THE HONOURABLE SANI LAKATANI
In June 2020, I spoke with Sani Lakatani, a Malaya and Vietnam veteran and the former premier of Niue. He shared his experiences serving with the New Zealand Defence Force, under the Military Training Act 1949 and his decision to later join the New Zealand Army where he served overseas in both Malaya and Vietnam. We also discussed his later political career as the Premier of Niue.
Sani Lakatani arrived in New Zealand from Niue at 18 years old, shortly after his arrival he received a letter; a call for service with the New Zealand Defence Force under the Military Training Act of 1949. He was requested for service for 12 weeks of training beginning in January 1956.
Compulsory Military Training was a form of conscription, the Act which came into effect in 1950, meant that all male residents of New Zealand were liable to be called upon to serve in the Armed Forces. Initially recruits had to undergo 14 weeks of intensive full time training, three years of part time service, and six years in the Reserve. Approximately 63,000 New Zealanders were trained via the 1949 Act, which was later replaced by the National Service Registration Act of 1958. The National Service Registration required every male resident of New Zealand to register for National Service, in the new act of 1961 the age for registering was raised to 20 and ballots based on dates of birth were drawn to decide who would undertake compulsory service. Compulsory Military Training officially ended in New Zealand in 1972.
Sani’s training took place over 12 weeks at Papakura, and he then entered part-time service. He recalled how ‘It was a bit of a hassle because every weekend we would have to go for training,’ which took place at Sylvia Park, at the end of the year they would then have a further two weeks of full time training in King Country. Sani was posted to the 3 Auckland Ranfurly Battalion, but quickly grew tired of spending his weekends training with the Army. Instead he travelled to Taupō, where he worked on a farm, before moving to Wellington.
It was while in Wellington, that the Army caught up with him. One weekend Sani attended a party with some of his friends, when a brawl broke out. He ended up getting involved, and the Police were called and he was arrested along with his friends, spending the weekend at Mt Crawford Prison. They were fined about £5 and ordered to pay restitution for the broken windows, ‘... then the summons came, failing to attend the parade, failing to attend training.’ He remembers being informed ‘You are subject to New Zealand Law, you have to do military training, if you don’t you’ll be deported back to Niue.’ Instead, he marched into the General Headquarters Building on the corner of Taranaki and Buckle Street in Wellington and registered for service with the New Zealand Army.
Everything moved rather quickly, Sani was given a warrant and sent back to Auckland to collect his territorial uniform and then returned to Wellington. After arriving in Wellington early on Monday morning, he returned to Buckle Street, where he handed his uniform back in, then was on a train to Linton Camp that same day.
While at Linton Camp he was posted to the 2 Battalion, New Zealand Regiment and told he would be going to Malaya. During our interview he joked with his son Chris, that at the time he didn’t even know where Malaya was on the map! He initially thought that he was going to be posted as a section commander in the infantry, but instead was posted to the signals. Rather than be disappointed he saw this as an opportunity, and did a lot of reading and learning, training in Morse Code everyday. Becoming one of the best in Morse Code, Sani was able to send 30 words a minute and read about 20 words a minute. He told me how Morse Code was invaluable whilst in the jungle of Malaya, as you wouldn’t have been able to get voice commands.
Shortly after Sani returned from Malaya, he met his wife Elizabeth Genevieve Lauaki Viva Lakatani, known as Betty Viva. He told me fondly of how they first met over the phone, while she was staying with family friends in Christchurch. They finally met in person in September, when Sani convinced her to come to a party with him. ‘She looks like Elizabeth Taylor, and she got out and she looked at me, oh my goodness, and she spoke Niuean to me, I was so embarrassed, too scared to touch her, she was so special.’
Sani was supposed to have been going overseas as part of New Zealand's contribution to the Borneo Confrontation, instead he and Betty decided to get married. He recalled telling his Colonel that he was going to get married, who to his shock asked if he could meet Betty. After their meeting, his Colonel told him, ‘Well I told her everything about you and in the end I asked her do you still want to marry him, and she said yes.’ They sent a letter to Niue in September, and back came the reply that the wedding would wait until Betty’s mother arrived in New Zealand.
