The Resilient Imagery of Settlements in Port Moresby

The generalised European imagery of settlements in the late colonial period was of a spatially separate and disorderly collection of habitats implying the social distance of the people who occupied them, as we have seen. The dichotomising imagery itself was engendered by the dominant ideology of the colonisers that posited Melanesian societies as essentially rural, traditional and primitive in contrast with urbanising, modern and civilised Western societies. In European-dominated urban settings, the orderliness of habitats — that is, the degree to which they fitted with the overall physical appearance of a range of housing modelled on that of a subtropical Australian small town — served as one putative measure of the degree of civilisation attained by indigenes. The rural-urban dualism itself was also a taken-for-granted component of the body of modernisation theories that informed Western approaches to decolonisation in the 1960s and 1970s, whereby an earlier resource-extraction program and ‘civilising’ mission was recast as a ‘development’ program. In the era of decolonisation, development programs were aimed at enabling what was presumed to be an inevitable but problematic evolutionary transition from the ‘traditional’ to the ‘modern’, which could be theorised in terms of the sociological, psychological and economic progress of the general population. As Jorge Larrain has pointed out, terminological substitutions such as ‘rural’ and ‘backward’, or ‘urban’ and ‘developed’, can be made in respect of the two ideal society types posited in the modernisation model, the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’.

In Papua New Guinea, the colonial administration had carefully controlled the movement from rural ‘traditional’ society to urban ‘modern’ society before World War II. After the war, modernisation was expected to involve a long and difficult process of broad education. In a 1950 policy statement, the Australian Minister for External Territories, P. C. Spender, said of the prospect of the ‘advancement’ of Papua New Guineans:

This will take a very long time but the natives have shown that with the proper guidance and given the opportunity they have the capacity to carry out both manual and mental tasks in accordance with our concepts.

The traditional image of Melanesians, and its problematic nature for the modernisation programs of Europeans, was implicit in diplomatic references to ‘native’ customs, such as Spender’s assurance (in the same policy statement) that in education and technical training activities ‘care is taken to preserve the structure of native tribal life and native customs that are not harmful or repugnant to humanity’. It was more explicit in assessments such as that of the Assistant Administrator, J. T. Gunther, in 1958:

Their houses are crudely built and uncomfortable; they have next to no furniture of the kind that gives us some comfort in our living, their cooking methods are crude, their eating utensils practically nil. Compared with ours, their farming methods are almost non-existent.

In commonsense European perceptions, the urban environment was the appropriate habitat of the modernising, rather than the traditional, Papua New Guinean:

It is the cities, not the villages, which are the centres of civilization, culture, commerce, industry and education in any country. It is in them that new ideas are encountered, new knowledge acquired, new skills learned, new relationships established and new wealth exchanged. A country without cities is doomed to stagnation and backwardness.

In the light of the view that the ‘advancement’ of the majority of Papua New Guineans, seen as traditional villagers, was going to involve a long process of training, uncontrollable urban migration after World War II signalled a pathological situation for the colonisers: the premature arrival of the primitive into the modern environment. The concept of the ‘squatter settlement’, the disjunctive urban habitat, neatly encapsulated this impetuous engagement of the ill-prepared primitive with civilisation. Whatever reason was attributed by observers to the migration of villagers — the attraction of the bright lights, the need for a cash income, the avoidance of village social responsibilities, the drudgery of traditional life or its breakdown — the consequences were assumed to be the same. The migrants arrived in town without funds, jobs, modern work skills or proper accommodation. Institutionalised in a homogenising colonial discourse, the terms ‘settlements’ and ‘squatter settlements’ (used interchangeably) had come by the mid-1970s to imply habitats peopled by unemployed migrants living in poverty and various degrees of squalor, socially distant from more legitimate urban-dwellers and inclined to criminal activity. Used in this way, the terms demonstrate some of the qualities Victor Turner attributed to emotionally forceful symbols: a number of meanings (‘poverty’, ‘unemployment’, ‘crime’, etc) are condensed into a single symbolic form (‘settlements’), and the term permits therefore an ‘economy of reference’.

