|The Courier N° 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
'We need to move to a more racially neutral system'
Fiji is not unique in having a political system that is heavily influenced by racial or communel issues In places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Belgium, Guyana and Trinidad - not to mention many parts of Africa - people vote for parties which claim to represent the particular ethnic, religious or linguistic group to which they belong. Where Fiji is different, however, is in having a Constitution that gives primacy to one particular community. Since the 1987 coup, native Fijians have held the upper hand with a guaranteed majority in Parliament and a firm grip on the levers or power.
The 1990 Constitution, adopted when communal feelings were still running high, contained a requirement for a constitutional review within seven years. When The Courier visited Fiji (July 19961 the work of a three-member Commission appointed to carry out the review and make recormmendations was nearing completion. All sides seem to accept the need for reforms designed to help bridge the sharp racial divide.
The big question is how radical these reforms are likely to be. We sought the views of Jai Ram Reddy, the leader of the opposition National Federation Party (NFP) which has the support of most of the country's Indian (Indo-Fijian) community.
· You are the first opposition leader I have met who cannot, constitutionally, become Prime Minister. How do you feel about that?
- It is something that rankles with me - the mere thought that I am not equal with my fellow citizens of other races. I think that's generally the way the Indians feel here. All the constraints and limitations, the denial of basic human rights, are the source of a great deal of unhappiness.
· You talk about basic human rights. Obviously, the political aspects are very important but I get the impression that, in other respects, this is a fairly free and easy society: there is free expression, for example.
- Yes, but free expression is only one aspect of human rights. The fact is that discrimination based on race is widespread and institutionalised. About 45% of the population is Indo-Fijian but you will find they are not fairly represented in the higher levels of the public service. At the Permanent Secretary level, there is definitely a government policy to have a limited number of Indians - and there are hardly any in the more crucial ministries. The same is true of managerial positions throughout the public sector. In the statutory bodies and major public undertakings, there is a deliberate policy of excluding Indians. So we are very much a marginalised community in the public sector.
· Wouldn't it be true to say that Indians have quite a lot of economic power?
- No, I don't agree. There is a tendency for people who come here, end for some people in Fiji, to project this image of Indians controlling the economy. It is a fallacy. It all boils down to how you define economic power.
Let's take natural resources. The land, and therefore the forests, are almost exclusively owned and controlled by native Fijians. Even in the corporate sector, the largest business undertaking is the manufacture of sugar, and 80% of the shares are owned by the government. The Indians don't own this industry. They are the small sugar cane producers working on ten-acre plots. And who controls banking and insurance? Certainly not the Indians. Most of the financial services companies are foreign-owned.
The area where the Indians are most visible is in the retail sector. But those little shops you see in the towns are small family businesses. The shopkeepers work up to 15 hours a day, and you will discover that many of them do not even own their premises; they are tenants. So the idea that Indians control the economy is a bit of a myth.
· The Constitution, and in particular the system of racial differentiation for voting and holding certain offices, is obviously a key issue for you. With the Constitution currently under review, what is your party's policy in this area?
- The first elections under the current Constitution took place in 1992 and we took part in them under protest. We made clear that our participation should not be construed as acceptance of the system. Indeed, the sole issue on which we campaigned was our rejection of the Constitution. But we accepted the fact that we needed to get into the system as it was, and to try and create an environment where there would be widespread appreciation that it had to change. The 1990 text, in fact, laid down that it had to be reviewed by the seventh anniversary of its promulgation. I think the architects of the Constitution realised themselves that it was deficient. And we laid great emphasis on the need for dialogue; a general recognition that the country would be much better off with everybody working together and that there was nothing to be gained by oppressing or marginalising a community. And that is the kind of environment we have tried to create.
· The Constitutional review will shortly be published. What do you hope will come out of that exercise?
- I am reasonably optimistic. I think the environment is more favourable now and there is a general recognition that the system has to change. I am sure you will get confirmation of this when you talk to the government side. We need to move away from this very polarised, compartmentalised political system to a more racially neutral one. I think views may diverge as to how far we should go. That will be the contentious issue. But I believe we will make progress.
I certainly think we will get a good report from the Constitutional Review Commission. One of our fears, when we started on this journey, was whether it would be independent and be given fair terms of reference. Largely because of the cooperative and accommodating attitude that we ourselves adopted, and to which the government responded, we were able to get a Commission that was well-balanced. We are very fortunate to have Sir Paul Reeves, a former Governor-General of New Zealand. His independence is taken for granted. The Commission also has one nominee from the indigenous side and one from the Indo-Fijian side. So we certainly expect a good report. There is already a kind of acceptance I think on all sides that political parties need to prepare themselves for a more multiracial approach to governance in the future.
