By Kite Pareti
What are some of the lessons we can learn from the late Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna’s legacy?
Fijian political sociologist and Vice-Chancellor Pacific at the University of Canterbury, Prof. Steven Ratuva reflected on the former statesman’s character and contributions at a well-attended seminar held at the University of the South Pacific in Suva this week in commemoration of Ratu Sukuna Day.
He noted that Ratu Sukuna was an institutional reformist.
One of Ratu Sukuna’s best known achievements was his role in establishing the then Native Land Trust Board (now ITaukei Land Trust Board) in 1940, which administers indigenous Fijian-owned land to date. The concept was first introduced by the British colonists.
“There was resistance (on ILTB) from a lot of people in the community (at the time),” Ratuva claimed. “And the perception was that we’re losing our land to this foreign institution. But in (Ratu Sukuna’s) mind, he was thinking if we don’t do anything to protect the way our land is being used then we’re going to suffer from what has happened elsewhere,” Ratuva said in reference to alienation of land in New Zealand.
“One of the biggest challenges for the ITaukei land owners now has to do with how to use the land, how to generate income from the land, how to make sure that the resources in the land are fully utilised – something which the ILTB has never done,” he said.
“A lot of farmers don’t have the skills to be able to transform their land. All they’ve been told by the government over the years is – ‘use your land’. They won’t be able to unless you provide the facilitated process in terms of a structure of land use,” he said.
“Ratu Sukuna would have been thinking that way as a reformist. He was thinking of the marketisation of land to the extent that you don’t lose the land, and being able to have been part of a bigger global economy. But not much has happened since the ILTB was put together, which I hope the new government can be looking at in terms of reforms,” he added.
The second lesson has to do with equity and inclusion of the ITaukei community into the economy.
“Ratu Sukuna would probably have been very, very disappointed that we haven’t really done much over the years about it”, says Ratuva. “He worked very hard to try and address the issue of the well-being of the ITaukei people. But given the circumstances, he could only do much.”
Ratuva quoted government statistics which state 75% of people living in poverty in Fiji are indigenous Fijians.
“The inequality has gotten worse and worse, because a lot of the focus on development in the last few years has been on the corporate sector and urban areas,” Ratuva emphasised.
“The rural areas have been basically left behind. And the poor have been left behind, except for, you know, giving them a few dollars, which they use to buy things. And then that’s it, rather than any real structural reform, to ensure that the issue of inequality is addressed,” he said.
Ratuva says an equity-based system may be the answer.
“There has to be a shift in the way we frame entitlement. For instance, entitlement would have you say, ‘I’m iTaukei therefore I need affirmative action.’ We should shift from that (thinking) to equity because not all iTaukei need it [affirmative action], but the poor within the community do,” he stressed.
“Fiji copied the Malaysian model, same with South Africa. But the problem was the Malaysian model was not perfect. President Zuma of South Africa was jailed because of this idea of entitlement – that indigenous leaders are entitled to affirmative action on behalf of the poor in their own country,” he said.
“If we can act in terms of redefining affirmative action to an equity based system, we then can keep it away from politics, keep it away from being used as a political tool,” he added.
The third issue that Ratu Sukuna would have been vocal about is environmental protection, Ratuva says.
“Climate change is a big issue now in the Pacific and globally. Every country in the world has a target to achieve. Ratu Sukuna would have been able to connect climate change and environmental protection to the vanua, to the people that he was talking to,” he said.
“Research has found that the people who are most vulnerable in a community in terms of climate change are the poor, and the people who are marginalised within their own communities. So Ratu Sukuna would have liked to see a decarbonised economy. He would have liked to see the protection of the environment because when you protect the environment, you protect the people,” he said.
Professor Ratuva also highlighted how Ratu Sukuna was Fiji’s brand ambassador.
“Ratu Sukuna was like the initiator of the Fiji brand,” he said.
“Everything that you do will reflect that brand. A Fiji brand doesn’t belong to the Fiji Water or the Fiji Rugby Union but it belongs to everybody,” he said.
“Whoever you are – a rugby player, a student, or farmer, in a subconscious way, we engage in promoting the Fiji brand,” he said.
“So it’s up to us to ensure that the legacy of Ratu Sukuna continues in terms of the Fiji brand,” he added.
Ratu Sukuna was also a peacemaker, Prof. Ratuva reflected.
“He was able to bring about reconciliation. He was able to transcend the divide. He developed cross cultural relations,” Ratuva said.
“As Fiji goes through a process of reconciliation, celebrating Girmit Day and Ratu Sukuna Day, what is the kind of consciousness that we have generated together with this memorialisation of these events that will get us to the future?,” Ratuva asked attendees.
“The future is determined by the past and present. And so most of our consciousness about the future should be based on how we build on the foundation of the past.
“And certainly in the case of Ratu Sukuna, a lot of things he has done have formed the foundation for post-independence Fiji and it will continue to give us inspiration for the foundation of the future,” he said.