But it is important to note that the meanings condensed into the term ‘settlements’ derived not so much from the immediate urban reality of the later colonial period as from the collective popular imagination of Europeans. We have already seen, for instance, that the imagery of journalists such as Hastings (1973) and White (1965) did not accord with the sociological findings of Jackson (1976a) and others on the socioeconomic status of settlement-dwellers overall. The imagined criminogenic nature of settlements (linked to the assumption that most settlement-dwellers were unemployed) was no better supported by empirical investigation. Social researchers in the late colonial era reported that criminal gangs of the era included employed and unemployed people, and that economic deprivation was not a key factor. As late as 1983, an officially commissioned review of crime, law and order, drawing on recent research findings, stated that ‘on the face of it institutional housing compounds, urban villages and migrant settlements have low arrest rates’, that ‘formally sub-divided suburbs have high arrest rates’, that ‘it has never been shown that migrants in urban settlements are more criminally inclined than the rest of the community’ and that ‘low crime rates are known to exist in certain urban ethnic groups, or settlements’. Yet the ideology of inevitable pathology in urbanisation — unemployed migrants living in squalid housing turning to crime — was impervious to empirical research. An urban geographer lamented, ‘The “squatters” are caricatured as unemployed and lawless, and their settlements as disease-ridden communities of ill-adapted drifters, unnecessary blots on the national escutcheon’.

Indigenous urban dwellers of the late colonial period had different prejudices. There was resentment at the general segregation, including housing policies, practised by Europeans. A prominent political figure, Albert Maori Kiki, expressed this polemically: ‘We are put in settlements such as Hohola and Kaugere, away from white people. Our settlements are places for the white man’s sexual outlet’. Hohola was actually a low-covenant housing area. Kiki’s use of the term ‘settlements’ appropriated European popular usage to an indigenous viewpoint connoting socially segregated, rather than informal, housing, a point I will return to later. But there were also issues of resentment between indigenous groups. In Port Moresby, Motu-Koita concerns about the growth of settlements were subsumed under their general concern about the growth of the colonial town on their traditional land. As most of the earlier postwar settlers had been Papuan and historically familiar by virtue of old trading relations, potential hostility toward their increasing numbers was displaced by a shared antagonism towards a newer problem. Growing numbers of migrants were arriving from the Highlands and coastal New Guinea and were seen as socially distant competitors for housing, jobs and services. Papuans stereotyped ‘New Guineans’ negatively, portraying Highlanders in particular as violent and primitive and regarding themselves as peaceful and civilised in contrast. In turn, the Highlanders stereotyped Papuans as lazy, and regarded themselves as enterprising and industrious. Papuan stereotyping of New Guineans extended to seeing them as land-grabbers and their settlements as less legitimate than those of Papuan migrants. In the 1970s, the distinction between settlements inhabited by ‘Papuans’ and those inhabited by ‘New Guineans’ developed political significance particularly in the campaigns of the Papuan separatist movement, Papua Besena, headed by Josephine Abaijah, the first indigenous woman in Parliament. Realising the importance of campaigning in settlements as well as in villages, Abaijah exploited the regional stereotypes to advantage, particularly in the 1977 elections. An analysis of results showed overwhelming support for Abaijah in the Papuan-dominated settlements.