· On this point, I see that the SVT (the governing party) is looking at the idea of opening up its membership to other groups.
- That's right.
· Do you think there will be many nonnative Fijians interested in joining?
- Not straight away but at least it is a beginning. It is an acceptance that they can't remain racially exclusive. If, for example, the Commission recommends a move toward a racially neutral system - at least for a certain number of seats - then it would be important for the SVT to have non-Fijians in their party.
· Can I turn to economic issues, which I presume cannot be divorced altogether from political ones? There is a lot of discussion about the future of the sugar industry which is tied in with the question of renewing the land leases This is an issue which is due to be resolved soon. How concerned are you about the impending decision on the leases?
- This is something that concerns us very deeply. As you correctly observe, you can't separate the political and economic aspects. The two are very closely interlinked here - perhaps more so than in other countries - because of the land situation. The bulk of Indian peasant farmers, both within and outside the sugar industry, are on leases that will begin to expire next year. If these are not renewed, the problem will not just be an economic one but an enormous human one. What do we do with these people who all belong to a particular racial group. It really boils down to our very survival. Despite the growth in the towns, the bulk of the people are still rurally based. They are small subsistence farmers, living in the country areas with no more than 10 or 12 acres to cultivate. So the social implications of non-renewal in terms of poverty, dispossession and hardship are enormous.
· But how real is the concern? Surely, the overwhelming economic logic is for the leases to be renewed. After all the land is being put to productive use at the moment
- Yes, but unfortunately, when you have a communal dimension to the problem, logic does not always prevail. If you think about it, there was no logic in the events of 1987. The trouble is that every issue here has a racial twist. After the coup, communal sentiments were aroused and sharpened. There was a prolonged period of anti-lndian propaganda and in that environment of anger, a highly racial constitution was adopted. There were people in positions of influence openly advocating non-renewal, threatening to take all the land back. Now they need to undo all this and it will not be easy, given the enormous strength of feeling that has been aroused. Having said this, I believe that we are now in the process of restoring sanity to our public life. It is also beginning to dawn on everybody that the sugar industry is vital for Fiji and it will continue to be so for some years to come.
· I have heard that view expressed on all sides, but I wonder if people are sufficiently aware of the implications of global liberalisation. It has been suggested that this will make sugar increasingly unviable.
- I think a lot of people are unaware of the implications, because there has been very little public education in this field. But amongst those 'in the know', there is certainly an appreciation. I am a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Sugar and we were recently addressed by the head of the marketing company and the head of the Sugar Commission. At that level, there is an awareness, but if you speak to the average farmer who has been growing and selling sugar for many years, he will probably assume that life will just go on as before.
Isn't it true to say that sugar depends heavily on the Lomonvention arrangement with the European Community?
- Very much so. In my view, the sugar industry is run so inefficiently that but for the huge subsidy we get from the European Community, it would not be viable.
Presumably, this means that measures must be taken to improve efficiency?
- Yes, absolutely. But the first issue to resolve is the land question.
There is no point talking to the farmers about efficiency - asking them to improve their husbandry and focus on sugar content rather than the quantity of cane produced - when they don't know if they will have land to cultivate after next year. So you see all other issues have become completely subsidiary to the tenure question. At the moment, we are in a limbo. The government and the people urgently need to resolve this problem. Then we can put it behind us and address the other concerns.
Are there any other economic sectors which you feel offer promise for the future of the country?
- Any growth outside of tourism will, I think, have to be centred on the agricultural sector. We need more agro-based industries and more diversification. We could grow a lot of other crops here - mangoes for example. We also need to improve extension services to farmers, and make an aggressive effort to identify markets. The farmers will grow the crops but they must be sure that somebody will buy them. Every year, for example, we have a glut of tomatoes - so many that they can't even give them away in the markets. This kind of problem kills the incentive to produce.
There is obviously heavy state involvement in the running of agriculture. Do you see scope for more privatisation or 'corporatisation' in line with global trends?
- I think that growth, even in the agricultural sector has to be private-sector driven. At the same time, you have got to create the right environment and infrastructure for this to happen. Unfortunately, it keeps coming back to this question of land. If big investors, for instance, want to come here and invest in agriculture, they need to know what sort of tenure they are going to get and whether they can buy the freehold. I am sure there are people, particularly now from the Asian region, who would be interested in investing in agriculture, but the land problem is a big constraint.
Do you think Fiji will rejoin the Commonwealth at any point?
- Well, we hope so. You know we are all very strongly in favour of rejoining. One of the things that I personally feel very strongly about is the unfortunate severance of our link with the Queen. I don't know, constitutionally, whether it can be restored. Obviously, there are difficulties in that area, but I think a large majority of ordinary people in this country would like at least to see Fiji back in the Commonwealth.