Activist, actor and advocate Anzac Wallace has passed away yesterday at the age of 74.
Anzac Wallace (Ngāpuhi) is lying in state at Ngā Whare Waatea marae in Māngere, the urban marae he helped build in the 1980s. Ngā Whare Waatea chairman, Minister Willie Jackson paid tribute to Matua Zac Wallace last night, describing him as “inspirational”.
“I’ve known him for 36 years, he was a mate of mine. He was wild – an advocate, a speaker, a huge personality.
“I’m honoured as chairman of the marae to have him lie with us. It’s unusual to have tangi here but he felt comfortable in an urban marae setting. It was Zac who asked to lie at the marae.”
Wallace grew up in Mission Bay in Auckland, his family among the first Māori to move into the predominantly Pākehā neighbourhood when his father got a job as a caretaker and then a wharfie, and his mother as a laundress for local families. In a 2018 interview with Marae’s Hikurangi Jackson, Wallace recalled that as a young boy he began breaking into local homes and bringing home glasses, cutlery, linen, and presents for his siblings to make their home look like those of his Pākehā schoolmates. He also admitted breaking into “a prime minister’s house” and stealing a large sum of money.
Eventually he was caught, beginning a 10 year journey of incarceration that began with borstal and ended in a lag in Paremoremo prison’s notorious D-block.
Wallace credits David Lange, a family friend, with helping him turn his life around in prison, saying the former prime minister was a regular visitor.
On his release in 1974, Wallace worked on Auckland’s Māngere Bridge project. He soon rose to site chairman, and played a central role in a dispute around the sacking of 142 carpenters and labourers over an unsatisfactory redundancy. The company refused to negotiate and the stalemate with the workers led to industrial action that lasted two-and-a-half years. During that time, Wallace focused on organising long-term support for worker’s families as well as making huge sacrifices for his own.
During this time film pioneer Merata Mita and her partner Gerd Pohlmann made a documentary about the bridge workers’ strike. As well as featuring heavily in The Bridge, Wallace also narrated it. He went on to star alongside Mita and Billy T James in a television play by Rowley Habib about the protest movement called The Protestors. Then Mita suggested Wallace to director Geoff Murphy for the role of Te Wheke in his 1983 land wars epic Utu.
Utu and specifically Wallace’s performance brought international acclaim, with director Quentin Tarantino naming it among his favourite films and describing it as “hands down the best New Zealand movie of all time.” It was the second ever New Zealand film invited to Cannes.
Wallace went on to star in landmark New Zealand films Mauri and The Silent One, as well as smaller roles in TV. He told Marae he decided to use his profile to help his community.
After finding a number of homeless young people living on a disused plot of land in Māngere, he began a quest to acquire the land and turn it into a multi-use facility and urban marae to help the community. Although he was successful in securing both the land and funding to develop it, he was told in a board meeting by his peers that he had been deemed unsuitable to lead the project. Wallace says this decision broke his heart and led to a move to Australia. He wouldn’t return to New Zealand for 27 years.
While in Australia he was diagnosed with bone cancer. When he returned to New Zealand he promised the first thing he would do is give some people a piece of his mind, specifically those who took what is now Te Whare Waatea marae away from him. He collapsed as a result of medical complications on arriving at Immigration in Auckland. The first person to call and offer help and support was someone on his ‘hitlist’, Willie Jackson, who later offered him a job.
Wallace and his wife Deidre Nehua became pivotal figures in MUMA’s Out the Gate programme supporting recently released prisoners. They feature heavily in The Spinoff’s upcoming documentary series made in collaboration with Story Box, He Kōrero Taumaha Tonu, looking at Māori and the criminal justice system on the 30th anniversary of Moana Jackson’s landmark 1988 report. Wallace made headlines last August when he publicly challenged speakers at a government criminal justice summit, asking ‘Where are Māori?’ in response to the lack of Māori speakers.
Jackson says he was the perfect person to help people find light at the end of the tunnel. “He discovered Ngā Whare Waatea marae – to his credit he found it for us. When he came back from Australia, I employed him and the rest is history. He spent his last years making a huge contribution to the marae. He was a classic case from Paremoremo D block out in the community world, helping others. Who better for them to talk to?
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“Who better to give them hope?”
E te rangatira, haere, haere, haere atu rā.
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