Regional distinctions continue to be an issue in urban Papua New Guinea, and tensions manifest themselves in occasional violent confrontations. In formal housing estates, micro-ethnic enclaves rarely develop since individual migrant families move into houses, or are assigned them by employers, where and as they become available around the towns. In contrast, self-help areas and other informal habitats are typified either by single micro-ethnic populations, such as those from the Gulf region in the older settlements in Port Moresby, or by groups from several regions who arrange themselves territorially on the land available for building. The latter situation is found mostly in those self-help areas established since the 1960s, and mutual distrust can result in simmering tension and the possibility of hostilities. At the end of the colonial era, occasional noisy confrontations in some self-help communities, and the resulting police intervention, fuelled popular European views of settlements as sites of trouble, even though the altercations rarely spread beyond the immediate habitats in which they occurred and were — and still are — exacerbated by friction over shared space and resources rather than by extreme poverty, squalor or criminal proclivities. Among the self-help settlements themselves, those dominated by Papuans are to the present day quick to differentiate between their own allegedly peaceful habitats and those which they regard as giving settlements a bad reputation and which they stereotype, often inaccurately, as Highlander-dominated.

The incorporation of settlements into regional antagonisms in the late colonial era meant that among Papua New Guineans they were classified according to the regional identities of their inhabitants instead of being negatively distinguished from other indigenous habitats. In addition, the prevalence of the wantok system in the indigenisation of Port Moresby and other urban centres from the late 1970s meant that kinship ties transcended different types of habitat. People living in high-covenant housing estates usually had kin living in ‘settlements’, and visits between relatives consolidated the social proximity of the variety of urban habitats. Conceivably, these developments contained the potential to effect a replacement of the European concept of ‘squatter settlements’ with an alternative classification of urban habitats reflecting the indigenous social reality of wantokism and ethnic and regional divisions. Yet the popular colonial imagery of squatter settlements survived and, in the 1990s, continued to pervade journalistic portraits of the independent nation. For example, in a popular book on contemporary Papua New Guinea, a veteran journalist gives an account of several pages that juxtaposes urban crime, poverty and ‘settlements’. The suburb of Morata is referred to, inaccurately, as ‘one of the largest and longest established’ squatter settlements in Port Moresby. The author expresses no judgmental view and the discussion acknowledges that ‘squatter settlements’ are victimised by police and the settlers resent being labelled thieves. However, the account’s reliance on an influential sociological paper on criminal gangs and anecdotal evidence from a former police chief about raids on settlements results in the settlements being discursively positioned as criminogenic habitats.

Far from disappearing with the end of European political domination, the negative condensation of migration, poverty and crime in the image of settlements had by the 1990s become conventionalised to the point where it was also being taken for granted in some academic literature. For example, the substance of contemporary introductory courses on Papua New Guinea history at the University of Papua New Guinea was reproduced in a 1993 publication (by a prominent Papua New Guinean academic), which deployed the ideation of ‘settlements’ with efficient brevity under the subheading ‘Law and Order’:

As village society broke down more and more, villagers moved to the urban areas in the hope of employment and greater access to Western goods. As there was no housing for most of these people, they built shanties out of any available materials and created squatter settlements. As there was very often no employment for them, many turned to crime.

But, importantly, the perpetuation of the imagery of squatter settlements into the 1980s involved a polemical addition to the meanings it contained, based on a popular Papua New Guinean dichotomisation (in PNG English) of the country’s population into ‘grassroots’ and ‘elites’. This development was prefigured by the previously mentioned resentment of segregation enforced by a European elite, articulated, for example, by Kiki in his remarks (see above) about Papua New Guineans being consigned to ‘settlements’. Stereotyping indigenous elites as rich, greedy, self-serving and appropriating the economic standing and housing of departing Europeans, grassroots positioned themselves discursively as the underclass, the unrewarded backbone of the country. In towns, the term ‘settlements’ symbolised their putative living conditions and frustrations, but also served hyperbolically to symbolise the habitat of the ‘real’ people of urban Papua New Guinea. Given the overall socioeconomic complexity of contemporary Papua New Guinea, including the high proportion of self-defined ‘unemployed’ who are engaged in informal economic activities that often produce more income than conventional wage work, the elites/grassroots dichotomy is as reductive and misleading as the popular colonial dichotomy that preceded it. However, the potential of the obverse, positive meaning added to those already contained in the simplistic imagery of settlements appropriated from European usage cannot be overlooked. The former Prime Minister, Bill Skate, used it to advantage in the 1997 elections, campaigning in the city as a ‘man of the people’, visiting settlement communities and achieving an unprecedented urban legitimacy partially by emphasising his upbringing in a ‘squatter settlement’ in Port Moresby and his understanding of grassroots issues. The elites/grassroots dichotomy is also employed in the practised rhetoric of so-called raskols (Tok Pisin: ‘rascals’, street-crime gangs), who like to promote themselves to researchers as avengers of the poor against those in power, and who are usually portrayed in the media as settlement-dwellers.

