When I first visited Christchurch to report cricket, local boy Richard Hadlee was still playing, Lancaster Park was still where Tests were played and Geoffrey Palmer had been elected the 33rd Prime Minister of the country which had yet to see a woman in the job.
It is difficult not to fall in love with Christchurch. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, its inhabitants some of the warmest, most casual and informal people anywhere. The Prime Minister, in a T-shirt and shorts and with no security paraphernalia came to watch one of the Tests back then.
On a more recent visit, Hadlee was the Ambassador for the World Cup 2015, Lancaster Park had been destroyed by the 2011 earthquake, and New Zealand had already had two women Prime Ministers. The city centre was being rebuilt. India’s former coach John Wright, another resident, took me on a city tour. Hadlee came punting on the River Avon, entertaining us with his imitation of Shah Rukh Khan.
I stayed at The George, next to the Hagley Park (where the Hagley Oval, current Test venue is) and with the Avon nearby. It is a four-minute drive from the mosque which witnessed the terrorist attack. Christchurch will recover from the earthquake; it will take longer to recover from the terrorism. Something pristine, something fundamental, something natural has been lost. New Zealand figured high on the list of countries least likely to be struck by terrorism. Now, sadly, we know better.
Yet, in their darkest hour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown us what leadership is, and how much other world leaders have to learn from one of the youngest in power.
She reached out to the Muslim community, she reacted with humanity and compassion, not political rhetoric and fault-finding. She moved to change the country’s gun laws. She said, “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless,” thus denying him the notoriety he craved for. As for the victims, “they are us”, she said in a phrase at once personal and profound.
You could see the sadness in her eyes, just as you could see the determination. And — as someone tweeted — she didn’t blame the country’s first Prime Minister for everything.
She held a press conference soon after the shooting, she took questions, some of them uncomfortable ones from a country reeling from the shock. The comparison with our own leaders was inevitable. And revealing.
In his History of New Zealand, Michael King wrote, “Most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism. They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country’s future.”
This is as true today — despite what happened in Christchurch — as it was when King wrote it a decade and a half ago.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)