Our beautiful Tongan community was treated as criminal

Aotearoa is home to the biggest Polynesian population on earth – a fact brought home to us all in high definition colour as the red sea of Mate Ma’a Tonga fans flooded the Rugby League World Cup in celebration. But for Pasifika Human Rights advisor and South Auckland local Tuiloma Lina Samu, it was a bittersweet moment.

These are New Zealand Police website headlines: “No arrests at Tonga-Lebanon match” “Few policing issues at Tonga-Samoa match”Police happy with crowd at NZ-Tonga match”. All of them indicate few incidents at the recent Tonga rugby league games played here in New Zealand. The mainstream media coverage, however, painted a different picture. Half an hour after Tonga’s semi final loss to England, police were apparently “on alert for trouble”. Yes, there were a few isolated incidents following games, but with tens of thousands of fans of all ages out celebrating, 50 arrests for disorderly behaviour, while disappointing, is hardly a suburb erupting into all out violence, as some media reports would have us think.

Then there were decisions like this from the New Zealand Herald:

This image should not have been used with that headline. (Screenshot)

This is a combination of headline and feature image that takes beautiful young children celebrating their identity and pride and turns them into a poster for troublemaking. 

The way media treated the Tonga rugby league fans is in stark contrast to reports about O-Week and drunken student behaviour in Dunedin. Over the last year 576 students at Otago University were disciplined for what was described as “fire-lighting and other anti-social antics” or a “flat initiation, good natured fun”. Funny, when media talked about Tongan families – of all ages, from grandmas to children – dancing in the streets of their communities they were labelled as troublemakers, not people up to fun-filled “antics”. Obviously there’s a big difference in perception between a Toga Party and a Tongan Party.

The hyped up media reports fanned social media comments. Tongan fans were compared to apes and animals by people who – unlike me – probably don’t live in Māngere and most definitely weren’t out and about in South Auckland during the World Cup. Instead they believed media-generated stories that were exaggerated and incorrect.

But this wasn’t just a media issue. We all remember the incredible spectacle that was the Rugby World Cup of 2011. A huge part of its success was the meticulous planning and engagement across agencies – IRB, NZ Rugby, Auckland Council, Te Puni Kōkiri and the RWC led by Martin Snedden.

For the Rugby League World Cup, in contrast, tournament organisers showed little leadership or demonstration of responsibility. This was a major fail. Instead they left Auckland Council, local communities and even Auckland Airport to host fan zones and team welcomes on their own. The airport was unable to cope with huge numbers by the time the semi-final came around, but in previous team welcomes had shut off some check in zones and made parking free to accommodate fans. With little if anything planned by RLWC organisers, we were left with thousands of fans out and about with no official fan zones to host them.

Fans out ahead of Tonga’s semi-final (photo: Joel Thomas)

Meanwhile our own communities were working overtime. I attended a meeting facilitated by the Māngere-Otāhuhu local board of the Auckland Council, including community and religious leaders, Auckland Council elected leaders and the police. In short order a plan was made to close off Great South Road from 7-9 pm after the Tonga vs Lebanon match on Saturday 18th November in Christchurch. People parked their cars away from the road and walked up and down the street to celebrate. There was a liquor ban. The attending commanding officer did warn that the police had been “too lenient” to date and that they would be far more aggressive in enforcing the law to ensure safety via arrests, confiscating cars and licences. The end result was one we as a community can be proud of: we came together and we planned for coming events quickly and decisively.

It is disappointing that due to a failure by organisers, the Tongan community celebrations and the police were placed in an unfair position and in direct conflict. The New Zealand Police have been accused of being high-handed and provoking the celebrating fans, but a lot of their behaviour arose out of safety concerns about people surfing on car hoods and roofs, hanging out of windows, and using flagpoles on fast moving cars.

Still, this does not excuse how the police made people in the Tongan community feel. Thousands of law-abiding New Zealanders of all ages were made to feel like criminals, even though they hadn’t done a thing wrong except be proud of their culture and their rugby league team. Tongan fans brought vibrancy to the 2011 Rugby World Cup and again to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Their red and white loyalty and support should be celebrated, not portrayed nor remembered falsely as the behaviour of criminals.

Ofa lahi atu, faka’apa’apa atu kimautolu kotoa kainga Tonga!


The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.