Arguably, the multi-vocality of the imagery of ‘squatter settlements’ contributes significantly to its resilience in contemporary times. In popular discourse, it can ‘speak’ of unemployment, poverty, crime, but also of urban integrity and social injustice. Consequently, the generalised concept of ‘settlements’ can be brought into discursive play in different and sometimes contrary contexts. In one, benignly, it connotes dispossession as an inevitable burden of urbanisation and economic rapacity, a discursive theme of liberal commentators and welfare agencies urging charitable attitudes towards a generalised category of penurious settlers. The publicity given to the Salvation Army’s feeding program (PNG Post-Courier, July 15, 1998) at the Baruni dump belongs to this discourse, as does the video clip accompanying Bad Mix Souls’ song Born to Suffer. The song was written to express the socioeconomic conditions that the band members said they shared with many other Papua New Guineans (PNG Post-Courier, November 24, 1998). Yet its production had to negotiate some discongruity between the realities of informal housing and the homogenising notion of squatter settlements and attendant poverty. The band members were residents of self-help settlements on Port Moresby’s periphery. The most pressing problem for these settlements, like most others around the city since settlements began to develop half a century ago, is not mass unemployment but the lack of services such as piped water, proper access roads and sanitation. In order to effectively illustrate the song’s theme of disparities between the rich and the poor (born of the elites/grassroots dichotomy discussed earlier), the group used an image not from their own settlements but from the well-publicised Baruni dump, one of the few habitats in Port Moresby, out of all those referred to as ‘squatter settlements’, which empirically fits the imagery of a truly penurious urban community. An overlapping discursive context in which the concept of squatter settlements is employed is that of the integrity of grassroots, the downtrodden toilers of the new nation. The former Prime Minister’s self-legitimating references to his settlement upbringing belong in this context, and his urban reputation as an advocate of grassroots was maintained by acts such as his arrival to give hand-outs and verbal comfort to the squatters evicted from the old parliament building.

The most powerful discourse, however, since it legitimates the occasional destruction of ‘squatter settlements’ ranging from dump scavengers to self-help housing areas, is that which collapses together unemployment, poverty and crime. But in contemporary Papua New Guinea, popular media images and politicians’ rhetoric of criminal-infested settlements are no more supported by careful research than they were in the 1970s or 1980s. The National Vice-President of the PNG Social Workers Association commented in 1994 that ‘Port Moresby residents are well aware that criminals operate from suburban areas like Hohola, Gerehu or Boroko … which are certainly not settlements’. He added:

Mass eviction is definitely not a solution to resolve criminal activities in urban centres; since such activities are also perpetrated … by white collar workers who hold high positions and live in high covenant, tight-security residences … Recent discussions with settlers in Rabaul and Lae indicate that the majority of them, in fear of losing their temporary residence on the land, are not involved in criminal activities.

Research in Port Moresby in the early 1990s also indicated that members of so-called raskol gangs came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and could not be generalised as the products only of squatter settlements. Moreover, its findings did not support the generalisation that unemployment ‘causes’ crime. Interviews with gang members in 1991 revealed that many found crime more lucrative than waged work, and had either left formal employment for crime or supplemented their legitimate income with it. Some, enticed into raskolism at school age, had never seriously considered formal employment. Overall, the interview material suggested that the conditioning relationship between unemployment and raskolism could well be the reverse of what is popularly thought. Questionnaire research by Levantis in 1995 appears to support my 1991 findings, with self-defined raskols, of whom a high proportion were not seeking formal wage-work, indicating that crime pays better than (at least) average waged work.

