Ronji Tanielu (Photo supplied)

The Salvation Army’s 15th State of the Nation report, released last month, shows what many of us already know. Overcrowded households are on the rise, incomes are barely covering living costs, Covid is adding pressure to families already struggling, and Māori and Pasifika are bearing the brunt of it. 

The report summarised the haves-and-have-nots like this:

“Inequality is like a river wending its way through our life and times, stretching back over the years of reporting. There is so much more to be done to deal with the levels of social and economic inequity that so stubbornly persist. It raises the question: Are we as a nation making the structural changes needed to achieve greater equality?”

One of the authors of the report is social policy analyst Ronji Tanielu, who was born in Sāmoa and grew up in Māngere. Here he is talking to Teuila Fuatai.


Ronji’s siblings Lomitusi, Sara, Olikena and Fuailelagi with their grandmother in Fagaloa, Sāmoa, mid-1970s (before Ronji was born).

Talofa, Ronji. To start with, can you tell me a bit about how you got into this line of work? I understand you have a long history of working with those who need a helping hand — and many of them are our Pasifika families. 

Mālō, Teuila. Probably the beginning of that desire to help came from how we grew up. We moved here from Sāmoa in 1981 when I was four — we were part of that second or third wave of immigration from the Pacific. 

My parents were teachers in Sāmoa, so they had decent jobs. But we came here to care for my grandmother who was very sick. 

My mum is Lalovimama Maamora and my dad is Fasavalu Olikena Tanielu. I’m the youngest of six siblings — there’s Lomitusi, Sara, Fuailelagi, Motootua, Olikena and then me. We also had a bunch of stragglers and add-ons that my parents took on over the years. There’s probably 14 or 15 of us all up.

When we got here, Dad couldn’t get into teaching, so he went into labouring jobs. But they made a decision as a couple that Mum would go and retrain, which I think was a really brave decision. And she was a primary school teacher here for 20 years before they moved to Australia. 

Our story is that pretty typical immigrant story — just plonked into New Zealand with no English. We grew up quite poor in Māngere in South Auckland. And we had all the risk factors that academics and policy people like to talk about: state house, violence, gambling, drugs, gangs and overcrowding. All of that kind of stuff was happening at home and in our neighbourhood.

But even with all of that and so little of our own, there was still a culture in our family of trying to help people out with whatever we had in our hands.

I remember helping people in our neighbourhood with food. And my dad was also part of the Fesoasoani Trust that helped families in Māngere. We’d visit people who’d come out of prison, and we used to have offenders come in to paint our house and clean our garden. 

A lot of that was also driven by our religious upbringing in the Māngere PIC church.

When it comes down to it, everything I do is framed by that upbringing and those values around community, my Christian faith, my desire to see change in families. 

And knowing exactly what it’s like to grow up in what’s now called “material poverty”. 

That’s a strong foundation for your work. But it couldn’t have been easy taking on those things as a kid. 

I’ll be honest, sis. For a time there, it looked like I was going to end up dead or in jail. I was kicked out of schools, my family and friends were involved in crime and gangs, and, to be honest, I was just a violent little alelo — a little troublemaker. 

I was growing up angry at the system, and angry at everyone else for making me poor and brown. And I also had a lot of family responsibilities. 

My first job was at the age of 12 — that was working in a $2 shop at the Māngere Town Centre. So I was helping at home to pay the bills from that time. Then, when I was 17, my parents moved to Australia because we wanted them to retire.

My brother Lomitusi was doing quite well in Australia as a warehouse manager, so we sent them over there, and I took over the mortgage at home because I didn’t want my parents to come back and have to struggle.

Before they moved, they were just living that fa’alavelave life, carrying so many cultural responsibilities, and we were always struggling. Every week, there was some fa’alavelave we had to contribute to.

Ronji and his mother, in Liverpool, Sydney, 2010. (Photo supplied)

Were you still going to school?

I actually went to uni at 17, to do a commerce degree. Even though I was a little troublemaker at high school, I found school easy. But I failed my first year of uni because I working about four jobs to pay the mortgage — as a bouncer at night and working in warehouses.

Then me and some of my boys came up with a plan to rob a bank. I wanted to get some cash to pay the mortgage and survive. Long story short, we didn’t go through with it. But that was the situation, and it led to a turning point for me because that’s when I became a born again Christian at 18. 

You see, I wasn’t dumb. I could see the road ahead of me. My boys were going to prison, my family members were in prison. I could see, rationally and logically, that it was probably going to be me soon. 

But I also started to see that something needed to change. For me, that came when I finally understood the true gospel, that Christ died for my sins to save me from hell. That’s what turned my mind and my life and my thoughts to faith. 

