Volume 11 Number 3
More Than a Firefighter
01 June 1998

New Zealand's Race Relations Conciliator, Rajen Prasad, has thrived amid cultural diversity from an early age. Joanna Grigg discovers that he is

Rajen Prasad, the Race Relations Conciliator for New Zealand, is a positive man, an optimistin a racially diverse society. The Race Relations Office, which he heads, provides an environment where people can be brought together to settle racially motivated disputes.

Nearly four fifths of New Zealand's three and a half million inhabitants describe themselves as Pakeha or New Zealand European; 15 per cent as New Zealand Maori; six per cent as Pacific Islander; two per cent as Chinese and 1.2 per cent as of Indian ethnicity. Three quarters of the population live on the North Island and immigration is important to population growth.

Racially motivated assaults and crimes are not uncommon. Waitangi Day, which celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Maori chiefs, has been marred by numerous violent demonstrations. An African family were set upon by a group of youths at a crowded southern city beach and there has been building resentment against Asian immigrants (often refered to as the 'Asian invasion').

But Dr Prasad is not just a firefighter for cross-ethnic flare-ups. The creation of a national vision for race relations is at the forefront of his agenda. He is challenging New Zealanders to decide for themselves what sort of social ethnic relations they want in their society.

The Race Relations Office presents awards to people involved in fostering positive ethnic relations--and this is typical of Prasad's proactive attitude. 'We can be reactive and wait for negative incidents to occur or we can carefully guide our citizens, involving them in the process of fostering healthy race relations,' he says. Carrots as well as sticks.

Prasad knows what it is like to grow up outside the ethnic mainstream of society. His family trace their cultural roots back to India, although he was born in Suva, Fiji.

He believes the biggest gift from his early home life was learning a 'sense of purpose'. He and his 14 brothers and sisters grew up trilingual. 'We spoke Fijian out in the streets, English at school and Hindi at home. We joked in Fijian and bantered in Shakespearean verse.' It is hardly surprising that he has the ability to cope in varying cultural situations. He meets people halfway with an easy manner.

Prasad's grandparents were from Uttar Pradesh, India, and became tobacco farmers when they came to Fiji. Prasad's grandfather on his maternal side was a Hindu guru who travelled to Fiji on the indentured labourer ships as a spiritual leader.

Prasad feels comfortable with many religions and believes his early cross-cultural experiences make it easier 'to accept difference and live with it'. One of his brothers is a Catholic priest and an uncle is a Hindu priest.

Prasad's father was a key person in early public transport in Fiji, operating a taxi and bus service on the main island. The bus service travelled along the main road between the capital city, Suva, and the goldmines. As a 14-year-old, Prasad worked on the buses taking tickets, passing through many villages along the road. Later he drove taxis in Suva for his family's company, greeting overseas tourists bound for sunny holidays in the South Pacific.

He also managed to get a good education--first at St Columbus Primary School and then at Marist Brothers High. 'It was a full education with academics, sport, humour and spiritual learning.' He went on to achieve a distinguished career in New Zealand in both practical and academic social work, focussing on child and family welfare, and was awarded a PhD from Massey University in 1987.

Prior to his appointment as Race Relations Conciliator in March 1996 he was Associate Professor and Director of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at Massey University. He has served on international projects at the UN's regional headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, and in 1993 on a child welfare project in Croatia. He has appeared frequently as an expert witness before New Zealand's Family Court. His quick wits, drive and abilities are keenly sought.

Like many people from Pacific Island nations, Prasad was first drawn to New Zealand on a working holiday as an 18-year-old in the 1960s. He understands first hand the huge adjustment and culture shock faced by immigrants to New Zealand.

'I had to learn everything in minute detail as everything was so different,' he remembers. When he started working as a spot welder in a factory in Auckland, he missed out on his morning tea because he did not realize that when the foreman shouted 'Smoko!', this was the signal for a 15-minute break.

Prasad believes that the Waitangi Treaty provides 'a foundation which we are blessed to have' for race relations in New Zealand. Now, he maintains, the country must build on the ideas of partnership set out by the Treaty to create a common vision.

New Zealand citizens, he says, need an agenda as to 'where we want to go with race relations and how we want to relate'. He cites Canada as an example. 'They have a very explicit multicultural programme. They have a clear positive vision for their ethnic relations in society and it is enshrined in their constitution. When I talked to a bus driver in Toronto, he could tell me what Canada wants to do in regard to race relations.'

Prasad's passionate belief in people feeds his positive attitude. When asked what negative racial experiences he has had, he prefers to tell a positive experience. When, some years ago, he and his wife were searching for accommodation, a Scottish woman welcomed them to her house. 'The first thing she mentioned was our youth, not our colour,' he says. 'It was sheer pleasure having someone treat us in this way.'

Prasad felt the shock of the coup in Fiji in 1987 deeply. His family had gathered in New Zealand to see him receive his doctorate and reacted 'as if somebody had died'. The biggest lesson he has learned from this experience is how quickly good relations can be crushed and how long it can take to build confidence again.

Prasad believes the biggest contribution individuals can make to furthering ethnic relations in NZ society is to be curious about other peoples' culture and way of life. He calls on people to learn about their own culture, teach other people about it and learn about others' culture. And, he adds, 'laugh at yourself and at others but don't cross the line in the sand'.

A 'window into much of New Zealand's people' is how Prasad describes Te Papa ('our place'), the impressive new Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. When it opened in early 1998, thousands gathered to watch the Maori waka (boats) being summoned with shell horns through the sea mist to the harbourside building. The museum gives a glimpse into New Zealand life, the land and its people.

On one floor, overlooking the sea, a large dark rock stands exposed to the hands of passers-by. People are encouraged to scratch the moist surface with tiny river pebbles, mimicking the action of the mountain rivers. With constant wear by different hands, the precious dark greenstone will appear.

It is a timely reminder of the importance and power of individual contribution to achieving a larger goal.
Joanna Grigg

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