At this time travelling from Niue to New Zealand took about three or four days via MV Tofua. Betty’s mother arrived around Christmas time in 1965, Sani and Betty Lakatani married the following month in January 1966. The Army had to wait.
Sani and his wife Betty welcomed their first child, a daughter Gaylene who was born in July 1967, while they were still in Christchurch. A few months later in November, Sani was deployed to Vietnam, as part of the W2 Company of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. Betty and Gaylene were able to come with Sani during his deployment, staying at the Terendak Military Camp. While at first he was nervous about how his wife would like Malaya, she ended up loving it, because as Sani told me ‘the army looked after the wives very well.’ Sani and his son recalled how Betty took up numerous sports while in Malaya; Tennis, Basketball, Badminton, there was a Kapa Haka group, and a ten pin bowling league. While the family were in Malaya, they also welcomed their second child Christopher, and to celebrate his arrival there was a 21 gun salute. Sani recalls that in August of 1969, the Battalion went on R&R and that was the first time he saw his son, then seven days later he was sent back into Vietnam.
While in Vietnam Sani served with both 4 RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) and 6 RAR, spending six months with both as Mortarman. His last role in Vietnam was as a Mobile Fire Controller, ‘I had a map, protractor, compass and place marker, like a step counter to navigate the jungle … 1000 paces would be about 600 to 700 metres and we would travel in the direction of the compass.’ Navigating the jungle became like second nature.
Though the realities of war were never far from mind, he recalled an incident; ‘When I went from Fire Controller and took over the Mortar Section, the first time I joined them I was attached to the Australia Cavalry, there were four Mortars, and then my mortar section on the ground, but the Australian’s were all on APC’s [Armoured personnel carrier] and pointing 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Which was a problem.’ He explained to me that what had happened was the Platoon Sergeant who was a trained infantryman instead of a Mortarman, adjusted the bearings on the ground but had not accounted for the effects of the metal in the APC’s. It was a close call, which resulted in Sani taking over the command.
While his role as a Mobile Fire Controller was his most rewarding, the hardest aspect of his service was the training. ‘I found that training for war was harder than fighting in the war, it’s simply because we applied every [scenario] in training.’ Sani spoke on how training for the New Zealand Army was incredibly intense, they trained for two years before going into the Battalion, undergoing basic, core and then specialist training, as well as learning how to live in a jungle, and First Aid. Before going to Vietnam, they had specialist training in Oxford, Canterbury. And because of the jungle warfare of Vietnam they were sent to Fiji for two weeks. Sani’s frequent trips to Fiji made him incredibly popular amongst friends and his family, ‘It was good to go to Fiji … to get Taro and Bananas [because] you weren’t allowed that stuff in New Zealand.’ He had struck up a deal with a Major in the Fijian army and he was allowed to take the Taro’s back to New Zealand, ‘There was me with my bag of Taros and Bananas - you couldn’t get Island food in Christchurch.’
Sani and his family returned to New Zealand from Vietnam in December 1969, they had a holiday in Singapore for a couple of weeks, before arriving in Auckland at 3am. He found out later, the early morning arrival was because,‘ … of the public upheaval, they thought we were killers, we had bloodshed, it was devastating.’
The Vietnam war created an enormous political and public debate in New Zealand raising questions about our foreign policy and place in the world. Worldwide there were enormous protests against the Vietnam War, which were often focused on the actions of the United States government, particularly the role of conscription into the United States Armed Force. There were also multiple major protests throughout New Zealand in the late 1960s until New Zealand withdrew from Vietnam in the early 1970s. Mobilisations in the early 1970s saw thousands marching in protest of New Zealand’s involvement, in May 1971, anti-war protestors disrupted a civic reception for the 161 Battery and troopers from the New Zealand Special Air Service outside Auckland’s Town Hall. Wellington also saw massive protests against the war in Vietnam, with one such protest gathering an estimated 35,000 people.
It wasn’t until 1998 that a parade to welcome home New Zealand’s Vietnam Veterans was held. Known as ‘Parade 98’ it began on Saturday 30 May 1998 with a pōwhiri and welcome for the veterans, followed by a March from Civic Square, and a social and concert at Queen’s Wharf that evening, a commemorative service to honour those that had died during the war was held at Anderson Park on Sunday, 31st May.
