Wellington, New Zealand – Nanaia Mahuta was only 11 years old when she defended her political beliefs.
Mahuta was one of 30 Maori and Pacific Islander students from an exclusive Anglican girls ’school and the South African rugby team was touring New Zealand, splitting the country in the process.
While the school had no idea what would soon become one of the biggest civil unrest in New Zealand history, it could not stand the fact that its school had offered to host a group of students. South Africans, a decision he felt was validated by apartheid.
Instead of just “treating it,” he jumped out of school in protest.
“As a Maori woman there is an embedded sense of social justice and one that seeks equal opportunity and indigenous advancement,” she told Al Jazeera.
“If you have been educated in a Maori community, you will have experienced some form of abuse and at an extreme level: racism.”
The daughter of Sir Robert Te Kotahitanga, adopted son of the Maori king Koroki, Mahuta grew up helping her father in key treaty negotiations.
He has spent almost half of his life in Parliament, having won a seat at 26 years old.
In 2016, Mahuta became the first woman to show a moko kauae (sacred facial tattoo) in Parliament and last year she got another first, becoming New Zealand’s first woman foreign minister.
The 50-year-old’s appointment came as a surprise, according to political commentator Ben Thomas.
“Foreign ministers are often seen as a ‘gold watch’ for long service, or given as a favor to friends and allies,” he said. “Mahuta doesn’t fall into that category and that doesn’t make any sense [the prime minister] he owes her nothing. “
Mahuta is seen as an unpretentious character and, despite his political longevity, has never been in the spotlight. Neither ego and ambition have defined his career, unlike his predecessors or politicians in general, Thomas says.
The post of foreign minister, which holds in addition to responsibilities for local government and Maori affairs, came as a surprise to Mahuta as well.
Although she had previously held the associated trade and export portfolios in the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Mahuta focused more on national issues in her role as cabinet minister for local government and Maori development.
Thomas says former foreign ministers “have traditionally talked about a big game” when it comes to human rights, but have been notoriously reluctant about trading partners, especially since the country’s largest free trade agreement with China in 2006.
“The real business”
Mahuta made international waves joining Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States in condemning the disqualification of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong and questioning the repression of Beijing in a territory that had guaranteed considerable freedoms and autonomy when it returned to the Chinese government in 1997.
He also condemned the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Russia and suspended high-level bilateral contacts with Myanmar in response to the army’s February 1 coup, saying New Zealand did not “recognize the legitimacy of army-led government”.
But last month, Mahuta’s comments on the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance raised her eyebrows after she said it would not let it dictate the US-led alliance New Zealand’s bilateral relationship with China.
While acknowledging that China and New Zealand could have disagreements, he said in an April speech to the New Zealand Council of China that the country should be “respectful” to one of its main trading partners.
“There will be some areas where it is useful to coordinate through the Five Eyes platform; but there will be other areas (e.g. human rights) where we want to build a broader coalition of countries to take positions on issues of common interest, ”he told Al Jazeera.
“[A]t times we work with a larger group; other times we unite with one or two like-minded partners; and sometimes we make our own statements. “
Labor Party political colleague Paul Eagle went to university with Mahuta, where he studied a master’s degree in social anthropology and Maori business development. They are related and both come from the same tribe, the Tainui.
Eagle points out that Mahuta has always taken on people-centered portfolios and that his ability to endure conflict and maintain relationships is the key to his success.
“What you see is what you get,” he said. “People often underestimate it, but it’s incredibly smart and strategic. She is the real business.
“While other politicians have come and gone, Nanaia has weathered many storms and managed to get people to join the process.”
Experts say Mahuta’s Maori background could also be an asset in his role as foreign minister.
She is used to defending the weakest party, either in the Treaty of Waitangi, or representing the Maori group, a minority of the ruling Labor party, and has perfected its bargaining powers.
“Everything that has been achieved must have been done through diplomacy and it has no delusions of grandeur like its predecessors that pledged to bring peace to the Middle East and domination to the Pacific,” he said. Thomas.
“One of the defining characteristics of New Zealand is its own relationship to indigenousness. All things being equal and outside of tokenism, I think it is an advantage for a Maori woman to represent the country on the world stage. “
Mahuta says she didn’t expect to get such an important portfolio so soon, but she was “delighted” to have the job.
“If I can offer something, it would be to take advantage of a bicultural base and context to influence foreign policy,” he said. “I hope to elevate these relationships for greater cohesion and prosperity for future generations.
“As a young and mature nation, we have the opportunity to show how the Treaty has shaped our journey towards a more inclusive society. [of Waitangi] speech and experience. Much of our history is born of conflict and the gains have been intense and fought over. I believe that we can offer this journey and learn from it, not as a solution, but as an evolving process ”.
He cites as an example the reactivation of the Maori language.
Where New Zealand attempted to completely eradicate the language and assimilation was considered best practice, the Maori language is now embedded in schools and public settings and is part of the fabric of New Zealand identity, she says.
Maori only received the right to vote in 1879.
In the current Parliament, 15 of the 120 representatives (known colloquially as the “first 15”) are Maori, and the house is more diverse than ever, she says.
In her role as local government minister, Mahuta also seeks to expand Maori representation in local councils, with its “Maori hall” policy that the government will support municipalities that want to establish a specific Maori representation, abolishing a law. which allowed it to be vetoed in a referendum.
“Having Maori representation where their voices and perspectives could be taken into account has now allowed the sphere of local government and the private sector,” Mahuta said. “Maori representation has led to general inclusion strategies.”
Ruahina Albert is the chief executive of Waikato Women’s Refuge.
He met Mahuta 30 years ago, when the shelter was just a two-bedroom unit in Hamilton, a town on the North Island of New Zealand.
“When he came to meet us in the 90s, we weren’t sure who he was, but we were amazed at the compassion, help, and bubble he had,” Albert said.
Twenty-five ministers over the age of 36 have visited the premises, but Mahuta has been one of the most effective, he says.
Mahuta was a board member for three years before being appointed minister and Albert hopes he will return once he leaves Parliament.
“We work at the forefront of sexual violence and domestic violence. We’re a tough gang and it doesn’t happen to us much. We don’t trust the government, but we trust it.
“I think his heart is with his people and his community, he is clear to identify what he wants and what he will not compromise. You always have these conflicts when you work within a system, but I don’t see it compromising either with its people or with its country. It is his heart and his future. “