Colour, Class and Custom

Three: The Class Explanation

A class-based explanation for the coup lies at the heart of Robertson's and Tamanisau's major analysis, Fiji: Shattered Coups (1988). Their book is the most detailed yet published about the coup, and their preferred explanation deserves close attention. It is an explanation accessible to Western observers, as it concentrates on aspects of Fiji politics parallel to the central concerns of Western systems: the economy and the labour movement. While other observers address issues raised by Robertson and Tamanisau to a greater or lesser degree, they tend to do so from a different perspective. The focus on class seems to be most developed by Robertson and Tamanisau.

Robertson's and Tamanisau's thesis is that 'class forces' caused the coup, and that the main such force which ensured its success was the 'chiefly-bureaucratic class'. Robertson has since stated:

Bavadra and his Coalition government were thwarted by a small handful of malcontents, allied with the military and able to exploit indigenous discontent to their own selfish ends. ... Rabuka launched his first coup in order to preserve the integrity of Fiji's ruling class, threatened, he believed, by the election of a new Coalition government (Robertson 1990:116-17).

In Shattered Coups, however, it is left largely to the reader to disentangle the thrust of Robertson's and Tamanisau's argument from the mass of detail they present. Their analysis depends heavily on charting the rise of Labour, a multi-racial working- and middle-class party, in the years immediately preceding the coup. Various conspiracy theories surrounding the coup are then discussed, none of which the authors embrace wholeheartedly, and events in Fiji through to Rabuka's second intervention are described. The reader is left to infer, from the discussion of Labour and from the Marxian language used throughout the book, that upper class forces brought about Bavadra's downfall.

The vehicle of these upper class forces, say Robertson and Tamanisau, was the Alliance Party. In the mid 1980s, the Alliance seemed to have an unbreakable grip on power. It had been the governing party in Fiji since independence, had looked after the interests of Fiji's 'ruling class' of chiefs, wealthy Indians and Europeans, and had been rewarded with unwavering Fijian support. As long as this support was solid, and a few wealthy Indians and general electors voted along conservative lines, the 1970 constitution's electoral set-up guaranteed the Alliance power.

But the Alliance was more than a Fijian party: it was a class-based conservative party which had done little to address the concerns of Fiji's workers. There had been no need, as the workers had been mostly Indian, and Indian workers did not vote Alliance. By 1987, however, Fijians also had reason to complain, as Robertson and Tamanisau demonstrate by detailing the Alliance's neglect of the economy. In 1982, 18 per cent of the country's households—over half of these Fijian—were living beneath the poverty line. Unemployment had reached 13 per cent, a large proportion being young people. In 1986 one in every eight Suva residents lived in a squatter colony. With no welfare system, those Fijians outside the village support system felt the affects of these problems acutely (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988).

Poverty had led to increased crime, with a doubling of rape offences between 1985 and 1986, and a 37 per cent increase in burglaries and break-ins. The Alliance's response was to support the establishment of Neighbourhood Watch schemes. In 1985, 72 per cent of prisoners were Fijians (ibid.:30-31). Until the formation of the Labour Party, these issues had received little attention. The NFP, itself more business-oriented than working class, was seen as little help: 'There was no voice in the Parliament to raise the kind of issues which concerned the union movement' (ibid.:22).

To fill this vacuum, the Fiji Trade Union Council launched the Fiji Labour Party on 6 July 1985. At first, Labour's objective was a modest one: to win power by 1997. But a string of local council election successes revealed a strong reservoir of community support, and in the process pointed to dangers: by splitting the non-Alliance vote between FLP and NFP under the first-past-the-post system, Labour could guarantee a landslide Alliance victory in the 1987 elections (ibid.:36).

Initially Labour rejected the solution of a coalition with the NFP; in June 1986 Bavadra referred to a possible coalition as 'an alliance that could never work' (Islands Business June 1986, p.21). But after months of discussions within the FLP and between the two parties a coalition was accepted, not only as a means of unseating the Alliance, but also as protection against the devastating effects of an Alliance landslide win. Ideological differences between both sides, however, remained (Pacific Islands Monthly February 1987, p.19).[30]

In the months before the election, Labour confronted the public, both Fijians and Indians, with problems which had never been addressed and opinions which had never been properly aired:

Like a true opposition party, it focused on issues that were of immediate concern to the nation's people. If the Alliance reacted with hostility, it was largely because it was unused to facing an alert and assertive opposition (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:39).

Labour rejected the conventional 'blame the Indians' explanations for Fiji's poor economic performance: it laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Alliance. The FLP was not challenging Fijians, as it needed their votes to win. But 'it did challenge the Alliance's claim to be the sole representative of Fijians' (ibid.:6). In October 1986, Timoci Bavadra claimed that:

The bulk of the population has been disappointed. There is greater migration. ... Unemployment is high, crime is increasing, mismanagement of government money is seen in every department. There is a strong feeling of disillusionment and disenchantment with the present government (Pacific Islands Monthly November 1986, p.22).

