The People of Manurewa Tell Us Why They Don't Vote
We spent Friday night in one of New Zealand's most disaffected areas to find out what's on people's minds.
All images by Todd Henry
We crawled south under pylons like giant scarecrows, rush-hour brake lights blinking like angry red eyes. It was a Friday, the Southern Motorway choked by the evening exodus from the city, commuters eager to get the weekend underway. Eventually the Auckland Botanic Gardens—"Where ideas grow"—appeared on the left, and we took the next exit, cut back over the motorway, and entered Manurewa.
As Auckland becomes ever more comfortable as the South Pacific city it truly is, its cultural axis shifts south, away from the tony suburbs nestled between the CBD and the Hauraki, the prosperous east, and leafy Remuera. But there still aren't that many reasons to make the trip down the motorway to Manurewa, unless you live or work there. There are the gardens, of course, and Rainbow's End is just up the road in Manukau, but there's not much else to tempt you from the motorway. "In a lot of ways," one long-time resident told me, "sometimes, living out south, it feels like we're the last to be considered for anything."
And perhaps that lack of attention has been internalised: Manurewa—'Rewa among its residents—has one of the lowest voting rates of any electorate in the country. In 2014, just 48 percent of the voting age population turned out to cast a ballot. The 2013 census recorded a median income that is almost $4000 below the national, and five percent of the 80,000-person electorate received the unemployment benefit, with another 5.5 percent on the domestic purposes benefit—the highest rates in the country.
Manurewa Labour MP Louisa Wall told me that families in her electorate simply don't have enough to get by. "It's just crisis crisis, stress stress, and people who need help." She blames nine years of a National government—a government, she says, that has taken 240 Manurewa state houses out of circulation. "Housing has become my number-one issue. It's people who are homeless, people who are in insecure housing, people who are living in cars."
National's candidate for Manurewa, naturally, disagrees with Wall's assessment. "From my perspective I can see families getting ahead… lower-income families have also been able to improve," says Katrina Bungard. She also told me that voters in her electorate, over time, had "become jaded and that's just the nature of politics in general, and New Zealand as a whole does have a very low voter turnout compared to other OECD countries". In reality, New Zealand's turnout is above the OECD average, at least among registered voters.
Wall, in contrast, sees the lack of engagement as a direct result of poverty. "The reality of survival means that day-to-day, people are worried about putting a roof over their heads and food on the table. In some ways, democratic participation is a bit of a luxury. It doesn't occupy their minds." I wanted to find out exactly what did.
Crime, Kulwinder Singh Samra told me through a thick accent and a thicker beard, was his biggest concern. "Robbery—we are frightened of these persons." He had lived in the suburb for a year, and was originally from Punjab, India, and had followed his son to New Zealand. Balkar Singh Sidhu, who had lived in the country for seven years, sat next to him on the bench, their turbans bright against the dirty green of Randwick Park, the looming grey sky of the early evening. "[There are] robberies, drugs. Being a Sikh, we don't go for these drugs. We are self-sufficient. We are happy here." He motioned towards the street. "Here is no problem. In the back," he directed his eyes over his shoulder, in the direction of the skate park, hidden behind a rise, "there is problem."
I couldn't see any problems when I visited, just a couple of abandoned shopping trolleys guarding the entrance and kids on scooters and bikes and skateboards who, encouraged by the presence of a photographer, competed to outdo each other's stunts and twisted their fingers into insignia. On the basketball courts beyond, Kitione Kaivaha, 19, barrel-chested and monosyllabic, told me life in Manurewa was "a struggle, eh, a real struggle". What made it difficult? "A lot of crime here. Mostly drugs. Mostly all the drug stuff and the gang[s]." But basketball helped. "Half of the boys who play here, their lives are way different. It's like helping other people open up to the community."
Our conversation was punctuated by the heavy bounce of basketballs on the concrete court and off the backboard and the shouts of children playing on the adjacent tennis courts. Many of his peers, Kaivaha said, thought voting was a waste of time, but he was planning to vote for whomever his parents decided on, and he didn't yet know who that would be.
Chelsea Tawhai, 27, watching over two of her five kids at a nearby skate bowl, said she thought many in the community thought their voices no longer mattered, that South Auckland makes "our own rules". She thought drugs, crime, and homelessness were the community's biggest challenges. I asked how those could be fixed, and she laughed. "I'm not sure. That's why I'm not a politician."
"When the American economy catches a cold," Leilani Salesa told me in her lounge, "black Americans get hypothermia. There are things in this community that I'd never imagine that we'd see in Auckland. Things like beggars at our local suburban shops, and they're permanently stationed there."
Salesa, a teacher, lives in the Waimahia Inlet subdivision in the house she owns with her partner—she said she felt uneasy commenting on the struggles of the community, when she lived comfortably in a warm, dry home. But the poverty was impossible to ignore. "I mean, a nine-year-old late at night washing your car windows—what do you do? Do you call the police? Offer to take him home? Give him a dollar? What do you do?"
