Editorial: South Auckland killings are sign of a deep social malaise

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By any standards, it has been a hell of a fortnight in Manurewa. The South Auckland suburb takes its name from the Maori for soaring (or perhaps floating) bird, a reference to the profusion of seabirds for which the area was once noted. But three murders in a fortnight have brought the community down to earth with a thump.

Navtej Singh, a 30-year-old father of two young girls, was gunned down during a robbery of his liquor business and 80-year-old grandmother Yang Yin Ping was attacked in her home.

Then, as if to prove the old saying that bad things happen in threes, another fatal incident took place in a shopping centre carpark in Manukau, barely five kilometres away. Joanne Wang, 39, the popular owner of a local bakery franchise, was run over by the getaway car of a man who had snatched her purse.

Police say they don't believe that crime is escalating - although purse-snatching is on the rise - but this is not the comfort it might appear. Quite the contrary: the people at the coalface of crime-fighting in South Auckland are as good as saying that this is nothing out of the ordinary.

The political response has, so far at least, been abysmal: National seeks to make electoral hay out of the matter while Phil Goff, the Government's law-and-order hard man, points defiantly to the administration's achievements.

Bruised as it is by recent violence, South Auckland is unlikely to relish being kicked around as a political football, but that is what is happening.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is "personally taking very seriously" the idea of cracking down on the number of liquor outlets in the area. That may answer some question or other but certainly not the question the last fortnight has posed. Halving the number of bottle shops will not halve the number of bottle-shop robberies; it will simply double the distance that armed robbers have to drive. The way to cut the number of holdups and homicides is to cut the number of people who commit such offences.

As a society we are rightly outraged by the actions of this month's killers and we rightly expect that they will feel the full force of the law when they are brought to justice. But that does not even begin to address the malaise affecting South Auckland.

Most people in that part of the region are decent and law-abiding members of caring communities. But every reporter who has walked those mean streets in these dark weeks has heard - and told - the same story: unemployment has created a suburban underclass of people who have lost hope and, in many cases, have too much time on their hands; drugs - in particular P - are wreaking havoc on mainly young lives; and gangs, from small neighbourhood groups to well-established organised crime rings, are providing a sense of belonging to brutally alienated people.

There is plenty of local energy and initiative on which a well-organised, nationally funded response might draw. South Aucklanders have had good stories to tell this week - from a plan to paint out graffiti immediately it appears, so as to demonstrate a sense of civic pride and defiance at the vandalism of taggers, to grassroots projects such as "street clubs" that can provide young people with alternative outlets for their frustrated energies. But they cannot do it alone.

The news that police want to have armed response vehicles on the streets raises the prospect of the ghetto-style policing seen on TV crime shows. As enforcers of the law, they can see little alternative. But the country as a whole needs to own South Auckland, and similar pockets of other cities, as national problems: we need to send the signal to squabbling politicians that properly resourcing not just police but agencies engaged in positive, preventive work, is of national importance.

As matters stand, our international image and domestic self-esteem are taking a hammering, to say nothing of the blight afflicting the lives of perpetrators and their victims. Addressing the problems now will take political will and cost plenty of money, which will need to be diverted from other, more electorally popular projects. But the cost of leaving South Auckland to slide further into lawless mayhem can only rise. It will not be easy to afford, but it will be much more expensive to postpone it.

- Herald on Sunday

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