook Commemorations is presiding over an investigation of the whistleblower on a fellow councillor’s racist perspectives of the Cook narrative. Did she declare her conflict of interest? No. And yet, of course, it is a flagrant conflict of interest. Nobody involved with the Te Hā Sestercentennial Trust should be within a million miles of this issue.

The racist comment in question again casts a pall over the upcoming Cook Commemorations. How can a city possibly be mature enough to hold an event that is anything near sensitive to the taking of life and subsequent taking of land, waters, and coastline, while our own council members are not only unsympathetic but indeed believe more should have been killed. How can we expect any kind of growth and healing to take place when Council processes are utilized to suppress truth and defend racism rather than raising it to the light? Every councilor has a responsibility to care for the interests of all in Tairāwhiti. If racism is harboured in council through the ignoring, hiding and defence of racist comments then this makes the entire council complicit with those directly responsible for the comments themselves. As Dr. Cornel West points out in this recent interview on hate speech, racism and free speech, the cornerstone of democracy rests upon accountability for those who arbitrarily use power to oppress vulnerable populations (really this is an amazing interview I can’t recommend it enough).

When we consider the entirety of this story, from the quashing of Meredith’s previous attempts to raise awareness and responsiveness to racism in council, to the fact that the immediate response was to lay a complaint, it’s quite clear that we have a problem in our council (and of course this will undoubtedly be the case beyond our council, and beyond our region).

Hauora Tairāwhiti recently passed a courageous and timely resolution to acknowledge systemic racism within their organisation and commit to resolving it. Conversely, the immediate response of Council to Meredith’s testimony has been to attempt to shut the case down as swiftly as possible and make it go away. Anyone who has met Meredith Akuhata-Brown, should soon be able to ascertain that she will not simply go away – she has withstood years of bigotry and racism in council already. Her commitment to justice is as formidable as her love for her community.

When the Code of Conduct Committee met to interview Meredith, independent committee member Pare Keiha expressed that the most important outcome was for the public to maintain its trust in council.

I would contend that the majority of the Gisborne region, who are indeed Māori (our communities number between 50-90% Māori in our region), but are represented by a council who is majority pākeha and apparently racist, are well advised to NOT trust their council.

And in fact, there are much greater outcomes to aim for than simply maintaining faith in a flawed council. Hauora Tairāwhiti’s resolution to resolve institutional racism is a firebrand that all institutions and organisations in Aotearoa can take lead from. While it may be easy to get caught up in the details of dippy attention-seeking fascist Canadians, or ex-politicians who have become the racist old granduncle of the nation, the opportunity that lies within these events is to elevate our discussion to question the systems that provide them with a platform in the first place. GDC could have an expert on institutional and socialized racism review council meetings and feedback on their observations, with clear recommendations for addressing this issue. Te Tiriti o Waitangi certification could be a requirement for candidacy during council elections. GDC could champion a remit for Local Government NZ to acknowledge and commit to their obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (they currently do not).

We owe it to ourselves to have this discussion, and not consider it as a chore of justice – but to think of what we could stand to gain, as a community, from facing our own systemic racism, and committing to addressing it. What promise could a commitment such as this hold for our children, for all of our mokopuna. I think we saw a glimpse of it in Aotea Square at the celebrations against racism. A multicultural country that upholds and celebrates Tāngata Whenua. A place that values relationships and a sense of service to the wellbeing of our community, lands and waters. A future where our mokopuna have the luxury to set and pursue their own goals unhindered by systemic barriers and having to put out fires of racial injustice.

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Aotea Square’s recent Rally Against Racism was a celebration of multiculturalism and solidarity.

No doubt Meredith also has many suggestions along these lines. I would say that given her leadership up to this point, she would be perfectly placed to lead this process for Council.

And yet – here we find ourselves in this curious reflection of 37 years ago, with a South African Deputy Mayor leading an investigation into a Māori councilor being persecuted for speaking out against racism. Undoubtedly there are those who would hope that if this is buried in council processes long enough, and smoothed over with some conciliatory media, the unsavoury problem will simply go away.

And perhaps they would be right, but 36 years ago, Gisborne had something to say about racism, and if the circles of fate continue to spin, we can expect Gisborne to have something to say about it again.

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