Sandra Alofivae

This week, Dale has been talking with Ali’imuamua Sandra Alofivae, an Auckland lawyer who’s now one of four commissioners on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. That role is just one recognition of her work and standing in the Pasifika world and in the legal profession where she’s been practising for more than 20 years.


Talofa lava, Sandra. I understand that your New Zealand connections go back to the 1960s, and that there were tough times for your family early on.

Yes. As you know, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, New Zealand was opening up the floodgates for Pacific people to come here. New Zealand was touted as the land of milk and honey, and my grandparents wanted their children to have the education and opportunities they hadn’t received. So my parents — Aiga and Sene Samau — came here in their early 20s. They had to pass maths and English exams as part of immigration tests to be able to come here.

But we had been in New Zealand for less than a year when my dad was killed in a car accident. This was a devastating experience for my mother. They had come here with such big dreams. This was to be our Promised Land. This was us crossing the Jordan, in faith terms. And they met with this disaster.

So my mother, who was four months pregnant with my brother Sene, had to pack my sister and me up, and take us back to Sāmoa where we buried my father on his family land in Matautu, Apia.

A couple of months later, my mother decided she was going to return here to honour the dream that she and my dad wanted to give their children. And that’s how we ended up back in New Zealand in 1969.

Sandra (right) and her sister Olataga and brother Sene, in the 1970s.

We moved around a little bit, but we were mainly in South Auckland, living with my mother’s brothers and renting flats until Mum was able to purchase her first home in 1971. It was very hard. She was on a widow’s benefit that she found embarrassing to claim — and that money didn’t go far, anyway.

It was easy for her to get domestic work, but she had no one to care for us three children. So she brought her parents over to New Zealand to help provide that care. She worked at three jobs to earn one decent salary to provide for her children, her parents, and, of course, her siblings, because they were beginning to get married and have families.

When she bought our family home in Māngere in 1971, everyone moved in. It was like a railway station. A three-bedroom house, and the maximum number of people at any one time, I think, was about 30. One bathroom and one toilet.

But none of us got sick. Many of the issues we hear about today are associated with overcrowding and deprivation. But when I think back to when we were growing up, we didn’t feel deprived. We weren’t defined by our circumstances. And there were lots of other Sāmoan families like us.

Sandra with older sister Olataga and brother Sene, and cousins Enid and Bowen, all raised together as siblings, in the 1970s.

The Pasifika peoples of those times were invited in, it would seem, to fuel the factories that were really burgeoning at that period. But it feels at times that Pākehā, maybe even Māori, looked down their noses somewhat at these new arrivals. Did you pick up on any of that?

I grew up in a very mixed neighbourhood. Lots of Pālagi, Māori, and Pacific. And while there was some teasing and ribbing, I didn’t experience any real racism until I started high school. I went to Epsom Girls’ — a very white school. I remember one day in our history class, we were talking about the Dawn Raids and how the police would burst into homes and arrest people.

And a very well-intentioned girl in my class stood up and declared: “Sandra, we’re not going to let them take you. We’re your friends!” That was one of those moments when you really want the ground to open up and swallow you. It was only then that I really recognised that I was different.

Of course, the school culture then was not what we know today. The languages we were learning were French, Latin, and German. Māori wasn’t even on offer. We never had enough Māori or Pacific girls at school to form a group to enter Polyfest until years later.

But when I look back at the relationships that I built with Māori and Pākehā in those years, they were good. And I had a very healthy respect for Māori. It wasn’t until I got into the workforce that I saw some serious cracks in our society.

Years later, when I started practising as a lawyer, I formed a solid business partnership with La-Verne King and Ida Malosi, who’ve both gone on to become district court judges and have done exceptional things. We had a joint wairua that helped us be successful. It was almost like we’d built a shield to protect us, and that enabled us to stand strong together as Māori and Pasifika. It strengthened our courage to rebut a lot of what we saw as unjust.

Epsom Girls’ Grammar has a great reputation. Do you think you would’ve travelled down this legal pathway had you gone to another school? How influential was it for you as a young PI student to do your secondary schooling at Epsom?

