Tribute to the South Side

A short stroll from the not-so-temporary portacom which I have called my office for the past three years is the Middlemore Hospital train station. The surrounding area, I am told, has the highest foot traffic in the district. Firmly embedded between the hospital’s Western Campus and the main site, one platform leads south, to Papakura and beyond. The opposing platform, to Remuera and further north. Two hundred metres away on the Western side, you’ll find De La Salle College, a Catholic boys school where the local kids go. On the other side, Kings College – but here, the majority of local kids are more likely to have been inside the hospital than beyond its impressive gates.

In the late afternoon of the working day I observe something that in my perspective, represents a major division in New Zealand society. Armed with their sports gear, iPhones and musical instruments, the Kings’ kids words are a mile a minute as they debate their latest maths test. They are on the platform heading north, to Auckland’s wealthier suburbs. I can’t hear what the De La Salle kids are saying, but I do remember the time they belted out a beautiful harmony that seemed to light up the entire station. They don’t have the fancy gear. Sometimes, hovering not so inconspicuously in the trees behind the station, they smoke. They are on the platform heading south. The Kings kids are mostly Pākehā, and fees to attend this school are tens of thousands of dollars per year. The majority of De La Salle kids are Pacific. It is a state school. At the end of each day, I too, pack up and depart Middlemore to head north. I go to central Auckland, which from the heart of the South Side, sometimes I think may as well be another world.

This is more than just a tale of two schools, however. Those two opposing platforms to me represent the very real and significant divide between the status of different ethnic groups in New Zealand. This certainly isn’t the first or last time that someone will write about this issue, but in my little bubble of the world, there is certainly more we could do to change our minds, hearts and actions to address it. For the average north or central Aucklander, probably enabled by geographic segregation, it’s easy enough to ignore. For me, someone who grew up in Glenfield on the North Shore, South Auckland used to be a once-a-year destination for the purpose of visiting my Great Uncle and Aunt on Guy Fawkes night. Occasionally, given it is the home of our international airport, South Auckland was the destination point before a family holiday to Fiji or Australia. And for many other Aucklanders, far from ever having visited the Māngere markets on a Saturday morning, South Auckland is merely a place to pass through en route to the airport, or a district intersected by a large motorway that takes them to Coromandel and beyond for their holidays. As it is so often when you are travelling for pleasure, you can cut through the poorer areas, places you don’t want or need to see, to reach your chosen destination.

A map of deprivation in Auckland – this is from 2006, but the story is much the same now.

Deprivation - Auckland City

Having had a career in population health, I think that this divide is probably far more apparent to me than the average New Zealander. Population health concerns itself with improving health outcomes for a whole population, and has a particular focus on those who are least well off (and therefore have the worst health status) in society. It considers that factors such as economic status, housing, and social conditions have a significant role in determining health status. Its value base is that inequity between groups in society, for reasons that can be prevented, is unacceptable. I agree.

Māori and Pacific people in New Zealand are significantly over-represented in poorer areas. The opposite is true for Pākehā. There are many factors that this inequity is attributed to, and realistically is a blog post for another day. But I have worked within and around these statistics for most of my adult career; and am perhaps overly aware that where you live and how you live can very much determine when and how you die.

It is not okay that being poor, Māori or Pacific in New Zealand means you are more likely to smoke, and more likely to die early as a result. Families are robbed of their elders. Generations suffer from smoking-related disease and ultimately die far too young. Kids, much more likely to smoke if their families do, grow up repeating the pattern. Smoking isn’t the only issue that matters, but it’s one that is pretty close to my heart for South Auckland. Replace smoking in that sentence with any other health issue (except anorexia and melanoma), and it’s the same story. Replace health outcomes with any other outcome of interest (education, social status, life expectancy, or economic status) and the statistics are the same. This is not a judgment. It is a reality in our country.

On my last day working in South Auckland, I visited my Great Uncle in Middlemore Hospital, who very sadly, has only a few weeks left to live. He is well into his eighties and has enjoyed a long life. My Māori colleague was incredulous that in four years working there, I’d only visited someone in hospital once. She has regularly visited friends and whānau, and on the whole they are a lot younger. This isn’t a coincidence. Māori have higher rates of disease and a notably lower life expectancy than Pākehā.

What I wonder about our society, or at least the one that I have been raised in, is how aware we are of this divide. How much do we actually care about it – and therefore, what is our response? John Key & Co are currently immersed in a project to redefine the New Zealand flag, which real people, it seems, are not particularly engaged with. This is at a cost of upwards of $25 million to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, we live in a grossly unequal society which stacks up poorly internationally: we are one of the least equal of the developed countries in terms of income equality, and this has occurred in the last 20 years. Currently one in four of our children live in poverty, and many of these are in South Auckland. Imagine for a moment how we might better invest that money to contribute to a safer, healthier, happier world for these kids. Equality within a society means everyone is better off. It means less crime and greater social cohesion.

At my leaving do, a fellow Glenfielder acknowledged the privilege we had shared, of working in South Auckland as somewhat outsiders. I am grateful to have spent four years of my professional and personal life immersed in South Auckland’s communities. To have developed a small appreciation for the realities of people’s lives out here – which differ vastly from those of people living in Auckland’s more affluent suburbs. I would argue that our society would be far more cohesive if more people had the opportunity to step outside their own norm. It’s too easy to ignore if it doesn’t affect you. Or maybe we are too apathetic.

I often see South Auckland and its people being portrayed in a negative light both in the media and by those who have no insight into its realities. But as a relative outsider who now feels a part of this place, I choose to add my voice instead to the many who celebrate this rich and diverse part of our city. Those who celebrate the strength of family, culture, music, food and laughter. And the values that South Aucklanders bring to life better than anyone: service, humility, gratitude and generosity. I love Humans of South Auckland on Facebook for this reason.

South Auckland has given me its own gifts – to start with, a greater sense of humility. The elderly man who would turn up at our office to hand over a huge box of broccoli and cauliflower. Grown from his community garden, which we part funded, and that provided both a means for local people to get active and to feed local families. This is one of the things that showed me the seemingly inverse relationship between generosity and the amount you actually have to give. Time and again, myself and colleagues were warmly welcomed into people’s homes, churches, community centres, and workplaces. I saw the lengths that people would go to for the benefit of their communities. I repeatedly saw and experienced how laughter, joy and connection far surpassed anything material possessions or wealth could provide. And most of all, I developed a deep respect for the people who are motivated by making a difference for others – people who do not assess their professional worth by their salary or their status, but by the difference they have made for their communities.

In sixth form, our geography teachers took us on a field trip to Ōtara. It was more than likely the first time I, and many of my peers, had been there. The bus, full of yapping 16 year olds from a North Shore girls school, parked up in an average local street right outside people’s homes. The purpose of the visit was to contrast the housing in different parts of Auckland: from a gated castle somewhere like Epsom, to state housing in Ōtara, where you are more likely to see Samoan flags hanging from the windows than the latest Curtain Studio offering. I distinctly remember being told to be respectful, and not to stare. Fast forward several years and I now have strong memories of the friendship I developed while working with the kindergarten around the corner. And the appreciation of funding from the youth and family centre in one of the local blocks of shops. That geography trip would never have prepared me for the richness of working out south for the last few years. But I’m lucky that the experience itself did that.

I give back to South Auckland in a small way by supporting a teenager through Variety Kiwi Kid Sponsorship. You can too.

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Tribute to the South Side