I visited Raymond Sagapolutele, 45, interrupting his evening in front of the TV. The Jungle Book played silently as he spoke softly about how life in Manurewa had "definitely" got harder under National: the only thing that did trickle down, he said, was hardship. "I went to McDonalds one night and there were kids asking people for money as they were coming out of the drive-through. What made it different for me was I said I didn't have any money and the kid asked if he could have some food instead, so I gave him my chips. This isn't someone that's panhandling; this is someone that's hungry. That was not something we saw three or four years ago."
He ruefully attributed the suburb's low election turnout on the apathy of its residents. "We're one of those areas that needs as much help as we can get, but we don't seem to be helping ourselves." I asked him what bred that apathy, and he suggested I ask his wife, Maria Kalpatzoglou, 40, a non-voter. "I think a lot of people are disaffected," she said, blaming her own non-engagement on what she perceived as the oppositional, non-cooperative nature of Parliament.
Another resident who invited me inside her home, down a dark cul-de-sac, was Bronwyn Lucas, a 56-year-old who has lived in the suburb since 1990—she raised two sons in Manurewa as a solo mum. We drank instant coffee at her dining room table as she told me how her community was struggling, that people had lost hope. "People have given up and that's one of the reasons they don't vote. It's like, why bother? Why go and vote? What does my vote mean?"
The centre of Manurewa, around Southmall—"pubs, fast finance, and fast food", as Sagapolutele described it—was quiet, except for the occasional throb of bass from passing cars and young teenagers on bikes with bandanas pulled up over the lower halves of their faces. A stumble-drunk man made his way to the kebab shop before retreating from the unforgiving fluorescent light to lean against an electricity box and consume his chicken, bones dripping from his lips onto the pavement. This, Zane Archer, 27, told me, was "paradise": "free food, free ciggies all day".
Along with a smiling middle-aged woman who wouldn't give her name—she said she had scammed someone online and didn't want to be identified—and an older man named Terry, Archer had been working on his "hustle game". How had it been going, I asked. "Not bad, not bad," he said, and the woman shook the coins at the bottom of her McDonalds cup as proof.
I asked Archer, unemployed, whether he would vote. "Nah, too much effort looking into who does what. I'd be voting blindly, and there's no point in voting blindly." I told him that the suburb had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. "So people round here really don't care," he said, the emphasis on the second-to-last word adding a grim kind of pride to his response.
A group of young men loitered nearby, outside an internet café. Someone gunned the engine of a Holden, UB40 played from a bar, and those same teenagers, attracted by the activity, popped wheelies on the streets. Alen, 19, a builder, was smoking on the other side of the road. He said he was a committed Labour voter: "They help us out, the ones that actually work." Not that the election was a topic of conversation among his mates. "No one cares about it. Even us two," he motioned to his friend, "we don't give a fuck about it. It's just going to be the same shit." But you will vote, I wanted to confirm. "Most likely not, eh," he said, this time through laughter.
Across from McDonalds, on Great South Road, half a dozen people huddled under a mass of bedding below the eaves of the Methodist Opportunity Shop, which is affixed to the church where a homeless man was found dead in his sleeping bag last month. I approached and asked if anyone wanted to talk. "We're too wasted to talk," someone croaked. One man, with long hair and teeth edges darkened by decay, asked for my number so he could call another time. I scrawled it down and handed it over. He complained about McDonalds locking up for the night, locking away, also, their access to a toilet. I left them to it.
Louis Taylor, 44, wrapped in a blue blanket and a beanie, was pacing nearby. He and his wife would be spending the night in their car, something they had done for the past three months. He told me they had been moved out of their state home, when a bigger family needed it—it had just been him and his wife, after his son, who had cerebral palsy, had been placed into state care. He had previously been his son's full-time carer and hadn't worked in a long time, although he had just started receiving a benefit after surviving without one for "a long time". It was often easier, he said, for people to beg, wash windows, and hustle than it was to satisfy Work and Income's appetite for paperwork and time. I asked about his neighbours, and their drug use. "It's what keeps them warm," he said. "They've been doing that for a couple of years, these guys. I know these guys pretty well, and they've been doing it rough—in that very same spot—for two years now."
He was going to vote for the Māori Party, hoping they could do something for the housing situation. He had an idea: "Give us a state home! We'll be happy as, we'll look after it, but it's finding a way to get through. If you don't have the support, if you don't have people who know, then you're stuck in this little rut."
It was late and cold, and Taylor was heading to his car. I said goodnight and good luck. A small crowd had gathered outside the 24-hour dairy, but all else was largely quiet. We, too, walked to the car, though not to sleep. We drove back to the central city.
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