Friday, December 2, 2011

The past is a foreign country

In 1988 the Maori activist and trade unionist Syd Jackson, who died in 2007, travelled to Libya. This caused a fuss at the time. He was accused of being a terrorist and there were calls for him to be tried for treason.

Here are some extracts from his 6200-word account of what he saw, “My Libya”, published in the December 1988 issue of Metro. Syd was a columnist there at the time and I was his editor: he wasn’t totally reliable about deadlines but otherwise he was always a pleasure to deal with. I don’t think he’d mind me republishing this as an historical curio.
It was 10am when our taxi pulled up outside the international terminal at Sydney Airport. [. . .] Australian journalists are far more aggressive than their New Zealand counterparts. They are extremely bel­ligerent in their interrogation – or at least they were of these two suspected Maori terrorists. [. . .] We told them that we were going to Libya to give support to the indigenous people of Australia in this important year of their struggle. As it was the 200th year since Australia had been invaded by criminals, and since the Aboriginals had chosen to use the white celebrations to focus international attention upon their plight, we would support their struggle in any way we could. [. . .]
We said we would be seeking recogni­tion from Libya that Maoris were an independent nation and that we would also be discussing both trade and loan questions with the appropriate people in Libya. [. . .]
The most striking feature of Libya is its egalitarianism. I saw none of the extremes of wealth which are characteristic of many other societies that have freed themselves from the yoke of im­perialism. Similarly, there were none of the vulgar displays of ostentation which is now such a feature of our yuppie society. There were no slums, no shanty towns, no beggars, no miserable poverty. I saw no evidence of a privileged class being waltzed around the country in chauffeur-driven Mercedes or LTDs. [. . .]
Housing is generally free, with the majority of the population living in the Libyan equivalent of our state houses. If a family wishes to build a house, interest-free loans are readily available from the state, usually on a 25-year term. Housing costs take up about 25 per cent of most incomes. Since most Libyans live in extended family groups, there is normally more than one income coming into the house and more than enough money to spend. [. . .]
Other working conditions are far superior to this country. There is unlimited paid sick leave, subject to “legal excuse”, that is, the production of medical certificates. Accident victims receive full pay on the same basis. Free transport to work is the norm, free meals are provided, genuine equal pay exists and other benefits are in place that workers in Libya enjoy and which their counterparts in this country can only dream about. [. . .]
Workers retire at 60 and receive their full salary until they die. If a man dies, widows are entitled to the equivalent of their full salary until their children are able to support them.
Education is genuinely free, with stu­dents being educated in both English and Arabic. French was also compulsory until recently. The universities, which are based on the British model, have three times the number of students that we have with the same population. Tuition, books, accommodation and meals are free and students receive a generous living allowance in addition. We were told that the majority of academic staff and students are women. [. . .]
The 1969 revolution in Libya set in place programmes to ensure that every­one would share the benefits of the country’s wealth. There has been a major redistribution of wealth and a large in­vestment in agricultural and industrial development. Important restrictions were placed on capitalism, and Jamahiriya (Land of the Masses) was estab­lished. While they call it a socialist country, Libyans to whom we spoke were particularly proud of the fact that they have not simply aped the commu­nist model or copied the Western model of so-called representative democracy. It is, they say, their answer to their prob­lems derived from their history, their culture, their religion and their values. [. . .]
In Tripoli, most of the private businesses operating involve weaving, carpet production, jewellery manufac­ture, handcrafts and textiles. Much of the work was exquisite. Prices were reason­able and we were pleased to be able to buy in the people’s markets mostly direct from the people who had made the pro­ducts. It was good to know that their return was higher than it would have been under our system of mark-ups im­posed by a succession of middle men.
The people’s supermarkets are big, state-owned department stores which operate on the same basis. The producer gets the fullest return and the consumer gets the lowest possible price. Some dis­ruptions to supply are obvious in foreign goods, again the result of the US-organ­ised trade embargo. But they are well stocked in the basic requirements of everyday life and there was certainly no scarcity of food. [. . .]
Libya suffers from huge under-employ­ment. Industry suffers from this labour shortage, but the lack of skilled labour is even more critical. It is estimated that half the workforce in the steel works will be migrant labour. All the major construc­tion projects are built by foreign firms using predominantly foreign workers.