I come from a very traditional family. If you think of a triangle, at the top, for us, is the church or our faith. One corner is your family. And the other corner is school or education. That was the triangle that shaped our lives each day. And the reason my mother put us into this Pālagi school — even though it was out-of-zone for us Māngere students — was the value that our family placed on education.

Also, at that time, there were a lot of other young girls, Māori and Pākehā, in our neighbourhood, who were pushing prams at 15 and 16, and my mother didn’t want that for us.

But let me come back to the question you asked about the Epsom Girls’ influence on me wanting to be a lawyer. When I said I come from a traditional family, one aspect of that is the Sāmoan view of the status of the traditional professions.

The highest calling is the call of the cloth. Becoming a minister or faife’au. And then you’ve got your doctor, your lawyer, your engineer, your teacher. They were the five main professions that were talked about in our home. My grandparents prayed that their children would hear one of those calls — and they died content that their children and grandchildren were able to enter all of those professions.

What I learned at Epsom Girls’ was structure. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have learned it at another school. But what I do remember is that, as Epsom students, we were well motivated for moving into higher education, although you could pay a high cost if you weren’t strong in your culture.

Back in the early ’80s when I was there, you could count on your hand the number of Pacific girls, and the number of Māori girls. But, these days, there’s the richness of the different culture groups that the school embraces.

Who would you identify as strong influences in encouraging you to study and work hard in your legal training and career? Has it been people? Or have there been important books and films?

My grandfather, Leva’a Mulipola Alofivae. He was the father that I never had. He was my mentor, culturally, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically. He was an exceptionally good man. He talked to me a lot about service and honour in our family and in our church — and being responsible in our community.

And my grandmother, Saofaiga Mulipola Alofivae, has been the epitome of motherhood. When we got sick, it was nothing for my nana to do both traditional healing as well as the modern medicine. And she’d stay up with us constantly. When I reflect back, I’m in awe of her mothering skills. I’m a mother now, and a grandmother. And I tell you, Dale, when I’m tired and I need to sleep, I sleep. I just say: “Please, Lord, look after my baby during the night.”

So, when I look at my grandparents and their whole value set, I recognise how blessed I’ve been. My own mother, in many ways, is a replica of her mother. I’m so fortunate to have had such outstanding role models.

In the work that I do today, I can see that those building blocks aren’t there for a lot of the families I deal with. They haven’t had the benefit of a strong whānau or ‘āiga. They haven’t had that solid foundation to help prepare them for life.

Another valuable influence was David Lange. He was a Māngere man. We knew their family. And he loved and understood the Māngere people and their needs. He appreciated diversity.

In terms of authors, I’d choose Jane Austen. She made a massive impression on me growing up — that whole sense of being a strong woman and what it means to advocate and be who you are and not hold back.

Sandra (second from left), graduating in law, her mother Aiga Alofivae Samau, grandmother Saofaiga Mulipola Alofivae, sister Olataga (graduating in medicine), and grandfather Leva’a Mulipola Alofivae.

No doubt, as you worked your way through law school, it became clearer and clearer that Pasifika and Māori people weren’t getting any favours from the judicial system.

Well, I learned that through experience, too. I knew we were different — and that we were treated differently. I recall a census around 1983 or 1984 — and a Pālagi lady came into our home and was asking questions about who lived there, name and ages, and so on. Filling out all the boxes.

She was having trouble with all the names. Couldn’t spell them because they were all Sāmoan names. There were like 23 of us, and my nana was getting nervous, thinking that the government might be looking for overstayers.

I said: “No, no, Nana, it’s okay. We have to answer because it’s the government.” Even back then, we had a strong sense of deference.

Then we get to me and she says: “What’s your name, dear?” And I said: “Oh, my name is Sandra.” She goes: “Oh, my God! Finally, someone with a normal name in this family.” And I just looked at her, and thought: “Actually, no. No. I’m the only one who doesn’t have a Sāmoan name. So that kind of makes me abnormal.”

