Jacinda Ardern has announced the government will make a formal apology for the Dawn Raids of the 1970s. It promises to be a critical part of healing the relationship between the state and the Pacific peoples of Aotearoa, writes Dr Melani Anae, who joined the Polynesian Panthers in 1971.
On June 26, the government will formally apologise for the Dawn Raids.“An apology can never reverse what happened or undo the damage caused but we can acknowledge it and we can seek to right a wrong,” Jacinda Ardern said. “The Dawn Raids were a defining moment in New Zealand’s history and the emotional harm caused by them remains etched in the living memory of those who were directly impacted. Communities at the time felt targeted and terrorised and there is clear evidence the raids were discriminatory and have had a lasting negative impact.’
The Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio added: “It will also help Pacific youth stand up with confidence and pride about their identity as Pacific Peoples of Aotearoa. I am hopeful that the apology will affirm New Zealand as a country where every person irrespective of their colour, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs should be treated with dignity and respect. The apology will be delivered in a culturally appropriate way and is an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with our Pacific communities in Aotearoa and our Pacific neighbours.”
In this essay, first published by The Spinoff on March 30, 2021, Dr Melani Anae recalled the raids and their impact, and issued a call for an apology.
In the early hours of the morning, while most New Zealanders were tucked up warm and safe in their beds, immigration officials, police and their dogs were raiding the homes of Pacific peoples around the country who they suspected were illegal immigrants. This was New Zealand, 1974, and these were what came to be known as the Dawn Raids, or as they were referred to by police, “Operation Pot Black”.
The campaign against Pacific peoples developed after record levels of immigration from the Pacific Islands coincided with the onset of a global recession. These circumstances provided fertile ground for the escalation of overt racism.
Fuelling the fires of prejudice and bigotry were the myths that Pacific peoples were taking the jobs of New Zealanders and were a threat to cultural homogeneity – boosting crime, straining public resources, housing, welfare, and education. The illegal immigrants were branded with the term “overstayer”, a stereotype reinforced in the media and cynically exploited by politicians, as scape goats for New Zealand’s economic and social woes.
By this time a group of teenagers, mainly New Zealand-born Polynesians calling themselves the Polynesian Panthers, had been fighting the injustices experienced by Māori and Pacific communities in inner city Auckland for three years. The Polynesian Panthers were slick and well-organised, and their Pacific community survival programmes were firmly in place. They had also formed strong allyships with other anti-racism groups. But now, they turned to confront the horrors of state-sanctioned racism against Pacific peoples – the Dawn Raids.
How is it that only a third of illegal immigrants were from Tonga and Sāmoa and the majority of illegals were from Europe and North America, yet 90% of illegal immigrant arrests and deportations were of Tongans and Sāmoans?
Random checks were made by the Auckland Police task force, targeting anybody who was brown, demanding proof of residence or citizenship. Māori were also stopped. The only other place in the world where this was taking place was in apartheid South Africa, under their pass laws.
This was a traumatic time for Pacific peoples especially those who directly experienced the terror of the Dawn Raids. Their wellbeing was forever compromised. The effects of harm, hurt and feelings of abject shame still persist among many Pacific peoples even after almost 50 years – as do the stories of brokenness of both individuals and families.
The Dawn Raids have been described as a shameful and dark period in New Zealand’s history and certainly in the history of Pacific peoples here in Aotearoa.
The Polynesian Panthers maintain that by creating oppressive legislation which overtly targeted Pacific peoples, the government’s management of the illegal immigrants’ issue during the era of the Dawn Raids was racist, unjust and an abuse of power. That is what happened. This is why the Polynesian Panthers are calling for an apology.
In 2020 a claw of Panthers – myself, Tigilau Ness, Reverend Alec Toleafoa and Pauline Smith – initiated conversations with a local MP about an apology for the Dawn Raids. Since then there has been a renaissance of interest in the Dawn Raids and the apology in particular, at both community and official levels. At the moment the Polynesian Panther claw is in conversation about the apology with the Ministry for Pacific Peoples.
In memory of Ama Rauhihi-Ness
On March 14, we lost a beloved friend and leader. Ama joined the Polynesian Panther Party in 1971. On May 3, 1972, she became the first and only Panther sister to hold a portfolio, as the minister of culture, and in November 1973, Ama was appointed as our first full-time community worker.
Before she moved to Auckland and became a member of the Polynesian Panthers, she had already been active in labour unions in Kirikiriroa. There, she had become involved with Pacific women when she represented them during job disputes in factories.
In her union work she experienced racist Palagi bosses and developed an empathy with the struggles of Pacific women who often laboured, unpaid, through their smoko breaks. That kind of experience prepared her well for the challenges she would face as a Polynesian Panther when she moved up to Auckland.
Sister Ama was a true frontline revolutionary. She made us aware of the ongoing trauma inflicted on Māori by colonisation, systemic racism and entrenched racist attitudes towards Māori and Pacific peoples, and galvanised us to walk beside tangata whenua in their fight for sovereignty .
Ama was an inspirational Panther sister – I remember one of our Panther brothers joining the group after he heard Ama’s rousing speech at a rally.
In 1973, she was the keynote speaker at the AGM of the New Zealand Race Relations Council. Later that year she was invited to address activist conferences in Kuala Lumpur, and was selected as one of four members of a Māori delegation to study Chinese minority groups in China.
Even though Panther brothers held most of the portfolios, and led from the front, Ama demanded that those of them with chauvinist attitudes attend group workshops to work through those issues.
Ama was fiercely proud of her moko kauae. She wore it proudly at home with whānau, she wore it proudly as a Polynesian sister. She wore it proudly in the spirit of Ngahuia te Awakotuku’s words about the power of moko kauae being “…the subtle power of maintaining a femininity that offends, that endures, that persists in the face of the settlers’ and invaders’ descendants…women who continued to inscribe their faces…wear their identity and heritage with pride, were effectively confronting the coloniser, and saying, we are here, and we will never ever go away. My face may make you uncomfortable; but it is my face; made by my pain. It is my pride, confronting your fear, and your infatuation. And we will never go away…”
With Ama’s passing another page of the Panther story is held forever in our hearts.