On such sensitive issues as land rights, Labour stressed its commitment to protecting the interests of the common Fijian: 'Labour did not question land ownership, only its class control' (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:48). It exposed cases of Alliance government neglect of these same Fijian interests, outlining, for example, 'how Nasomo land at Tuvatuva was given to the Emperor Gold Mining Company without consideration of rentals or compensation for the Nasomo people' (ibid.).

Labour's policies attracted those Fijians who had left the village system and felt left out. Some were rural workers, but most were young, educated, and primarily urban, a section of Fijian society increasing in numbers (by 1986, 38.9 per cent of Fijians lived in urban areas—Lal 1988a:49). When allied with Indian Coalition supporters, they toppled the Alliance; the 'racial card' which had kept the Alliance in power for seventeen years had been lost. Fijian support for the FLP was enough to keep the Alliance defeated for some time. The FLP, then, conclude Robertson and Tamanisau (1988:14), 'represented the most complete challenge to the position of the chiefly bureaucratic class in the 20th century'. One could add that its particular threat was its potential as a continuing challenge to the chiefly class, as opposed to the sporadic challenges seen previously.

Robertson and Tamanisau expand their class picture of Fiji by adding to it the reactions of pro-Coalition forces after the coup. Under the sub-heading 'Confronting Class Forces', they discuss the most prominent protest against Rabuka's regime: the cane-cutting strike. The sugar industry is vital to Fiji's economy, and most of its 48,000 employees are Indians. Cutting and crushing for 1987 should have begun on 19 May, but 'by mid-June the cane was still in the fields and flowering' (ibid.:119).

But the cane-cutting strike was not a particularly strong example of the multiracial class forces which, Robertson and Tamanisau stress, the FLP helped unleash. It began as a response by a sizeable part of the Indian community to Rabuka's racial rhetoric. It seemed to many Indians that the coup was aimed at them alone. Cane farmers, therefore, resented pressure from the interim government: 'They are asking us virtually to give up our political rights and in the same breath they are asking our sugar farmers to save the country's economy' (ibid.).

Neither could the strike be seen as a wholly political action. Farmers 'differed widely in their reasons for refusing to harvest' (ibid.:120). Many were trying to bargain for economic security. A set of farmers' demands made on 10 June was economic in nature, and included payment of the full forecast price for cane plus the cancellation of some old debts. The Fiji Sugar Company finally called the farmers' bluff by closing its mills for one month. Pro-harvest factions among the strikers gained in numbers, and by mid-July cutting had begun.

Tagupa's (1988) study of the coup, although much shorter than Robertson's and Tamanisau's, has some parallel themes. He spends considerable time examining the 'politicization of class' in Fiji. Tagupa defines class as 'a social and economic category that results when a group feels and articulates that its common interests are different from, if not opposed to, those of others' (1988:131). Class is useful, he says (quoting William Reddy) as a tool for 'analyzing the social structure of societies in which "money and monetary exchange are the principal determinants of one's social position"'. He states that 'the 1987 elections were an unequivocal expression of increasing class development in Fiji'. The coup, in Tagupa's opinion, was the result of conflict and interaction between 'the traditional taukei elites and their nontraditional and neotraditional counterparts' (ibid.:133).

Among other observers, Lal also notes 'class conflict' as a factor in the coup, but does little in Power and Prejudice to follow this line of inquiry. Indeed, the elements which Robertson and Tamanisau treat in greatest depth—Fiji's economy in the 1980s, and the rise of Labour and the Coalition—are almost ignored in Lal's book.[31] Lal did discuss the same issues in a 1986 study of the FLP (Lal 1986), and probably did not think it necessary to repeat the information. By not doing so, though, he misses the opportunity to explain exactly how class conflict motivated the coup-makers.

The most prominent attack upon the class picture of Fiji has come from Scarr, who disputes Labour's 'working class' credentials. He characterizes the FLP as 'a middle-class urban-based, salaried-people's party, mildly left-wing (1988a:34), and dismisses it as 'a front party for the National Federation Party' (ibid.:35). His evidence for the latter (the defection of many NFP members to Labour) ignores Labour's origins and early history. With the former claim, however, Scarr has a point, as he does when questioning where the funding for the Coalition's many election promises would have come from. Neither point, however, invalidates Robertson's and Tamanisau's claim that Labour was seen as a threat by the ruling class.

At times it seems Robertson and Tamanisau are attempting to give weight to their class-based analysis merely by using appropriate language: for example, the ruling class, they say, was 'a coalition of disparate class fractions (the Fijian chiefly-bureacratic class, and Indian, European, and metropolitan bourgeoisies)' (1989:218). Their study of the forces opposed to Labour focuses on the 'chiefly-bureaucratic class'. This makes their dismissal of the 'tribal conspiracy theories' surrounding the coup seem somewhat incongruous. They see the coup-makers' allegiences as 'political, not tribal; their motivation the restoration of Fijian ruling class authority' (1988:98-99). But when the main feature of that ruling class is its 'chiefly' element, it is difficult to see how an analysis focusing on chiefly institutions is less adequate than a class-based analysis. A similar objection can be made to Tagupa's 'traditional elites versus nontraditional counterparts' language.

