13 Mar 2024

Q&A: Fiji's new Great Council of Chiefs chairman on the needs of iTaukei people in a changing world

3:33 pm on 13 March 2024
Ratu Viliame Seruvakula is the GCC chair. 29 February 2023

Ratu Viliame Seruvakula is the GCC chair. 29 February 2023 Photo: Facebook / Ministry of iTaukei Affairs

The newly appointed chairman of Fiji's Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) says the traditional leadership institution will not be used as a rubber-stamp for any political motives or agendas.

Ratu Viliame Seruvakula, a former high-ranking Republic of Fiji Military Forces officer, was elected to the position two weeks ago at the GCC's first meeting for 2024 held in Pacific Harbour, about 40km out from the capital Suva.

Speaking with RNZ Pacific from Suva, Ratu Viliame said it is critical that the chiefs remain apolitical and carry out the work they should be doing - to help unite Fiji as a multiracial and multicultural society.

The new GCC should be a "beacon of hope" for all people who made or will make Fiji their home, he said.

He said the division within the Fijian society at the moment have been caused by politicians and the chiefs can play the important role of getting people to work together.

He has called on the iTaukei people to "work tirelessly and collectively to preserve our core values of respect (veidokai), loyalty to one another (veivakaliuci) and honour (veivakarokorokotaki)".

"We need to hold on to those values and use those as our guide to bring up our future generations and live our lives today."

He stressed that the GCC will work on helping the iTaukei people to use their natural resources and land to gain economic benefits that would push them to the table, where they can work together with other races in the country in building a prosperous nation.

Ratu Viliame spoke to RNZ Pacific's Iliesa Tora.

The GCC had its first meeting since its establishment at Pacific Harbour. 28 February 2024

The GCC had its first meeting since its establishment at Pacific Harbour. 28 February 2024 Photo: Facebook / Fiji Government

Iliesa Tora (IT): Well, first of all congratulations on your new appointment. How did you feel when you were approached to be nominated for the chairmanship of the GCC?

Ratu Viliame (RV): I'd say I had mixed emotions. This was not something that I had anticipated. I was well into readying myself for life in retirement, starting to enjoy that, to spending more time with my family, especially my wife and grandson. I was also preparing to better serve the Vanua o Nasautoka, in particular, to help bring about change and improvement in terms of social economic growth, general prosperity building. I had actually embarked on putting together a sustainable strategic development plan for my Vanua o Nasautoka when I learned that I had been nominated by the Turaga na Vunivalu na Tui Kaba (Ratu Epenisa Cakobau) over the phone by the Minister of iTaukei Affairs. I embraced the calling coming from my high chief. I knew that I could continue to help the vanua but in addition also perhaps, help with a larger challenge of helping the wider community, including the diaspora.

IT: Were you confident, once you knew that you had been nominated, that you would be given the nod to lead the chief body?

RV: I've never had the privilege to serve the GCC, which my father had been a member of up until it was abolished 16 years ago. But I knew that as one of the nominees, quietly hoping that it will be someone else, that it was possible that I will be called. So I tried to get myself focused really and prepare, just in case, I do get the nod, because I was told that as soon as I I get the vote I go straight to the chair and the meeting starts, which is a bit of baptism of fire for someone who's never served on the GCC.

Many people have previously faced situations or appointments that way. It's up to the individual of course, to do the utmost so I decided to prepare myself, when the counting started. Now that I've been appointed, I would like to show those who entrusted me with this responsibility that all doubts are gone now and I would like to tell the people of Fiji they can be rest assured now that I'll do my best to serve.

My first thoughts [once elected] went to my parents, and especially my late father. It was an emotional moment for me, as I reflected on the many lessons that I learned from them; about the importance of respect, reverence, trust, and honor, that these kind of qualities are vitally important to underpin relationships amongst people, especially amongst the different leaders, as a forum such as the GCC.

Under my dad's tutelage and through my own experiential learning, through interacting with the vanua as well as other communities and my time in the United Nations, I can see that if we are to have a traditional culture that survives, chiefly leadership that remains relevant, that in the heart of it, we must all have substance, which I think is a primary focus that we must embrace. We must instill and live by a core value system that will be the very fabric of our traditional society and at the same time allow us to live side by side with other communities and all grow and prosper together.

IT: The first meeting of the GCC has been done and there were some critical issues that were discussed. How did the discussions go with the chiefs and the council?

