Wantok System and its historical evolution, Colonialism and the Political Economy in Pre-independence Solomon Islands

By Derek Smiles Mane

IN the Pacific region, particularly in the Solomon Islands, the wantok system is seen as an informal social network that households or individuals employ to access much needed resources, government services, favours, or job and educational placements. Although many view or understands it as an important social network or a coping strategy of the poor, it has negative impacts.

In the Solomon Islands, individuals or groups use such wantok network to influence politics (who gets what), resource sharing, and to maintain peace. However, in the process, state rules and laws are often compromised and being abused by the wantok system. Political analysts, scholars, journalists and other commentaries often view the wantok system as the major stumbling block to modernisation in the Solomon Islands.

However, although the wantok system has negative impacts, there are some positive features we need to critically understand. For Solomon Islanders to convert the wantok system into social capital, we need to re-access how the contemporary wantok culture emerged and its historical transition. I felt that by understanding its history, we may be able to re-organise how we can utilise the wantok culture to drive rural development and meet our development aspirations.

The formation of the contemporary wantok system culture is associated with the spread of Christianity, the plantation network, and the birth of Pidgin English as a spoken language. The idea of the wantok system may have started much earlier with the missionaries. Mission schools were indeed a space for interculturalism. Similar cultural orientations can be seen later in the plantations. However, the compositions of labourers in the plantations were more diverse. Being isolated from their village the probability to interact, passing ideas and cultural elements with one another were high. Such space re-enforce ‘brotherhood’, or ‘oneness’ culture. Although their tradition and languages differed, cultural values were similar. The emergence of ‘pidgin’ as a common language eased the transition by disabling language barriers, misunderstanding, suspicious behaviour and improved effective communication to build personal relations. Soon after, such personal bonding evolved to group bonding and spread out of the plantation.

The spread of the wantok idea in the plantations soon travelled through the major shipping routes and ports aided by the pidgin language. Pidgin quickly becomes the language used for trading and selling. Villagers had to embrace and learn pidgin in order to trade. Back in the commercial plantations, the sense of wantokism had transformed into a bargaining tool for workers’ unification, challenging the ill-treatment by white plantation owners and working conditions. For example in Rabual, Papua New Guinea (around the early 1920s) on the German plantations for the first time white owners experienced labour strikes. There is no doubt; such news that transpired in Rabual via plantation shipping routes might have inspired wantok movements in the Solomon Islands.

In the Solomon Islands, the spread of the wantok culture become an avenue to confront imperialism. For example, in Santa Isabel (1920 or there about) the chair and rule movement (vaukola) organised by Father Fallows and his Christian chiefs demanded native voice in the British Advisory Council, the Ma’asina movement (1950) in Malaita (Are Are), the Mathew Belamataga’s freedom movement (1948), and the Moro movement (1950) in Guadalcanal are clear illustrations of such wantok movements.

Although the wantok culture was partly the reason for nationalism movements, what could we learn from it today? However, we also need to understand our colonial economy to plot our development future.

The post second world war government in the Solomon Islands continued as an experiment for modernisation projects. The British in the Solomon Islands established a Western economic system with copra being the largest source of income for its subjects and the government. Yet, production rates were low, with only 6,600 tons of copra in 1917, 21,000 tons in 1939 and 24,000 tons by 1960. This indicated that the economy had not improved since the pre-war era. Nonetheless, the situation gradually changed into the 1950s registering an economic growth of 5 per cent per annum. The growth can be associated with the colonial government’s shift in approach to the economy and the increased British foreign aid which has partly improved local infrastructure and communication. Yet such improvement were designed to attract foreign investment and not for local production.

Although the British colonial government played a minimal role promoting local production, it facilitates some investment in agriculture; particularly the village base agriculture projects. In Fiu village, Malaita, for instance a government demonstration farm was established in the early 1960s. The farm resembles farms in New Zealand, Australia, and other western countries. Although many locals participated in the farm, they were merely labourers. Whilst they mastered the routine farm work, none acquired managerial skills. This partly led to the failure of the farm. In other districts, agriculture diversification of cocoa, rice, chilli, peanut, and livestock, along with small business ventures were introduced. To their disadvantage, almost no incentive was undertaken to stimulate indigenous entrepreneurship training, nor loans (medium and long term) for establishing the local business. Education was solely the missionaries’ job, and even towards the late 1960s, there were no vocational schools, capable of training managers and businessmen and women. Moreover, such initiatives did not lead to significant agrarian technology change. For example, when the protectorate was established, bush knives, hand hoes, and steel axes were promoted as main tools for agriculture and were still the main tools.

So what does history inform us about our development plights today? After almost 80 years of colonial rule and 40 years of political independence what has changed? Today, most entrepreneurial or business activities are still in the hands of foreigners and Solomon Islanders continue to play the servant role. When will we start operating and managing our own investments? On the other hand, the government still continues to prioritise the interest of foreign businesses (mostly logging, mining and fishing) through tax exemptions and allow foreign companies to expatriate money overseas, while government subsidies to encourage local entrepreneurs and investment are limited and not prioritised. In the villages, most Solomon Islanders still view development as a gift foreigners will bring and dish out to them. They continue to rely on projects and funding rather than working for themselves. The Solomon Islands Government instead of eradicating this poor mindset has led a state sponsored dependency syndrome campaign by legitimating the use of government funds (RCDF) to feed this mindset. Farms are still subsistence oriented and technology remains primitive. Solomon Islands complained bitterly claiming that land is the issue to development, yet in rural areas, there are logging camps in every village sea front. So should we blame our culture and traditions for our misfortune?

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