In The Eighteenth Brumaire, Karl Marx astutely observes that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. He went on to name pairs of influential individuals, throughout European history, whose indelible imprints on the continent basically conform to the tragedy-farce axis.
This well-known expression by Marx came immediately to mind as I read, with some fascination, the appointment of Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure of the Valenisau clan to the titular headship of the vanua o Sovatabua (Natewa) via an elaborate ceremonial process designed specifically to validate the occasion. This episode was covered by The Fiji Times on August 20, 2015. It brings to mind the follies of past choices whose import is still being felt today within indigenous governance settings.
I will specifically raise, in this instance, the antecedents that led to Ratu Rakuita's purported elevation in reference to the actions of his father, Ratu Tevita, before him. This account has wider ramifications for traditional leadership roles and challenges in Fiji today.
Let me preface what I have said above by highlighting my interest in all this. I am a member of the Valelevu clan in the village of Natewa. In 2014, we installed Ratu Ifereimi Buaserau as the Vunivalu of Sovatabua (Natewa).
This was done with the expressed agreement of all the masi ni vanua (heads of clans in the vanua of Sovatabua). That installation was, later on, endorsed by the iTaukei Land and Fisheries Commission (TLC), the statutory authority on chiefly titles, and their legitimate holders, in Fiji.
All this, however, did not deter Ratu Rakuita and his group from staging a ceremony in a flagrant disregard to accepted Natewan etiquette. I am convinced the root of this brazen act is connected to the actions of his late father.
Father and son —
from tragedy to farce
The dispute surrounding the vunivalu title today, in my view, stems from the botched attempt by Ratu Tevita Vakalalabure in 1972 to install himself as the vunivalu. He used his own mataqali of Valenisau and a motley crew of supporters to carry out the deed. In so doing he undermined the protocols governing the installation of a Vunivalu in Natewa and invented a template that was adopted by his son, Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure, more than 40 years later — a sinister ruse calculated to override the consensus of the vanua whenever the need arises.
In light of this blatant disregard for custom, the Valelevu clan brought proceedings against them to the TLC and subsequently installed Ratu Lotaropate Rakuita Saurara as the vunivalu. The closing rites, or vuluvulu, to this ceremony was covered by the Volagauna, the Fijian vernacular newspaper, in 1974.
Undeterred, Ratu Tevita and his followers kept on the pretense in the face of overwhelming consensus against them in the vanua. However the bulk of this charade was carried out in Suva using media outlets as a way to impress the gullible.
This period, thus, was marked by the emergence of factional power players in search for their own fortunes within the Natewan communities, throughout Fiji, via the use of manipulative strategies designed to curry favour with one side of the divide or the other.
When Ratu Lotaropate died in 1985, Ratu Tevita immediately renewed his claims in the vanua based on that botched initial process that, in my view, was nullified by the elevation of Ratu Lotaropate to the title.
What was different this time around was that Ratu Tevita was well ensconced within the ruling urban and political elite based in Suva. As such he was ideally placed to manipulate the linkages, first observed by Max Weber, that exist between money (wealth), status and political power to his advantage.
The vanua did not, nor did he let it, go through the required process to validate his claim. Tragically, for reasons best known to ourselves, we accorded him a burial ceremony befitting a bona fide vunivalu when he passed away in 2005.
On August 21, 2015, Ratu Rakuita, who incidentally carries a name from my mataqali, took the path blazed by his father nearly a half-century ago in an attempt to make himself the vunivalu. This trail, admittedly, was only followed after getting strong resistance from the different clans in the vanua in relation to his aspirations.
Again using his mataqali as a base, he created a farcical ceremonial spectacle designed to cover up the conspicuous absence of traditional stakeholders without whom the installation becomes null and void.
For instance, in Natewan tradition, the turaga na mai dreketi is the one who symbolically gives the ceremonial bowl to the vunivalu-designate. Failing to get the current mai dreketi's co-operation they went ahead inventing a new tradition that would hopefully, in their eyes, cloak the naked power-grab in more suitable attire.
In light of Rt Tevita and Rt Rakuita's political past and buttressed by similar incidences around the country, I would venture the premise that the hijacking of vanua chiefly positions by aspirants using political connections that were forged during their time in national politics or public life is well and rife in Fijian indigenous society.
Ratu Rakuita, who seemingly believes in a process that, in practice, excludes the participation of the masi or different chieftains in the vanua (a fact noted by reporter Serafina Silaitoga) was quoted by The Fiji Times (20/8, p. 3) as saying, "that only death could part him from the title that he was bestowed". As far as we in Valelevu are concerned, he is welcome to take with him to his deathbed whatever title that was bestowed on him in that ceremony.
Given the event was in direct opposition to accepted Natewan conventions and the fact the iTaukei Lands and Fisheries Commission has already endorsed Ratu Ifereimi Buaserau, following the traditional confirmations by Natewan chieftains, as the Vunivalu of Natewa, it is hard to imagine the significance of the debacle that is cloaking itself in traditional garb as reported by the various centres of infotainment.
Be that as it may, the consequences of this usurpation will, however, be telling on the ordinary people of Natewa as they grapple with the vagaries of modern life. Already the tale of the current dispute in Sovatabua reads like the internal machinations of the Roman triumvirate to outdo each other while the barbarians lurk outside their borders ready to deal a fatal blow to the realm. Indeed we take up so much time trying to sort ourselves out in relation to chiefly leadership in Natewa, and within Natewan communities in urban settings, that the plight of the ordinary man, woman and child from Sovatabua has taken a back seat.
The story of my vanua is an extremely important one for traditional systems of governance in Fiji today as it closely resonates with the narratives emerging throughout the different regions of the country.
As the media outlets, including social media, abound with stories and photographs of the latest installation in Natewa, its second in two years as it is glibly put, it is perhaps worth our while to point out some issues that need to be taken to heart by each and every iTaukei if we are to protect our personal dignities as well as the integrity of the vanua from which we hail from. At the hub of these issues is the observation that much of what is happening in Natewa today is similar to the experiences of other vanua as social differentiation gives rise to competing value spheres in contemporary Fiji.
Perhaps the time has come for the TLC to take some pre-emptive steps and conduct a thorough investigation using new and accepted methods of social research to ascertain the validity of truth-claims in relation to sworn accounts contained in the Tukutuku Raraba. It has to be done for the whole of Fiji. This strategic move takes on additional importance when it becomes clear that our understanding of our respective Tukutuku Raraba is at odds with one another.
As for Natewa, I will end by recounting the story of Martin Frobisher, an Englishman who excavated on the scoured Canadian foothills in the 16th century and unearthed a mineral, iron pyrite, which he, inadvertently, managed to pass off as gold in England. The glitter remained as long as the rest of the English population was convinced that it was the genuine article. It, subsequently, lost its value when the truth about its constituent elements finally emerged out of research laboratories.
I would imagine that, ultimately, the tale of the father and his son, and their ways in Natewa, will go down this well-trodden path.
* Dr Tui Rakuita is a lecturer in sociology at the University of the South Pacific. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.