RV: I was quite impressed with the new council of chiefs. [With] the old GCC there was a lot of respect and not much talking. But there was the exchange of dialogue in this new GCC and it was very encouraging, it was very open, underpinned by the respect for members. But most discussions centered around members' concerns for the development of the iTaueki in the backdrop with the fast-changing world that we live in. Changes that have come about as a result of internal as well as external factors beyond our control. And, perhaps, we could have been better prepared for them in some cases.

The first day, we covered the United Nations Rights of the Indigenous People (UNRIP), which covered a wide range of topics. The chiefs were very aware of the fact that as we navigate through the implementation of the document in the declaration, the interrelationship between the rights of non-indigenous and the indigenous community. The GCC is the voice offering the iTaukei voice to the government of the day. Fiji is a multiracial, multi ethnic society, which makes us unique, in many ways.

All these issues that were discussed require further indepth discussions. It was only the first meeting. This needs to be considered within a strategic context and so over the coming weeks. I'll be talking with the permanent secretary for iTaukei Affairs to develop a strategic plan for the GCC, one that can guide what we do as a forum, and taking into account what is needed for the iTaukei within the context of a changing world. I would like to focus on intended outcome for the plan to evolve based on a sound understanding of what the evidence is telling us and as well as what various communities are saying

IT: How do you see the GCC moving forward and what would be your aspirations for the council and the chiefs of Fiji?

RV: One of my priorities is to develop a strategic plan to guide the work of the GCC instead of going in adhoc when issues come in. We need to start looking forward and map the way ahead stay ahead of the problems that we face. Some of the issues that need to be addressed is to support our traditional chiefs and that's one of my priorities I see right now, so that they can better realiSe the potential and utiliSe the resources available to the vanua to uplift standards of living and alleviate poverty.

At the same time, we need to focus on our younger generations. We can pick up in the media the problem we have back home on drugs and I think it's a world issue. But for the Council to remain relevant, it must be relatable for all these challenges. The question we need to answer is how to do this. How do we strike the right balance between the sanctity of our culture and heritage and the challenge of functioning as equal partners in a multiracial and multi-dimensional society that is so exposed to a range of external pressures and shocks?

First and foremost, to be very aware of the needs of the people, challenges brought about in this modern day and age, we need to have open, honest dialogue on issues that affect the daily lives of the people. Gone are the days where we go, yeah, we do a consensus. Now we need to really sit down and knuckle down issues and resolve it as leaders. What I'd like to see is the chiefs take interest in the needs of their people and be proactive, not just sit back and wait for issues to become problems, but rather move forward towards the challenges and tackle them before they become overwhelming problems. And in the process that will instill confidence in the people.

If we look at the news, just say for the last couple of weeks, these issues on drugs, do not just drop out of the sky. They have come to the surface because there's a whole raft of things that we have haven't been doing, sitting down in the mataqali and the village and the leaders taking the lead in the vanua.

IT: The late Ratu Semi Seruvakula, your late dad, was a chief in his own right and a teacher who taught alot of us now serving Fiji in different roles across the globe. How much an influence was he in your career paths and how will his legacy affect your leadership of the GCC?

RV: Well, without a doubt, my late father was a major influence in all of his children's siblings and our children's lives, their children's lives and we were groomed as children knowing our responsibilities within the families in the vanua and the mataqali and who we are in the village. He made sure that we know how to carry ourselves, how to respect and treat everyone equally. Mom, on the other hand, was the foundation of our faith in God. She raised us based on Christian principles.

But for me being the eldest son, he made sure I know how to serve our elders by sitting behind the tanoa and watching, learning. He will not just let me sit there, he will make sure I pay attention and understand what's going on whether it be just an informal session with my uncle or during a formal meeting. He was a big influence in my life. Two months before his passing he called me in East Timor where I was with the United Nations to tell me out of the blue to get ready as he knew he had limited time and told me that l will have to get ready.

IT: What is your message to the people of Fiji in your role as the chairman of the new GCC, especially the non-iTaukei and others who held negative thoughts about the chiefs and the GCC?

RV: Yeah, that's to be expected Because 16 years there's been no GCC so without a doubt, there'll be the questions on the validity of the GCC. But I would like to kindly ask the people of Fiji to look at the GCC as a beacon of hope for all people who have come to call Fiji their home. It is government's responsibility to look after the welfare of all Fijians, that's what people voted government for. But it is the GCC's responsibility to be the voice of the iTaukei to the government. I guess the GCC will be failing the iTaukei if they do not do that.