But when I really came to understand the big divide, in terms of disparity, was when I graduated, because it was very difficult for us Māori and Pacific grads to get jobs in the early ‘90s. My name was so “brown”, you know?

There was also a sense that if you didn’t get a job in a downtown firm, you were kind of second-class. You were a bit of a loser if you had to go and work out in the suburbs. But, of course, that’s exactly where we ended up — La-Verne King, Ida Malosi, and I — and where we set up our firm in 1994. That was where our calling was. That was where we were needed most.

When I went into law, I had no idea what law was. I thought I was going to be this amazing conveyancer, although I didn’t even know what conveyancing was. And then I find out it’s buying and selling houses — and, if you’re not good with numbers, that can be very stressful.

What came naturally to me was dealing with our people, hearing and understanding the issues, making applications to the Family Court and the District Court and dealing with criminal and family proceedings. I found that I was passionate about advocating for fairness for my clients and doing my best to have their voices heard within the legal framework we were working with.

And I found that this was a natural for La-Verne and Ida as well. We were able to create an amazing space where we could offer other young Māori and Pasifika women a job in a small firm, give them some experience, and then encourage them to go out and build their own practices and reputations. Setting up our firm was partly about us needing to take control of our destinies in the workforce and not be unemployed.

The other thing was, when we set up our firm, we had to make some big decisions because La-Verne is Māori and we were determined that our partnership wouldn’t go belly-up because of any conflicting Māori-Pasifika issues. It took us two years to work out the partnership details, but we always agreed that Māori would go first. That was why our firm was called King Alofivae Malosi.

La-Verne was the Māori, and that was the Pasifika honouring Māori to go first. So, whenever we had a gathering, she had to speak first. She hated speaking first. But we said: “No, no, no. You have to. This is us honouring the Treaty. This is a partnership agreement.”

And we just lived the Treaty principles, without ever having to refer to them. We didn’t force it down each other’s throats. And we learned so much from each other. We stood together as Māori and Pasifika. Almost like a united front against any other issue that might come up against us. It was pretty buzzy really — that was the lens through which we viewed the world.

Understanding those social issues that regularly confronted our clients — where things connect and don’t connect — that’s become a real passion for me, which has now led to my role with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. It’s about systems change — really understanding what has to change in the system in order for society and for the consumers of any system — be it the justice system, social services, health — to get high standards of care.

It shouldn’t be so hard, but it really, really is at times for a lot of our whānau. Part of the answer lies in crafted advocacy to help shape change.

The former partners of King Alofivae Malosi at the swearing-in ceremony last year of newly appointed judge Lope Ginnen (who’d worked at their firm for several years). From left: Judge Ida Malosi, Judge Lope Ginnen, Sandra, and Judge La-Verne King.

There’s been quite a lot of change in the way we look at legal issues. You three were a powerhouse and wāhine toa. I think that’s been noted, certainly by the appointments that you’ve received and by the fact that both La-Verne and Ida are on the bench.

It’s now 30 or so years that you’ve been working in the legal scene, so you’ve been in a position to note the changes in our judicial system such as, for instance, the pressure building to show more respect to the Treaty.

What I’ve seen, through the decades, is that Māori and Pasifika have to keep articulating our issues in ways that will make sense to Pākehā. It’s almost like you’ve got to convert it into a language that they understand.

I’ve sat on some big boards. If I harp on about social issues, they’re so not interested. They tune out. You can tell by their body language, by the comments they make. They can be cutting and condescending.

So I’ve had to learn to frame the arguments in a particular way. The minute I start framing social issues in economic terms, they get it. It makes sense to them. If you do that, you can gain their respect. And because it makes sense to them, they think it’s their idea and they adopt it, which is exactly what you want.

We’ve just had 21 judicial appointments in the last month or so, of which 10 were Māori, two were Sāmoan, and one was Māori-Chinese. How outstanding is that? And this is just the beginning. When you get a critical mass of Māori, of Pasifika, in certain positions, they’re able to coalesce and form strong, cohesive mana arguments. This can contribute to change.