Successive governments in independent Papua New Guinea have been dogged by the publicity given to the country’s crime problem, and to urban crime in particular. A series of commissioned reports, reaching their zenith with the massive ‘Clifford Report’, has revealed the overwhelming complexity of the issue and produced no simple solutions. As Dinnen put it, ‘The impression is one of escalating lawlessness, on the one hand, and a progressively ineffectual crime control system, on the other’. The measures mooted have included states of emergency and curfews (both of which have been implemented for short periods) as well as vagrancy laws, ID cards and more draconian punishment of offenders. Nothing has provided a satisfactory solution, and politically expedient State responses to crime have ‘increasingly entailed bypassing the normal processes of criminal justice in favour of more visible and direct exercises of state power’. Given that criminological applications of global theories of modernisation or dependency assume crime — and especially ‘street’ crime — to be a product of urbanisation and rapid social change, it is not surprising that public displays of crime control are directed at those constituencies most easily portrayed as the defaulters of the urbanisation process. Unemployed, undereducated migrants are blamed for crime, and the imagery of squatter settlements is brought into play as politicians and police seek a social site that collectivises such people for the purposes of displays of crime-fighting efficiency.

But while ‘squatter settlements’ provide a handy focus for political rhetoric and dramatic images of efficient crime fighting (press reporters were present at the parliament house and Baruni dump evictions and are given police publicity statements after some planned raids on settlements), the alternative discursive contexts of ‘settlements’ weaken the potential of a sustained campaign against informal housing. The ‘Rolling Thunder’ and ‘Enough is Enough’ raids were publicised as the beginning of a sustained program of settlement evictions (as the image of rolling thunder suggests), which did not in fact eventuate. Most residents of Port Moresby, including the elites, are migrants or, in the case of a younger generation, the children of migrants. And most, if they do not live in informal housing, have wantoks who do. Given the currency of the elites/grassroots imagery, the crosscutting social ties, and the discontinuity between the realities of informal housing and the homogenising notion of ‘settlements’, it is possible for people to vacillate between benign and censorious settlement imagery. A surge in street crime or a threat to business interests from international media focusing on the nation’s law and order problems can trigger a censorious polemic against squatter settlements. Conversely, corruption in high places and chronic rough handling of ordinary people by the police trigger the rhetoric that grassroots are dispossessed and unfairly consigned to life in settlements. Eviction programs cannot be sustained for any length of time in the face of such ambiguity. On a wave of frustration and anger in some sections of the general urban community early in 1998, two small and vulnerable communities of squatters, unable to legitimise their presence through any appeal to customary or other land-use arrangements, were easily routed, but ‘Rolling Thunder’ was a fanciful metaphor. A continued program of evictions and destruction of ‘settlements’ would mean engagement with a much wider range of informal housing, with a significant proportion and socioeconomic range of the urban population and with the tortuous wantok networks linking the poor to the rich and the powerless to the powerful, threatening the ideological notion of ‘squatter settlements’.

While police raids on settlements and the occasional destruction of individual settlements can be legitimised by appeals to the negative imagery of squatter settlements, in some cases the mobilising of alternative imagery can create the paradoxes evident in the case of the old parliament building and Baruni dump evictions. Thus, the police satisfy the business elites and demonstrate their efficient response to the law and order problem by dramatically evicting the parliament building squatters, and a Prime Minister satisfies the grassroots and demonstrates his populism by commiserating and giving them food hand-outs. The Baruni dump squatters can be used at one moment to demonstrate police commitment to crime control, at another to publicise social welfare initiatives, and at yet another to illustrate a pop song about the division between rich and poor. The alternative imagery is equally bound, of course, to a homogenising notion of ‘squatter settlements’ and would be as vulnerable as the criminal imagery to exposure as falsification if practical interventionist responses were extended beyond a handful of genuinely penurious habitats.

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