I’ve heard you talk quite passionately about your faith. For a lot of Pasifika, church and religion are essential to community. But you’ve made a distinction between church and faith. Can you talk about that?

I think those numbers are changing quickly. In 2006, there were over 80 percent of Pacific people claiming to be Christians. By 2018, that had dropped to 68 percent according to the census. 

So, although the church is still a significant pillar for our Pasifika communities compared to other communities in Aotearoa, it’s declining. And part of the shift I see is around the difference between religion and faith.

Sitting inside McDonald’s doesn’t make you a hamburger — and nor does sitting inside a church make you a Christian. I had this background of being a church boy, but I was a church boy on Sunday and living like a devil all the other days. I was a fake. 

And to be honest, many of our Pacific young people are doing the same. But I knew there was something more. 

For me, faith is about my relationshp with Christ and God, and that drives everything I do in life — from business decisions to missionary work, and with my current job. Religion, or being associated with a particular denomination, doesn’t really fit into that. 

Preaching the gospel at the Māngere Markets in 2020. (Photo supplied)

And so you went from planning to rob a bank, to being a born-again Christian and then somewhere along the line starting your own businesses and attending law school. You might need to break it down for us. 

It’s a bit of a journey when I look back. When I failed my first year of uni, it was a mess. I was facing expulsion and under academic supervision. But after becoming a born again Christian, things turned around. I decided to apply for law school and — I don’t know how, because my grades were so bad — I got into second year. 

It meant that, when I graduated from Auckland University in 2002, after six years, I had two politics degrees and a law degree. They told me I was the first Islander to graduate with three degrees. But I don’t know if that’s true because I never looked it up. 

I went overseas for a bit, and around then I decided to start some businesses to see if employment could be used as a circuit breaker for some of our people. I could see that there were different ways to pathway kids out of trouble.

Then in 2007, I started a security company. Heaps of my family had been working in security and as private bodyguards and bouncers at nightclubs. So, getting one up and running was about providing a path for young men in my neighbourhood to stay away from the gangs.

I also started a consultancy agency with Efeso Collins — who might just become Auckland’s first Pacific mayor. My wife, Rabena, and I still run that today, but I sold the security business to my brother a few years back. 

The Tanielu ‘āiga in the late 1990s. Front from left: Lomitusi, Mum, Dad, Olikena. Back: Sara, Ronji, Fuailelagi, in Māngere. (Photo supplied)

Let’s talk a bit about your work with the Salvation Army now. That’s another step in the journey, especially now you’re operating as a policy analyst with the bigwigs in Wellington — though we still hear and see you proudly advocating for South Auckland. Has there been much progress in the areas you’ve been working in for the past 20 years?

I don’t think we’ve changed that much, to be honest.

When you look at the numbers — whether it’s welfare dependency, benefit rates, housing, addictions — I’d say that there’s been more negative trends than positive in that time. Not just in South Auckland, but across the country. 

I think that’s horrifying given that we’re such a small, wealthy country. I don’t think we need to have these kinds of issues of 209,000 benefit-dependent children. We don’t need to have 25,000-plus people on the housing register. As a country, we should be able to handle those issues around hardshp, vulnerability and poverty. 

Part of my challenge is that I don’t believe government is the only answer. I think a lot of us, especially Pasifika people, tend to look at government and say that they’re the ones that are going to be our saviour, our big rescuer.

I completely disagree with that. I’d say we need to look within our communities for the answers. There are enough solutions in the corporate sector if we work with them, and there are way more solutions in our local communities and through local development and iwi groups. 

And if and when there’s a role for government, whether it’s local or central government, then we can work with that.

Ronji at Stephen’s Centre Christian Orphanage, with children of parents murdered/persecuted for being Christians. Abeokuta, Nigeria, 2016. (Photo supplied)

I see you wrote an advocacy paper last year where you proposed a social enterprise supermarket idea to challenge the existing restrictive duopoly of Foodstuffs and Woolworths — which is playing a huge part in exacerbating food insecurity in our communities. But you’re also not a fan of foodbanks.

Yeah, one area I’m big on is food insecurity and foodbanks. That would be one of my absolute life goals — to get rid of foodbanks in this country. It’s also an area where I see the effects of badly thought-out government policy.

Don’t get me wrong. The foodbank system and initiatives like the Food in Schools programme do an important job. They’re funded by the government and play a role in helping families.  

But, when you look more closely at what’s happening, there’s also a gap in working with these same families once they’re on the food-insecurity grid. 

I still work our foodbank in Manukau when I can, and we see generations of families coming through. We’ve seen the grandparent, then the parent, and now it’s the child coming through. That’s generations which haven’t transitioned out of that hardship.

