Shannon man Robert Ketu is up for the challenge of being the first visually impaired local body politician in New Zealand history.
The 59-year-old did not see his impairment as affecting his ability to represent
community and iwi. In fact, he refers to his condition as a "special ability".
"I can hear things many sighted people can't. That's why I refer to my vision impairment as a special ability," he said.
He saw his new role as Horowhenua District Councillor as just another challenge to navigate "just like many sighted people have to do with any issue" and in no way should it impede his duties as councillor.
"You can do two things in life. You can do nothing, or you can do something," he said.
A degenerative eye condition has left Ketu with just 15 per cent vision. He began losing his sight in 2008, and the condition was compounded by a medical event in 2012.
He was believed to be the first blind person elected to council in New Zealand and walks
with the aid of a stick that can be folded away. He can make out shadows, and can see light through a window.
"A whole new world opened up. I had to accept that I was blind. Everyone else knew except for me. I realised there were support systems out there for people like myself to reconnect," he said.
There has been a blind New Zealand politician before, but that was in central Government
almost 100 years ago when Sir Clutha Nantes MacKenzie won an Auckland East by-election in 1921.
Sir Clutha was a son of former Prime Minister Sir Thomas Mackenzie who enlisted in the
Army in World War I and was blinded at Gallipoli.
Ketu will enlist the help of a personal assistant with his council duties. He has already met
with an HDC staff member to see how they could ensure that he was able to participate fully in his new role at meetings.
He said there was new technology available that will assist him to carry out his duties.
"I can use it to participate meaningfully in this space as a councillor and work with staff to
be productive towards that end," he said.
He was no stranger to council though, and had been vocal in his views on the environment, particularly with waterways and sewerage disposal. He felt he could make those views heard by sitting at the council table.
"I can be a victim of change or part of the solution of change for our community. I think
about our mokopuna that haven't been born yet....what legacy am I going to leave for my
mokopuna? What legacy am I going to leave for my community, my iwi?
"Being a councillor is just one of the avenues I can impact change.
"It obviously grieves me that our Muaupoko whānau have had to contend with a polluted lake that was not caused by them as a people, but by those who were in authority.
"That person in authority is now me and this team of councillors. Who will be the shifters and shakers among us to get this remedied?
"This is a high priority matter. I don't want to be known for just sitting on my hands during this term."
Born and raised in Shannon, as a youngster he would go hunting with his father, Claude
Ketu, in the Tararua Ranges, and got to know the mountain range well from Te Ahu a
Turanga to Arapaepae.
His father showed him the bush and taught him to hunt pig, deer and to fish, gather eels
and how to care for dogs.
"He taught me everything. He was my mentor," he said.
His father would often hide from his son to teach him resilience, lessons that he was still
applying in life today.
"He would purposely step off the track to see how I would navigate my way through the
track," he said.
"I was only a boy and would start crying and he would step out from behind me and say
"what are you crying for?" He was teaching me that there was nothing to be afraid of.
"In the bush you can try and bash your way through or you can try and find another way. These are the life lessons that I have learnt.
"It is as if my dad had an inkling that in the future, I would need this quality to survive life's hardships. Who knows," he said.
"At 88 years old, my dad is still teaching me about resilience."
Ketu attended Shannon School and Manawatū College, which he left when he was 15 as he wanted to start earning money and had three jobs, at a pig farm, a potato farm, and a carpet factory.
He then took a job at Longburn freezing works on the slaughter chain where he worked for 12 years. He later attended Massey University as an adult student and trained as a teacher, learning to speak Māori.
After accepting a job at his old primary school he found he had a natural affinity with
students who weren't fitting in with system, introducing them to dance, arts, crafts, fishing and tourism ventures.
"I just had aroha for those who were having difficulty learning and I had different ways of
engaging with these young people," he said.
He set up a business mentoring programme where the students created business models
where they marketed and produced products for sale, forming fundraising, production and marketing teams within their business.
"They went through that scenario of putting that business together and the hands-on
experience rewarded them not only by understanding marketing values, but with numeracy and literary skills at the same time," he said.
Many of those students had gone on to achieve bigger and better things, including bank
managers, army leaders, teachers, business owners, lawyers, political advocates and farm
workers, he said.
He also led the youth initiatives in Shannon under the Shannon Youth 2000 Trust that he
said aimed to help young people in the town maximise their potential.
"Councillor (Piri-Hira) Tukapua was a youth leader with us at this time. The mission was to identify the gifts and talents of our young people and to find a platform to showcase their future success," he said.
"Many of these young people rose to heights of success in their disciplines."
Ketu said the reality was that Shannon was largely a low socio-economic community, but
that should be no barrier to success.
"It is a state of mind and not a state of being. One can change a mind's concept in an instant," he said.
"We're not hiding that fact...it's getting them to think there is more to life, inside and
outside of Shannon."
Ketu's maternal grandmother was of Ngāti Whakatere descent and her husband of Ngāti
Takihiku descent, while his father is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent.
His mother Aniwaniwa Oterangi McGregor was also the founding member of the local
Kohanga, Hanana Kohanga Reo and played an important part in the iwi as a leader and
"My mother was a visionary. She was part of a leadership to drive the resurgence of
the revitalisation of te reo Māori in the early 80s until her early death in 1992," he said.
"She was a native speaker of te reo Māori and I am a product of her and my father who input so much into me."
He said he had a mandate to represent his iwi on issues relating to water, land and wellbeing. He was concerned about the effect intensified farming had on the environment and sewerage disposal on waterways and areas of wahi tapu.
"I must say that I am representing my community as well. A lot of people can see that what we are doing is not only healthy for iwi, but for all people," he said.
He said was looking forward to the next three years at the council table although would
initially feel his way in.
"Like any hunter does, he studies his environment first," he said, laughing.
"That was one of the things my father taught me. Study your environment first."
Local Government New Zealand Senior Communications Advisor Daniel Webster said
although it was hard say for sure if Ketu was the first vision impaired person elected to local body politics, it did represent a nationwide trend in accepting diversity in leadership.
"While the details of candidates at that level aren't held by LGNZ, we know that a much
more diverse range of candidates were elected in this year's local elections," he said.
Ketu was elected to the Miranui Ward of HDC with 331 votes ahead of Oakley TahiwiMacMillan with 224 votes.
He is married with six children - three boys and three girls - and has eight grandchildren.