Sani remembered that there was ‘Nothing at all, nothing until 1998, there was a parade in 1998 and ten years later when the government recognised and apologised …’ In 1998, Sani and his family were living in Niue, where he was involved in politics, but he returned to Wellington for the parade and reunion.
The New Zealand government officially apologised to the Vietnam veterans on the 28th May 2008,
'The Crown extends to New Zealand Viet Nam veterans and their families an apology for the manner in which their loyal service in the name of New Zealand was not recognised as it should have been, when it should have been, and for the inadequate support extended to them and their families after their return home from the conflict.’
Sani spent twenty years with the New Zealand Army, Regular Force and two years with the Territorial Force, leaving in 1978 when he applied for a re-settlement into civilian life. Inspired by his time in Singapore on multiple occasions, led Sani into his next career in Niuean politics.
Just before Sani left the New Zealand Army in 1978, he was in Singapore, where he met with Sir Albert Henry, the first Premier of the Cook Islands, who told him that Niue had just become self-governing in free association with New Zealand, which made Sani wonder, ‘whose idea was that.’ He had been to Singapore on a few different occasions, and found himself quite interested in its politics, from 1959 to 1969 he recalled a massive change in Singapore, ‘High rises, condominiums, [it had] changed so much. When we went back in 1972, with the election in 1973, to learn how he [Lee Kuan Yew] does it.
Once he had left the New Zealand Army, Sani studied towards a horticulture degree from Massey University, ‘It was good, I did the course and that was my preparation to go to Niue … We went and had a look in Niue and I knew I wanted to help, to help get an income in Niue.’ Horticulture and growing produce was how he planned to do it. He contacted his brothers who at the time were living in Hawaii, studying at Brigham Young University, who helped him to secure funds for bulldozers to clear the plantations, aluminium boats, outboard boats, vehicles and tractors. However, his plan took a turn, ‘I smelled a rat, politics at play, I stopped the orders … I realised these people are playing politics.’
Sani returned to New Zealand, where he worked for a little while before returning to Niue. To stand for the Common Roll you have to be a resident of Niue for at least three months, ‘I stood for the Common Roll, there are six seats in the Common Roll and 14 Seats in the Village Roll, I came fourth so they voted me in. So that’s when I got into politics in Niue, in 1990 I was given the portfolio of Finance and Economic Development.’
His role in politics was not one without turmoil, he was sacked by Premier Robert Rex after a disagreement about leadership. Following Premier Robert Rex's death in December 1992, Young Vivan took over as the Premier, and Sani’s cousin Frank Lui won the 1993 election and re-appointed Sani as Finance Minister. As his role as Finance Minister, Sani began to work towards his goal of getting more income to Niue, and Frank wanted to support him. However, while Sani was overseas attending a conference in Egypt, a taro export went terribly wrong, and $400,000 worth of taros was lost, after they became rotten on the container ship. After a cabinet reshuffle in October 1994, he lost the Finance portfolio and subsequently resigned from cabinet. He then joined the opposition, which reorganised itself into the Niue’s People Party and deadlocked the assembly.
In 1999 he became the Premier of Nuie, after going up against Frank Lui. Shortly after becoming Premier, Sani was invited to Wellington by New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, where a function for Sani and the Niue community was held. He remained premier of Niue, until 2002 when Young Vivian took over premiership and Sani became the Deputy Premier, he remained in this position until August 2002, after he was sacked for voting against the proposed budget. Sani took extended leave from the Niue Assembly, returning to Auckland to be with his wife and family, and officially resigned from Niue Politics in 2004.
The Right Honourable Sir Ananad Satyanand summed up Sani’s political career, during a reception for the Niue Community at Government House, telling Sani; ‘I follow your political career [it has been a] colourful career.’
Sani and I both laughed at this, as it does aptly describe his experiences in politics, and this is where our chat drew to a close. Fakaaue Lahi to Sani and his family, for sitting down and joining me for a wonderful chat about his experiences serving with the New Zealand Army in Malaya and Vietnam and his role as Premier of Niue.
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Cite this article
Sani Lakatani. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 8 October 2020. Updated: 12 July 2021.