And I know it’s not easy. It’s not like you just flick a switch and you’re out of hardship. We’re talking about complex, high-needs families, we’re talking about families who have generational poverty, families who are overstaying and who aren’t on the grid. 

It’s messy and it’s grimy. There are still families coming to our own home in Māngere today asking for help with immigration, housing and food issues.

I don’t think we’re providing enough platforms or places for families to grow independence, resilience and mana. 

What you see with these repeat familes coming through is they’re just perpetuating that cycle. And with these government-funded systems, we’re just handing food out, rather than creating ways for families to understand how to spend money, how to use that food for nutritious meals, and understand what it means to wake up at 8 o’clock in the morning and get ready for class or a course rather than lying in until midday.

In many ways, we’ve just sort of let that system ride and apologised for the poverty. 

That’s why I think things like employment and education are really good circuit breakers to that cycle. When I look back at me and my family, the two things other than faith that really broke that cycle of violence and poverty and hardship were education and employment.

Ronji and Rabena on their wedding day. (Photo supplied)

One of the stats highlighted in your State of the Nation report for Pasifika was a reduction in unemployment — it was down to 5.5 percent in September last year from 8.1 percent the previous year. Does that mean more of us should be doing well?

It’s true that, on the face of it, the unemployment rate for Pasifika and for New Zealand isn’t as bad as what some economists talked about. But there are still disparities — the Māori unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, and it’s 2.6 percent for European and 3.2 percent for Asian. 

And when you drill down to where we are in the job market, it shows we might not be thriving as much as we could be. 

I’ll give you an example. According to the 2018 Census, nearly 80 percent of Pacific people earn $50,000 or less in our country. Also, the median income for Pacific people is $24,300 a year, while the median income for a European person is $34,600 a year. 

So while there may be more Pasifika people in the job market, we’re not in jobs that are well-paying.

And this is the stat that people need to understand. Nearly 45 percent of Pacific people are in labouring, driving, machine-operating jobs, personal service jobs, healthcare work. I’m not trying to diss these jobs — I’ve done a lot of them myself. But they are typically low-paying jobs.

Don’t forget we’re also dealing with increasing living costs, increasing petrol costs, increasing housing costs, increasing everything costs.

So, when you see where Pasifika jobs are, and the income level we’re at, it shows why there’s so much pressure and hardship for our Pacific people. 

That’s a tough reality to untangle. What do you think is working in that space? 

There’s a few interesting things happening. At the Salvation Army, we’re involved in the Kai Collective project. It’s a food co-op, and families who receive our food parcels are given the option to come and grow their own veges, and do bulk-buying so they understand how to budget and compare prices. They then distribute some of the food they purchase to other families who need it. 

I see that as a way to help people with the skills they need to move away from food parcels. 

There’s also plenty of informal stuff happening in our communities in South Auckland which focuses on at-risk youth and gang kids — like sports and work placements. And that’s what we often do off our own backs. 

For example, one of the boys has a couple of garage gyms where kids are taught  about fighting and discipline and respect away from the gang and street stuff. A couple of the younger boys also run youth clubs in the Tupu library and the Ōtara library with young men at risk. 

It’s mainly working with kids from gang homes. We look at things like how to make better choices when you’re living in a gang family. 

Ronji and Rabena taking part in a homelessness fundraising campaign in Glendene, Auckland, 2018. (Photo supplied)

A lot of policy is written by people who have no experience of what’s happening at the grassroots level. But you’re able to move between being on the ground to where bigger-picture decisions get made. That must be interesting.

Yeah, it has its days. I’m often floating between grassroots communities on the one side, and government, corporates, NGOs on the other. It’s a real blessing to be able to work across these different worlds, but also rare from what I can see.

My aim is to work for disruptive innovation to try to develop sustainable, high-impact solutions and innovations to these very complex social issues.

For instance, one of the things I’m fighting for at the moment is what’s called “first right to buy”. 

When I look at my beloved community of South Auckland, there’s been quite a few changes in the past 20 years — some good, some bad as we’ve talked about. 

And one thing we’re seeing now is the gentrification of South Auckland. We’re seeing houses sell for $1.5 million, and I’m worried about that because it pushes Pacific people away from these communities they’ve built up. It’s what happened in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn in the 1970s and 1980s. I think we need to be concerned about that. 

Having a policy of “first right to buy” for somewhere like South Auckland means people living there —  Māori, Pasifika, but also the big communities of Vietnamese and Indian here in Māngere — will get first choice of an affordable house before someone from outside this community. 

I think making moves like that is important because it’s what keeps our communities together. And that goes alongside the programmes and outreach we do on the ground. 

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length). 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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