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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Polynesian Panthers

My imagination of New Zealand history rarely includes the role of Pacific migrants during the growth of New Zealand’s economy in the 1960s, their subsequent racist treatment through to the 1970s, and the organised and effective action taken by the children of those migrants to combat New Zealand’s systemic racism. I knew next to nothing about this part of New Zealand’s history from the media I consumed, in the schools I attended, or the conversations I’d have with friends and family. Will ‘Ilolahia, co-founder of the Polynesian Panthers, remarked, “It sometimes hurts me seeing a lot of young people not realising their own history.”

The Polynesian Panthers (officially The Polynesian Panther Party) were a group that pioneered collective, organised, Pacific activism. Founded in 1971 by Pacific youth (averaging at 20-years old), the group created services to support their communities who were victims of the government’s systemic racial discrimination, and no help was available. The Panthers started programs and advocated for causes that have affected New Zealand’s history, though they are not known widely around the country, even among Pacific communities.

Five years after leaving, I found myself back at my old high school, sitting in on a class listening to four of the Panthers, Will ‘Ilolahia, Tigilau Ness, Alec Toleafoa, and Dr Melani Anae, sharing their experiences with students. The students’ excited expressions and questions showed enthusiasm about a history subject that I’d never seen in my time at Manurewa High. Indeed, the teachers confirmed that the pass rate in this topic soars in comparison with other units.

Worried about widespread complacency in those who benefit from privileges granted to them by the sweat and blood of previous generations, the Panthers were encouraged by the enthusiastic engagement from the classes they spoke to at Manurewa High. It’s amazing what happens when the subject you teach connects with students on a deeper level, not just a means to pass an assessment.


During the 1960s, New Zealand looked to the Pacific to source cheap labour to grow the economy. The government waived strict immigration regulations for Pacific immigrants coming to work in factories and other labour-intensive industries to perpetuate growth. Government and manufacturers turned a blind eye to the expiration of work permits, because it was beneficial for production of goods and the delivery of services. However, when New Zealand’s economy took a hit following the 1973 oil crisis, the demand for cheap labour dropped, and immigrants became the scapegoats for the country’s economic and infrastructural failings.

Pacific migrants were subsequently the target of “dawn raids” — spontaneous police raiding of their homes, demanding proof of legal residency or citizenship. The failure to produce the required documents on the spot meant an instant arrest. Carrying these invasions out at dawn ensured that police were able to catch people off-guard and cornered. Nevermind if people didn’t have proper clothes on, if children were woken up and crying, if the elderly were disturbed, or if people had no idea what legal processes and fair treatment meant. Nevermind that the number of overstayers from Australia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa were higher than those from the Pacific Islands, which only made up about 5% of those found guilty of illegal residence.

“When we had a discussion about the dawn raids, by that time [the Panthers] were five years old, and the community were starting to see that we were not a gang… That was probably the first action that we were told by the community to do something about.” Will described how some of the members wanted to sort the problem out in a big physical altercation, while others wanted to write letters to politicians against the raids: “It was a leader of one of our youth chapter who said, ‘Why don’t we raid the ministers?’” In a documentary created for Māori Television, Will recounts one of their reciprocal dawn raids of a minister: “We had the lights blaring, in our black gears, loud hailers saying, ‘we’re members of the Aotearoa Liberation Movement, you have 24 hours to prove that you are rightfully allowed in this country.’ Fortunately enough, I had a friend working at Radio Hauraki at the time who rang up the minister on air, asking him what was happening. And he said on live radio, ‘How dare these people come at an ungodly hour!’” It took just under three weeks, following this, that the dawn raids ceased.

If officers weren’t barging in at the crack of dawn, there were still issues with landlords and the substandard housing given to Pacific migrants. There was no Tenancy Tribunal at the time for anybody to raise legitimate complaints about unfair treatment by landlords and living conditions, which were “just derelict. Ordinary Kiwis wouldn’t live here.” So the Polynesian Panthers set up the Tenancy Aid Brigade (TAB). The TAB gathered legal information about what the standard of housing ought to be, and conducted rent strikes with tenants — refusing to pay rent until adequate maintenance work was done on the houses. The TAB resulted in the creation of the Tenancy Protection Society and, later on, the Tenancy Tribunal. This is one major instance where the Panthers’ action resulted in a change in the system that now benefits people across the country.

There were many times when people didn’t understand the legal processes they were going through, the appropriate channels to get assistance, and legal aid was not readily available from the state. Together with lawyer David Lange (who went on to become Prime Minister in 1984), the Polynesian Panthers created and distributed a Legal Aid booklet outlining the rights that their communities weren’t aware of due to language barriers and a general lack of accessible legal information and support.

Polynesian Panthers Legal Aid Brochure. Source- Cases Rebelles, 2015.

Polynesian Panthers Legal Aid Brochure. Cases Rebelles. 2015.


When speaking at Manurewa High, the Panthers drew attention to two cultural values they saw growing up with their migrant parents: respect for authorities and respect for hosts. When you go into someone’s home or village, you follow their rules, respect their authority, and you are grateful for the hospitality you receive. However, in the context of immigration, and particularly the circumstances Pacific families faced in the 1960s and ’70s, people weren’t treated with reciprocal respect and dignity. Pacific workers were sources of cheap labour and not much else.

The cultural gaps between the generation who were born and grew in New Zealand, and their parents who’d come from the island, often led to disagreements about what doing the right thing meant. For their parents, fighting for your rights seemed to be a form of disrespect for authority and ingratitude to hosts. To have been allowed into the country at all, and having some sort of job and some sort of shelter, was all that you should need. The idea of challenging official authorities, protesting, and risking getting arrested in a fight against social injustice was seen as causing unnecessary trouble. “[Our parents] only hoped for our protection, only fought for our good,” Tigi tells the class.

