Home' The Wellingtonian : October 27th 2011 Contents 12 THE WELLINGTONIAN, OCTOBER 27, 2011
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From Mt Erebus to MMP
Joseph Romanos talks
to political scientist
Nigel Roberts about
growing up in South
Africa, our best prime
ministers and taking
photos of the Mt Erebus
Nigel Roberts: ''We could see the wreckage spread over the gentle slope of the mountain.''
Photo: FAIRFAX NZ
Born in England, grew up in
South Africa, studied in Aust-
ralia -- where's home?
New Zealand, definitely. I ve
been here 40-odd years.
How did your family come to
be in South Africa?
My father was an anaesthetist,
and had itchy feet. We moved to
Holland for three years, and then
to Johannesburg when I was four.
I lived there till I was 18.
Was that a good life?
It was a very interesting time.
We arrived in 1949, the year after
the 1948 election [in which the
National Party came to power and
enforced apartheid laws]. In 1960
South Africa became a republic
and was thrown out of the Com-
monwealth. This was all fascinat-
ing for a young man who was
becoming so interested in politics.
What was it like growing up
in apartheid South Africa?
Incredible, when I look back.
called The Gulf Between about
South African politics. It was
about the gulf between white and
white -- not even a mention of
blacks! Our family had black
servants. But at the time, we felt
no guilt. It was a fact of a privi-
leged life. I went to a small pri-
vate school in Johannesburg. Our
headmaster was unusual -- he
referred to black staff as Mr .
Knowing what I know now, I
would not be able to live in those
What was your first job?
I was a copyholder for the Rand
Daily Mail, a very progressive and
courageous newspaper. I learnt so
much in that time. Then when I
was 18 I got a scholarship to a
state high school in Ohio. That
was eye-opening . . . black and
whites together, and males and
females. It was liberating.
I understand you saw Presi-
dent Kennedy while you were
Yes, he was campaigning in
Cleveland for the mid-term
elections. I took my first photo of
a politician then, of Kennedy over
about 10,000 people. It was his
last stop on the campaign trail. He
rushed back to Washington to
deal with the Cuban missile crisis.
You've been following poli-
tics in New Zealand since the
1960s. Let's talk about some of
our leading politicians.
He loved politics and worked all
hours. He ran his Government in
a very dictatorial way. In those
early days he used the medium of
television very well.
An amazing orator, with a very
quick wit. But he didn t do his
homework. He wouldn t wake up
in time to hear Morning Report,
which set the political agenda for
the day, and would be briefed on
his way to the House. But he d
still slay them in the House.
His prime ministership was a
game of two halves. In his early
years in charge he ll be
remembered poorly, but he
handled the transfer to MMP
superbly and always refused to
make race an issue in New Zea-
Clearly she had faults, but she
was a very efficient manager. She
and John Key have both been
excellent managers in an MMP
Who have been our greatest
I would name three -- Fraser,
Seddon and Holyoake. Some say
Savage, and he was an important
figure, an acceptable face of the
first Labour Government. He was
assisted, though, by having such
able people around him -- Fraser,
What do you think of MMP?
No voting system is perfect. I
was very involved in the 1992 ref-
erendum and work for the Elec-
toral Commission now, so I don t
publicly favour a particular
system. First Past the Post
suffered from a perfect storm of
three factors: Muldoon s dicta-
torial ways; Rogernomics and
Ruthanasia, when the two major
parties supporters felt betrayed;
and the 1978 and 1981 elections,
when the party winning the most
votes didn t win the most seats in
How did you come to be at
Mt Erebus taking photos after
the 1979 plane crash?
The DSIR wanted an informa-
tion officer/photographer to work
in its Antarctic division. I got the
job and spent the summer there
taking photos and writing stories
and sending them back.
What are your memories of
that fateful day?
I was waiting for the plane to
arrive to take photos, and it never
came. Transmission with the
plane was lost, which was not
unusual, but after an hour or so,
things burst into life -- Land
Rovers and jeeps racing off. From
about 3pm we knew the plane was
missing. In the evening light a
group of us went out. Usually it
was dead quiet, but that night
there was the constant sound of
plane engines during the search.
At 12.30 that night they found the
When did you go to the site?
At about 6pm the next day. It
took us about 30 minutes to get
there by helicopter. We flew about
100 feet above the ground. We
could see the wreckage spread
over the gentle slope of the moun-
tain, and bodies by the front of the
fuselage. I began taking photos.
At that moment I wasn t
overwhelmed by the enormity of
the disaster as much as nervous
about my photos coming out.
Those photos went around
Yes, that s true, especially one
of the tail of the DC-10 in the
snow, with the koru standing out
prominently. That image will be
remembered long after any article
that was written.
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