It’s a matter of getting to a tipping point to influence the social change that you’re after. I think we’re in exciting times now, because we’re getting the critical numbers that we haven’t had before. I hear Moana Jackson’s kōrero, and I think: Oh my God, finally! We’re getting the numbers in influential positions to be able to do the stuff that he talked about.

Last year, in November 2019, we held our first Pacific Lawyers’ Association conference. The association was set up 20 years ago, but last year was our very first conference. That said, there are about 14,000 lawyers registered in New Zealand, of whom about 386 identify as Pasifika and around 800 identify as being of Māori descent.

There’s still a huge disparity there. We need our people coming through to be able to have influence in the judiciary and in our hospitals and our bureaucracy — and to be able to bring the strength of their culture with them.

Sandra and husband Paul with their two youngest children, Heleine and Vincent (now 22 and 20).

You’ve been brought into this inquiry into historical abuses in state care. Long overdue. Incredibly important. What are you respecting most about your role there, and how harrowing are the details and realities of some people’s lives?

This role takes me around the country a fair bit. I’ve just spent three days in Christchurch where I heard a number of personal stories — all different, all harrowing, all damaging. It’s taken years for those survivors to be able to be in a good space. The youngest person I saw was early 30s, and the oldest was late 70s. That’s the span of the ages coming through. It’s a huge privilege to be able to meet and hear from them directly.

There’ve been massive impacts in their lives. The loss of culture and identity, the loss of faith in the system, the intergenerational damage that it’s done, and the fracturing of families. There’s also what they’ve done to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. And there’ve been the mental health issues compounding all of that. These are just a few of the effects we’re seeing.

It’s critically important that we listen and ensure that we capture their narratives. This will help us to make recommendations about how we can prevent this abuse from happening again in the future.

We must deal honestly with the trauma that our survivors have suffered. They were children and young people when they were caught up in this system.

If I think about what a generous, prosperous nation looks like, it’s got to come back to the state and health and wellbeing of our babies and whānau. I say that as a mother and grandmother, and as someone who has navigated the system. The system needs to be far more flexible and agile than it now is. What we see is the continual fracturing of society and social issues that you’d think by 2020 we would’ve got on top of.

But doing the work that I’m now doing at the Royal Commission, I feel a real sense of urgency that we’ve got this unique window of opportunity to bring a greater clarity and understanding, and to reset the platform for future generations.

Things need to change for our babies, children and young people who are still in the system today.

When we’re talking about state care, it’s not limited to Oranga Tamariki. We’re also talking about health and disability including mental health and psychiatric services, and our education and justice systems. We also have a responsibility to survivors who suffered abuse in faith-based institutions.

For me, as well, it’s important that the inquiry also recognises the impact on Pacific peoples as a significant group who suffered disproportionately in care. As a commissioner of Sāmoan descent, I feel a real sense of responsibility to ensure that we use this opportunity to have our say. This is an opportunity for Pacific peoples to be heard at a very significant level where our voices might not otherwise have been heard.

We know that there’s a Pacific story to be told, and so we want to be the ones who tell it — from our perspective as Pacific peoples, and not have it put on us by others.

Talking to our communities in Pacific fono, I’ve heard some things very clearly. Don’t demonise our parents. Don’t demonise the faith. Don’t demonise the culture.

This is not an easy kaupapa to address within our Pacific communities because of the significant associated trauma from past events and circumstances. But it’s a topic we know all too well, and we must have the courage to keep addressing it in a way that ensures the mana and dignity of all remain intact.


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

Sandra has practised as a lawyer in the Auckland region for more than 20 years representing children, young persons and their families. She was appointed to the Counties Manukau District Health Board in December 2010 following a six-year term as a Commissioner with the Families Commission. In 2016 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to the Pacific community and to youth.  In 1995 she was also bestowed an honorific title by her family in the village of Sa’anapu, Sāmoa. Sandra and her husband Paul Chankay have four children, aged 30, 28, 22 and 20, and one 13-year-old granddaughter.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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