There may be, nonetheless, plausible reasons for using a class analysis. Such an analysis accounts for the members of Fiji's elite who do not fit the 'chiefly' label. Prominent Europeans and Indian businessmen have no chiefly status; neither do educated commoner Fijians. But members of these non-chiefly groups have played key roles in Fiji's politics before, during, and after the coup.

A closer examination of the nature of their roles, however, reveals that they are less influential than their supposed 'ruling class' status would suggest. In economic terms, there is no doubt that many Europeans and Indians are successful capitalists and hence 'upper class'; commoner Fijians rising to the upper echelons of the civil service may also warrant this label. But in political terms, they are largely subservient to the chiefs. Their political power extends only to the limits set by the chiefly elite.

A telling example is provided by the pre-coup political institution of the Alliance's Indian Association. The Alliance had established Indian and General Electors' Associations as evidence of its multiracialism. The bulk of its support was Fijian, though, and the lesser Associations never enjoyed equal status with the Fijian Association. Given that some Indian and general elector support was necessary for the Alliance to win a parliamentary majority, one would have expected the lesser Associations to command considerable leverage within the Alliance. But the leverage worked the other way, if anything, and the Indian Association, consisting of Gujerati businessmen and minority Muslims, could often do little more than voice its protest against government excesses.

The Indian Association's powerlessness was particularly obvious at times when the government was 'playing its racial card', and at no time more so than after the 1987 elections. At a meeting held on the Easter weekend, the Fijian Association, incensed at an 'Indian' victory, proposed to march to the governor-general and demand constitutional changes. Calls for Mara to 'show respect for Indians in the Alliance' by condemning the proposal met with silence. As events unfolded, 'members of the Indian Alliance watched with horror as the multiracialism of their party was rapidly stripped before their own eyes' (ibid.:64-66). The real extent of their influence was made painfully clear.

Perhaps a stronger point in favour of a class analysis is that it provides a suitable framework within which to discuss the deteriorating Fiji economy of the early 1980s and the resulting rise of the FLP. Without the latter there would almost certainly have been no defeat of the Alliance in 1987, and therefore, of course, no coup. But Robertson's and Tamanisau's focus on the FLP (which is their book's strength) raises a critical question about the class analysis: it admirably explains the background and motivations of the losers in the coup, but does it explain the motivations of the winners?

Robertson and Tamanisau's thesis is that the coup was the reaction of the ruling class to events which promised to deprive it of political and economic power. Cast in these terms, it appears equivalent to any upper class, anywhere in the world, repressing the lower classes to maintain its own wealth and privilege. But such a picture of Fijian society carries false implications. It implies that the 'chiefly-bureaucratic fraction' of the ruling class was maintaining its 'chiefly' status as merely a front to keep the commoners happy while it consolidated its fortune. It is much more likely that the chiefs, if they thought about it at all, considered their personal wealth to be a happy fringe benefit of chiefly status; moreover, it must be remembered that far from all chiefs are wealthy, and few personally wield great political power.

Bavadra and the FLP believed that Fiji's politics had come of age, and that the time was right to address questions of economic imbalance and workers' rights. Many Fijians and Indians agreed; the coup-makers did not. Those evicted from power by the coup, and those staging the coup, lived in different worlds. Bavadra's government reflected its educated and modern origins in its class-based analysis of Fiji's problems and in its welfare-state solutions. To the Coalition's Indian members, the chiefly system was meaningless, while to its Fijians, the system was a symbol but little more. To the coup-makers, however, the chiefly system was a major part of their world-view. Any chiefs among them—even (and perhaps especially) those from the highest levels—carried with them a lifetime of inculcation of the importance of the system of which they were a part. Members of the 'chiefly bureaucratic class' would have the chiefly system uppermost in their minds.

How, then, could they accept a Labour view of Fiji? Labour's class model implicitly rejected their chiefly model as anachronistic. To allow such views to gain popular (Fijian) acceptance would be to undermine their entire position. Even if, then, the coup-makers can be labelled in class terms, their motivations were more than those of 'protecting wealth and political power'; in part, they were rejecting the very model of class itself.

Part of the despair the coup provoked in many observers was caused by its implications of 'turning the clock back'. Many Fijians had been on the verge of embracing a modern (non-racial) 'working class versus propertied class' view of Fijian politics; the coup reversed this trend, and consolidated an archaic 'hereditary chiefs ruling commoners' view among Fijians.

The class analysis of the coup, at least as offered to date,[32] uses the wrong language to describe the motivations of the coup-makers. Indeed, it suggests strongly that a custom analysis is a more fruitful line of inquiry.

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