The Council focus will be encouraging the iTaukei to fully utilise the natural resources to alleviate poverty and prepare themselves to meet and navigate the challenges of life. Many iTaukei live in the rural areas today where they have lived in for generations below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. We as a people are shaped by the environment we live in. The villages are the iTaukei's comfort zone, it is their sanctuary, it is their fortress, it will take something special to build their confidence to collectively move away from it.

It will take good strong leadership to instill confidence in them to make the move, if you like from the millpond to the mainstream of economic empowerment, and go to the next level that is always within our grasp. It's so difficult to achieve because of a range of factors, some of which are rooted in the culture and traditional way of life. It's for the GCC to work towards building the chiefs capacity to guide the people away from the comfort zone and challenge themselves to grow to explore opportunities that will benefit the people.

One of the key things is to help achieve overcome that fear of the unknown, which I believe is what's holding them back realise their true potential. This is what the new GCC will focus on with the secretariat.The message to everyone is be rest assured that this is not for the iTaukei alone. The focus is to help the iTaukei come to the table to contribute equally with the rest of Fiji who are already contributing immensely towards nation building. The manufacturers, the farmers, the laborers, and to compete on a level playing field using our resources, natural resource. Competitiveness is a biological process to evolve withn in human survival and it in turn develops pride in one's achievement.

I believe that the strength of a nation generally determined by how its people are. If the GCC succeeds in developing the iTaukei towards economic empowerment so they can prove their worth of being part of something bigger than themselves to healthy competition, then I'm sure without a doubt together we can build a prosperous Fiji to be proud of long after we're gone.

IT: How important is the role that the chiefs and the GCC will play for Fiji moving forward?

VS: I think it's very important, especially now. The political landscape has been such that it has created the society today which if you realise has seen a cleavage between the indigenous, the iTaukei and the non-iTaukei. This was never there but these things are brought about by politics.

That is why from the outset we said we will now have a GCC that is apolitical because they will not be involved in politics. No longer will the GCC be used as a rubber stamp for political means. If we remain apolitical, and be the best that they can, that means there's a middle ground and we stay in the middle and guide and look at both sides of the society and be the uniting factor.

I believe the GCC will play a vital role in the future as we move forward. We've just come out of a very difficult period of our history. What the people are up to now is the united effect. It's certainly the societies have never been so polarised in our history. The GCC can play a very important role in unifying everyone and help move us forward.

The iTaukei is important because we hold the majority, if not, almost all of the land. There's a small part of the community who's got a very small part of the land and yet they are growing the economy, they have been moving the economy forward in this country. So, we would like the GCC to focus on supporting and opening up the iTaukei to use their land and share what resources you have so that together you know we can contribute. If we totally contribute towards the economy in this country by opening up the resources, we can only imagine what the country would be in the future now economically, will be growing in leaps and bounds in terms of the economy for development.

IT: How can we as iTaukei help the GCC and the chiefs in achieving a united and prosperous Fiji?

RV: I think we just need to remind ourselves that Fijians have always lived in a structured society, where roles and responsibilities were predictable, and understood to work for the collective well-being. This was long before the arrival of the white settlers, we already have structures. Our culture and traditions continues to define us as iTaukei today. It is who and what we are now. However, how long and how will it continue to survive into the future will depend on the iTaukei's sense of pride. Pride is the key and strong will to preserve our identity as a people and the ability to live side by side in harmony with other people. We need other members of our different groups to gauge ourselves and advance competitively.

So we as a people, as iTaukei, must ensure that we use our natural resources responsibly. Land and its resources are owned by the mataqali and not a selective view. You see a lot of issues in Fiji today because we have the resources but even the mataqalis are at odds on who should be in charge. And understand that the mataqali land belongs to all of us, and not just a one person who's the chief or whoever is in the traditional leadership role.

Our connection to our land and resources is sacred. It defines our spirituality and our identity as iTaukei. Collectively we have a moral obligation to protect and preserve the land to sustaion who we are as a people. We need to work tirelessly and collectively to preserve our core values of respect - veidokai, loyalty to one another - veivakaliuci and honour - veivakarokorokotaki. We need to hold on to those values and use those as our guide to bring up our future generations and live our lives today. That's the best we can do.

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