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Melanesian elites and modern politics in New Caledonia and Vanuatu

CollectionsDPA Discussion Papers
Title: Melanesian elites and modern politics in New Caledonia and Vanuatu
Author(s): Wittersheim, Eric
Keywords: Melanesia;elites;Vanuatu;New Caledonia;leadership;Jean-Marie Tjibaou;culture;religion;Kanak
Date published: 1998
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: Discussion Paper (The Australian National University, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program): 1998/3
Much research has been conducted into the processes of ‘invention of tradition’ and ‘construction of national identity’ in Melanesia often focusing on the opposition between tradition and modernity. Oppositions like local versus national, rural versus urban, traditional versus westernised or authenticity versus inauthenticity have been emphasised; sometimes with reason, sometimes not. Even if many researchers no longer take for granted such analytical frameworks, lots of areas remain unexplored. The experience of the leaders who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in Melanesia is one such neglected area. The ‘tradition versus modernity’ discourse usually describes a huge gap between these leaders, seen as westernized and alienated from their culture, and the people, who are ‘simply living’ this culture. Following Hobsbawm in particular, many scholars have seen the discourses they developed as spurious traditions justifying political manipulations. This was quite different from my own experience. During a trip in the South Pacific in 1991, I met some of the leaders of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) in New Caledonia, and everything in their daily life and their discourses seemed to contradict this idea of an ontological difference between tradition and modernity. These individuals all had a prominent role within the FLNKS, some being elected politicians at a kind of ‘national’ level. All played an important role in the customary life (or the everyday life) of their own village, or tribu. They also maintained strong ties with the Church. Soon after I became involved in an editorial project with the anthropologist Alban Bensa aiming to gather and publish Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s works, interviews and speeches (Tjibaou 1996). This work confirmed my feeling that these Melanesian leaders proceeded along very specific lifepaths, in which colonisation, Christianity and a Melanesian experience of the social world were totally melded. Thus, a sociology of these new élites might help to understand contemporary Melanesia. I am studying the matter from the experience of Vanuatu and here I formulate some general propositions, drawing on my first fieldwork in Vanuatu and my experience of New Caledonia. There is an abundant literature on ‘invention of tradition’ in Melanesia. In it the different discourses developed by Melanesian leaders are often seen as the Machiavellian constructions of westernised élites. This surprised me, although I cannot tell if my surprise came mostly from my knowledge of the Kanak leaders or from the respect I had for their struggle. One thing is sure: I could see that neither their relation to their ‘tradition,’ their manner of taking up western models, nor their ties to Christian religions were ever analysed in a non-polemical, impartial way. It would be more productive to analyse how these three sources act as mediators, both social and ideological. The study of the new Melanesian élites cannot be limited to the assessment of their action as political leaders. It is necessary to devote particular attention to their biographies and, when possible, to the syncretistic thinking some of them display. In their thoughts and actions, these individuals were marked by the acceleration of history which saw them pass from their villages to the city, from their rural and tribal communities to institutions into which the European colonisers had gradually given them access. Their exposure to western institutions made them privileged witnesses to the profound changes that shook the Oceanian world for over half a century. Whatever their personal histories and origins, and whether or not they saw their countries achieve independence, throughout their careers they resorted to ideas, images, and strategies which were clearly comparable from one end of the Pacific to the other; to such an extent that today these leaders cannot be understood solely by looking at the specific people or culture to which they belonged.
ISSN: 1328-7854


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