Key Points:

The phrase South Auckland frequently appears in the media these days, usually in association with some act of violence or criminality. The juxtaposition is so common that the phrase itself has become a term of pity or abuse.

As a person who lives in South Auckland, and who loves South Auckland, I think it's time to reclaim the name.

When I went to school in the 1960s South Auckland was a real place with an actual geographical location. It started at Otahuhu in the north and stopped at Mercer in the south.

It stretched from the Firth of Thames to the Tasman Sea. It included the counties of Manukau and Franklin, and the boroughs of Otahuhu, Papatoetoe, Manurewa, Papakura, Pukekohe, Waiuku and Tuakau, and for most purposes Howick as well.

South Aucklanders had a shared history. South Auckland's first European settlements were Fencible settlements. Its other towns had mostly grown up strung out along the Great South Rd.

The term South Auckland had a proven lineage. We played sport together. We called ourselves South Aucklanders with a sense of identity and pride.

In the 1970s, however, the meaning of South Auckland seemed to both shift and contract. Against the wishes of Manukau, both county and city, large state or group housing areas had been developed in Otara and central Mangere. Attendant social problems had developed.

South Auckland became a shorthand way of referring to what was supposedly a town planning disaster. As if by osmosis the whole region gradually became labelled as such. The eastern parts began to dissociate themselves from the name.

After local body amalgamation in 1989, the term Counties Manukau was coined in place of South Auckland for sporting and administrative purposes. This was adopted by organisations such as the Counties Manukau Sports Foundation and Counties Manukau District Health Board. It referred to the area covered by Manukau City, Papakura District and Franklin District.

By this time the older term "South Auckland" had lost any geographical precision. It had become not a place but a state of mind, used to conjure up a largely imaginary vision of an urban wasteland.

That is the way the phrase is used today. It's used by journalists who write precious little articles in which they describe bravely venturing anywhere south of Penrose as if they're entering the heart of darkness. It's used by politicians to refer loosely to anywhere that combines a certain amount of poverty, whether real or imaginary, with occasional incidents of violence.

(Thus I've seen it used to refer not just to Otahuhu, Otara, Mangere and Manurewa, but also to Owairaka, Mt Wellington and Glen Innes.)

It's used by social workers to convey a sense of despair and hopelessness. It's used equally freely by hand-wringing liberals and closet racists (often the same thing), practised in bemoaning the way the world has become, but unpractised in providing real solutions to problems or in treating people with respect.

Even the mayor of Wanganui, a man who should know better, coming as he does from a very beautiful city which has an unfair reputation as the gang capital of New Zealand, uses "South Auckland" as a term of generic contempt.

I suggest it's time for politicians and journalists to stop using South Auckland as a phrase with such indiscriminate carelessness. If they're referring to a place, then they're actually referring to an area which has a proud and complex history, is rich in ethnic and socio-economic variety, includes communities of great social vitality, and retains areas of great natural beauty. Before they open their mouths, they might like to find out something about it.

It's true some parts of this region have problems with graffiti, crime and gang violence. In this they're by no means unique in New Zealand.

Robberies happen. Murders happen. They shouldn't. But implying that these are endemic to an entire city or region is dishonest.

When referring to such incidents it's not difficult to be precise about the location.

And I suggest when writing about them, journalists in particular should stop reaching automatically for their cliche dictionary ("mean streets", "trouble in the hood", etc). These are lazy, careless phrases.

They stereotype and demean the large majority of people who live there, who are not hapless and helpless ghetto-dwellers, but whose main aim is to try to lead decent lives.

After all, we don't call Central Auckland "sick city". Although perhaps we should, because if we believe media reports, it's inhabited mostly by indigents, drunks, rapists, murderers and people who urinate in doorways.

* Bruce Ringer is a librarian and writer who lives in Manurewa, Manukau City.