Those who grew up in New Zealand were aware early on that life in New Zealand meant living under unfair treatment based on racial biases. Once the young Polynesian Panthers were able to demonstrate and highlight that the New Zealand government’s treatment of Pacific migrants and their children was unfair and dangerous, the older generation began, slowly, to understand where their children were coming from. The Panthers were always trying to find the balance between “informing ourselves about who we are, and dealing with a racist government, and educating our parents.” Alec Toleafoa described a mass arrest at a social hosted by the Polynesian Panthers; people were held in jail without charges, and with no knowledge of why they were arrested. When Alec explained to the parents of those unfairly arrested what was going on, and that their children weren’t in the wrong, “…they saw for themselves, that these things do happen, that authority does make mistakes, and they’re not always right. That’s when I think, at least for those parents, something changed for them.”


The Polynesian Panthers drew initial inspiration from the Black Panther Party, as a group who organised and built solidarity among communities being systematically discriminated against under public and private laws and regulations. However, Will stresses the differences between the oppression faced by Black Americans and the Pacific communities in New Zealand. The term “Polynesian” sought to encompass not only the Pacific migrants but also tangata whenua, to show the necessary solidarity across the Pacific Ocean and the shared identity, at least to that extent, with Māori. Will remembers that “there was a little bit of friction between Māori and Pacific” due to the differences they perceived of each other, created by the perpetuation of stereotypes of immigrating Islanders coming to take land and jobs, and of Māori as lazy indigenous people who couldn’t do the jobs the Islanders were brought in to fulfill. “We needed to come together, as Polynesians.”

Although the Polynesian Panthers worked heavily in supporting their Pacific communities — in legal areas, education, housing, and making available transport for families to visit loved ones in prison — they realised the importance of standing alongside other groups fighting systemic racism and the oppressive structures of power that had been cemented in the process of colonisation.

They stood alongside Ngāti Whātua in the 18-month occupation of Bastion Point, protesting against the selling of their land to property developers. Will recalls his father asking him, “Why for you go up there? You’re not a Māori.” Will replied by asking him how he would feel if the same situation was happening to their land back in Tonga. “Three weeks later [his father] convinced his church group, and they sent up six trucks of food.” The Polynesian Panthers had been building relationships with Māori communities and activist groups such as Ngā Tamatoa and, when it came to the march and occupation of Bastion Point, there was a strong sense of solidarity between them and tangata whenua.

One of the biggest and final protests the Polynesian Panthers participated in was during the Springbok Tour of 1981. For the Panthers and many others, South Africa’s racially selected team was an extension and reinforcement of Apartheid. Led by the Panthers, Hone Harawira, and other close allies, people mobilised a large group of protesters against the tour outside Eden Park, showing solidarity and support for those facing much harsher realities than being excluded from a sports team. “It wasn’t just a venting of frustration and anger. No. Apartheid was the beast we had to slay,” Tigi reflected in 2010. Following those protests some people were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, assault on police, destroying government property — among them Will and Tigi. Tigi and others were sentenced to some time in prison. Will and Hone endured two-year trials. It was a character testimony by South African Bishop Desmond Tutu that was the pivotal move in Will’s trial, and he walked free, after fighting for the freedom of others.

Source- Cases Rebelles, 2015.

Springbok Tour Protest. Cases Rebelles. 2015

Will commented that, though Pacific communities face new issues nowadays, old ones continue too, such as crime recidivism and education failing rates. Ongoing racism and xenophobia have continued the rhetoric that minorities are the causes of social and economic disparities, despite the fact that they are the ones who bear the brunt of negative effects. Pacific migrants were the scapegoats of the 1970s, and today immigrants from other nations are blamed for New Zealand’s problems. Tigi warns, “there’s always the chance of this happening to them, and we can’t let it.”


Talking to the Panthers, one of the biggest messages they promote, especially for Pacific youth, is the importance of education. Knowledge is power and people can use what you don’t know against you.

Dr Melani Anae took to academia as her way of continuing important work that started with the Panthers. As the Director of Research of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, her research and teaching tackles issues of history, language, and identity of the Pacific diaspora, as well as research methodologies and how knowledge is valued, gathered, and passed on. Some of her students, inspired by the work of the Polynesian Panthers, created the student initiative I, Too, Am Auckland, a campaign promoting the collaboration of Pacific Island and Māori students at the University of Auckland to address issues of racism still prevalent within the university context and beyond.

Will found that “something that’s very influential — outside of government and people in power — in making a change is media. We had our own little Panther Rapp newspaper and that was my first example of seeing how effective having a newspaper was in getting the word out.” He currently works in media encouraging Pacific people to take control in crafting the narratives about themselves, not leaving it to the hands of those who can only brush general images based on uninformed stereotypes.

This is particularly important, as education doesn’t happen solely in the classroom or tertiary institutes. Tigi emphasised, “I was politicised by the Polynesian Panthers… something I never got in school.” He read lot of books, from the Black Panthers, socialist philosophers, and other texts that analysed patterns of social structures that he recognised in his own realities. Tigi also learnt about his heritage and language from his family, encouraging the class to “look deeper in your history.”

“A lot of people still don’t know, because it’s not the kind of group that anybody in power would like to promote. But since last year, or the year before, it’s now an NCEA topic — the dawn and the Polynesian Panthers. That’s why we’re getting an increase in the number of schools wanting us to talk, and we’re telling everybody, ‘hey, use us while we’re still alive.’ Soon, you’ll be having to read articles from the Salient.”


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