The drastic shortage of workers is im­mediately obvious to the visitor Public tidiness, particularly on the roadside, is nonexistent. “Dead” cars are just pushed off the road by their owners and left. Rubbish bags are thrown from cars all over the countryside and left to decay. Many buildings seem to be in need of refurbishing, but without the workers such tasks cannot be done. To help over­come this problem, Arab and African workers are allowed full access into the country and have all the rights of Libyan citizenship.
The lack of skilled workers is, of course, a problem Libya shares with other countries which have been liberated from their colonial oppressors for only a short time. The neglect of education and other services under colonialism is a common feature of Third World nations. In 1968, there were only 178 Libyan teachers in training. To overcome that problem the Libyan government has spent huge amounts building schools and campuses and providing generous al­lowances to students. [. . .]
Libya suffers a brain drain like most other countries because of the emphasis it is having to place on scientific training. Politically, problems will undoubtedly result too as the new, younger techno­crats are confronted with practical problems, the resolution of which they may seek non-ideological solutions to. [. . .]
The Libyan people I spoke to consi­dered they had as much if not more freedom than other countries they had visited. They might miss some of the accoutrements of the West because of the cultural traditions of their country, but they considered these to be unimportant compared to the role they could play in rebuilding their society after thousands of years of colonial rule.
But they commented that they had a greater freedom to go anywhere they liked in their own country than we have in the West where doors open or close on the basis of wealth, privilege or posi­tion. No such impediments exist in Libya.
Moreover, they could point to a singu­lar absence of violent crime, which made them feel much safer in Libya than in the West. The streets are safe.
Perhaps the equation of full employ­ment, an absence of poverty, good health care and education combined with their religious and cultural beliefs provides a model for us to examine when we are looking at ways to deal with crime. At a time when we have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the world and are busily building more prisons on Maori land, we should note that in Libya they have started tearing them down. If we could overcome our paranoia about Libya, we might find in that society the answers to some of our social ills. [. . .]
We also talked to as many people as possible about the position Gadaffi holds in Libyan society and, in particular, discussed with them the statements made by opponents to our trip, that Libya was a military dictatorship.
In those discussions, and in other forums, the first thing which struck us was the affection, almost adoration, people we met had for Gadaffi. They sang liberation songs about him. They quoted from his writings and his speeches and accord him a special place in their hearts. I don’t suggest that this feeling is universal, but it was wide­spread. He is accorded that special status because, firstly, he liberated the country from the Americans and the British, and because, secondly, he has helped build a fair and just society.
Libyans point to the fact that Gadaffi holds no executive position. He does not lead the country on a day-to-day basis. He is a member of the Revolutionary Com­mittee which has an important propa­ganda role, but can only make recom­mendations to the People’s Congress. [. . .]
We visited Colonel Gadaffi’s former residence [. . .] It was an unpretentious four-bedroom house crowded among other Arab-style city dwellings. Its furnishings were comfortable, but far from extravagant. He is seen as being of and for the people, and his life style is consistent with that view. [. . .]
In our discussions, the Libyan people stated from the beginning a willingness to negotiate with the Maori people as equals. Since 1840 we have never been able to negotiate with the white oppressors in our own country from a position of equality, and this was a remarkable and refreshing starting point.
It was, therefore, easy for us to reach agreement on the matters we wished to raise. A Maori delegation will visit Libya in 12 months’ time. There will be further discussions on the issues which we rais­ed. Recognition of Aotearoa as an inde­pendent Maori nation is a possibility. Trade between Libya and Maori organisa­tions, loans, boycott of trade with white New Zealand and the development of reciprocal cultural links will be explored.
We do not pretend that finality in these negotiations will be reached quickly We are aware that New Zealand’s colonial government is trying covertly to increase trade with Libya and to subvert Maori initiatives in Libya, while at the same time denigrating that country as a terrorist regime. That kind of hypocrisy is typical of this government’s foreign policy. [. . .]
At hui which we have attended since our return, we have told our people of our trip. We shall continue to do so, and with their support we shall be arranging for other Maoris to visit the land of the Jamahiriya

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