Wellington, New Zealand – Nanaia Mahuta was only eleven years old when she first championed her political beliefs.
Mahuta was one of 30 students from Māori and the Pacific Island at an Anglican school for girls. The South African rugby team toured New Zealand, dividing the country in the process.
While the schoolgirl had no idea what was soon to become one of the largest civil unrest in New Zealand history, she couldn’t stand the fact that her school had offered to take in a group of South African students – a decision she felt was an affirmation of apartheid .
Instead of just “dealing with it”, she skipped school in protest.
“As a Māori woman, there is an embedded sense of social justice and the pursuit of equal opportunities and indigenous progress,” she told Al Jazeera.
“If you grew up in a Māori community, you have experienced some form of abuse and at an extreme level – racism.”
The daughter of Sir Robert Te Kotahitanga – the adopted son of the Māori king Koroki – Mahuta grew up and supported her father in important contract negotiations.
She has spent almost half of her life in parliament after winning a seat for the first time at the age of 26.
In 2016, Mahuta became the first woman to display a moko kauae (sacred face tattoo) in parliament, and another first came last year – New Zealand’s first female foreign minister.
The 50-year-old’s appointment came as a surprise, according to political commentator Ben Thomas.
“Foreign ministers are usually viewed as a ‘golden watch’ for long service, or they are done as favors to friends and allies,” he said. “Mahuta doesn’t fit into that category and that doesn’t make sense [the prime minister] you owe everything. “
Mahuta is proud to be Māori and says that as a Māori woman she has an “embedded sense of social justice and strives for equal opportunity and indigenous progress”. [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]Mahuta is considered a humble character and, despite her longevity, has never been in the limelight in politics. Unlike her predecessors or politicians in general, ego and ambition didn’t define her career, says Thomas.
The position of foreign minister, which she holds in addition to the responsibility for local government and Māori affairs, also surprised Mahuta.
Although she previously held the associated trade and export portfolios in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government, Mahuta was more focused on domestic issues in her role as Cabinet Minister for Local Government and Māori Development.
Thomas says former foreign ministers have “traditionally spoken a big game” on human rights, but they have been notoriously reluctant to trade partners, especially since the country’s largest free trade deal with China in 2006.
‘The only true’
Mahuta made waves internationally by jointly with Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the United States condemning the disqualification of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong and questioning Beijing’s conduct in an area that was guaranteed considerable freedoms and autonomy when he returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
It also condemned the detention of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Russia and cut high-level bilateral contacts with Myanmar in response to the February 1 military coup. New Zealand did not recognize the legitimacy of the military-led government.
But last month, Mahuta’s comments on the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance raised eyebrows after she said it would not allow the US-led alliance to dictate New Zealand’s bilateral relationship with China.
While acknowledging that China and New Zealand may have disagreements, she said in an April speech to the New Zealand China Council that the country must “respect” one of its key trading partners.
“There will be some areas where it will be useful to coordinate through the Five Eyes platform. But there will also be other areas – human rights, for example – where we want to try to build a broader coalition of countries to comment on issues of common concern, ”she told Al Jazeera.
“[A]t times we work with a larger group; another time we team up with one or two other like-minded partners; and sometimes we make our own statements. “
Labor Party politician Paul Eagle went to university with Mahuta, where she did a Masters in Social Anthropology and Māori Business Development. They are related and both are from the same tribe, Tainui.
Mahuta, seen here in Australia, has a background primarily in domestic affairs, having previously served as Minister for Māori Development and Local Government [File: Bianca De Marchi/Pool Photo via AP Photo]Eagle notes that Mahuta has always taken on the people-centric portfolios and that her ability to endure conflict and cultivate relationships is key to her success.
“What you see is what you get,” he said. “People often underestimate her, but she is incredibly smart and strategic. She’s the real deal.
“While other politicians have come and gone, Nanaia has weathered many storms and managed to get people on board.”
Experts say Mahuta’s Māori background could also add to her role as foreign minister.
She is used to arguing for the weaker party – be it in the Waitangi Treaty or as a representative of the Māori caucus – a minority in the ruling Labor Party, and has sharpened her negotiating powers.
“Everything that has been achieved must have been done through diplomacy, and it does not have delusions of grandeur like its predecessors committed to bringing peace to the Middle East and dominance in the Pacific,” said Thomas.
“One of the defining characteristics of New Zealand is its own relationship with indigenous people. When all things are equal and outside of tokenism, I think there is an advantage for a Māori woman to represent the country on the world stage. “
Mahuta says she didn’t expect to receive such a significant portfolio anytime soon, but was “pleased” to have the job.
“If I can offer anything, it would be to have a bicultural basis and context to influence foreign policy,” she said. “I hope to improve these relationships for greater cohesion and prosperity for future generations.
“As a young and mature nation, we have the opportunity to show how our path to a more inclusive society has been shaped by the treaty [of Waitangi] Discourse and experience. Much of our history has grown out of conflict, and all wins have been competitive and incremental. I think we can offer this trip and learn from it – not as a solution, but as an evolving process. “
She cites the revival of the Māori language as an example.
Where New Zealand once tried to completely eradicate the language and assimilation was seen as a best practice, the Māori language is now embedded in schools and public settings and part of the fabric of New Zealand identity, she says.
Māori did not get the right to vote until 1879.
In the current parliament, 15 of the 120 representatives – colloquially known as the “First 15” – are Māori, and the House is more diverse than ever, she says.
In her role as minister of the local government, Mahuta also seeks to expand the representation of the Māori in local councils. With its “Māori community” policy, the government will support communities that want to set up a specific Māori representation and abolish a law that allows such decisions to be vetoed in a referendum.
Mahuta was the first woman to display a moko kauae (sacred face tattoo) in parliament [Sasha Borissenko/Al Jazeera]”Māori representation, where their voices and perspectives could be taken into account, has now had an impact on local government and the private sector,” Mahuta said. “Representing the Māori has led to comprehensive strategies for inclusion.”
Ruahina Albert is the managing director of the Waikato Women’s Refuge.
She first met Mahuta 30 years ago when the Refuge was just a two bedroom unit in Hamilton, a town on New Zealand’s North Island.
“When she came to us in the 90s we weren’t sure who she was, but we were impressed with how compassionate, helpful, and bubbly she was,” Albert said.
25 ministers over 36 have visited the premises, but Mahuta was one of the most effective, she says.
Mahuta was a board member for three years before becoming minister and Albert hopes she will return once she leaves parliament.
“We work on the front lines for sexual violence and domestic violence. We’re a tough bunch and not much can get past us. We don’t trust the government, but we trust it.
“I believe your heart is with your people and your community. She knows exactly what she wants and what she doesn’t. You always have these conflicts when you work in a system, but I don’t see it compromising your people or your country. It is their heart and their future. “