What is the Wantok System?


The term wantok arose in colonial times, when Papua New Guinea indigenes found themselves working on plantations away from their families and traditional lands. A communal people, they sought others with whom they could relate and on whom they could rely. Where possible, these were people who spoke the same language as them, although they lived in a land of some 830 languages. Ideally, they were kin or from the same clan or tribe. The wantok system, therefore, has its roots both in precolonial kinship systems and in the increasing disruption to traditional life brought by European contact. Prior to contact, kinship groups tended to be small and geographically isolated from their neighbours.

People were divided into kinsfolk and strangers.3 Although trade was practised, groups were largely self-sufficient and depended on subsistence farming. Kinship systems varied greatly across New Guinea and the islands of Melanesia, but it was generally common to them that members were related by marriage and descent and that reciprocity and the giving of gifts were critical dimensions of these cultures. In colonial and post-colonial times, movement of peoples has meant that the range of a person’s significant relationships has grown to include not just kin but also people from the same language group, from the same geographical area and, more recently, from the same religion, the same province or from the whole country.4 The term wantok is what philosophers call an analogous concept. It begins with a core or original meaning and extends, maintaining that core meaning but also allowing difference.

The wantok system is a set of arrangements that defines who is in a particular group and that organises how the members of that group relate to one another. The relationships are personal and built on affection. Respect is a significant virtue. Reciprocity—the giving and receiving of gifts—is central to the morality of the group, so that most transactions of goods are more than simply commercial. There may be calculation of value, but the exchange is more significant for the relationship it sustains. The arrangements are set in custom (kastom) rather than legislation and groups are generally led by a bigman, who has demonstrated ability in managing

relationships and generosity in caring for the group and seeing to its external relationships. Solomon Islander, Gordon Leua Nanau, summarises the system in this way:

The “wantok system” is a way of organising a society for subsistence living that ensures the survival of a group of people. It emphasises reciprocal networks and caring for each other’s needs as and when necessary and ensures the security of members from external forces and threats.5

The wantok system, therefore, provides safe relationships so that people can, for instance, move from their village of origin to the city and be assured of accommodation, basic sustenance and company. Reciprocity ensures that those living in the city do not lose touch with their village and are able to return. Communities can function well and care for persons even under difficult circumstances, although carers do have their limits and failure to reciprocate can lead to gradual exclusion.6 Nevertheless, at times, the obligation to reciprocate can strain the recipient’s limited pool of resources.

From the Aristotelian point of view, a wantok group is a pre-political community. It is this rather than a political community for two important reasons. First, because life is governed by kastom, it does not imagine that its rules can change. In fact, kastom does change but only either slowly over an extended time or more quickly in response to generally external threats, pressures, or opportunities. This does not mean that wantoks do not engage in “politics,” but rather that they are not engaged in thoughtfully and constantly amending their laws and customs in search of better arrangements. Secondly, at least in its primary form, members are kin rather than people who are different. Nevertheless, Aristotle builds his political community out of existing pre-political communities and he sees the polis or country as bound together by affection or friendship (philia). In contrast, the Idea of the Modern State does away with pre-political communities so as to make the “individual” the basic unit of the political community and imagines a state bound not by friendship but by fear in the form of the coercive powers of the state itself. Security and opportunity are found in the guise of rights and a state capable of enforcing them.7

Even, therefore, in the formation of a large and diverse country, the wantok system can be seen in a positive light. At present, most of the population of PNG live in rural areas away from cities and towns and at some distance from government. The wantok system underpins community order and tribal governance. It ensures systems of care and of restorative justice through village courts. It is the cultural energy that holds communities together. It is not unreasonable to hope that, as PNG forms as a nation, this same energy will generate a force for socio-political ordering.8 The extension of the term that we noted earlier need not just be a play on words. It can, rather, denote an extension of the deep communal relations that bind kinship groups to relations that bind the whole country.

The political question is, how do you construct a constitution and institutions in a way that recognises the networks of relationships that are already working in the country?


It is not surprising, on the other hand, that the wantok system is frequently regarded as disruptive in the face of modern development. This disruption, as we have seen, is born out of the dislocation that followed colonisation. In addition, as can be seen clearly in the case of PNG, the amount and rate of change that the people of Melanesia are undergoing is immense, and change usually disrupts people’s lives. Although Britain and Germany proclaimed protectorates over East New Guinea in 1884, it was not until the 1930s, when planes flew over New Guinea, that the outside world recognised that large populations lived in the Highlands, and it was not till the 1960s that the majority of these people experienced contact with government officers (kiaps). If we recognise that the world as a whole has had difficulty coping with the rate of technological, social, economic and political change, the challenge to PNG is made clear. It is made more difficult not just by ethnic diversity, but by the fact that the different regions – Papua, Momase, New Guinea Islands, and the Highlands – have had different experiences along different time lines. There are, however, deeper reasons.

PNG became an independent country in 1975, Solomon Islands in 1978, and Vanuatu in 1980, which in the current world political system meant that they became sovereign states recognised by the United Nations and took on the form and structure of the modern state, also called the nationstate. The claim to be such a state implies certain assumptions. First, it assumes a nation, that is, a single people who are culturally and ethnically one and who recognise themselves as such so as to be able to live together peacefully. Second, it assumes an array of institutions in which officials act strictly in accord with their function and the rules surrounding it rather than in accord with personal allegiances and motives or in hope of gain. The most important of these institutions are the legislature or parliament,

composed of democratically elected politicians usually belonging to ideologically formed parties; the government, composed of ministers and officials in the bureaucracy; and the judiciary, which is independent of both parliament and government and impartial towards those whom it judges.

Third, it presupposes a large economy that generates financial surpluses sufficient to run the apparatus of government and to allow the government to provide a wide range of services, particularly in education, health, transport, communications, and security.

Left unchecked the wantok system has the potential to disrupt all of these assumptions.9 If wantok groups in Melanesian nations are too strong and too singular in their commitment to their own group to the exclusion of others, how can a nation be formed?10 At the level of state institutions, Melanesia has an unfortunate legacy from colonial times in which many view the state as a source of material goods, that is, as a kind of patron, rather than as an institution in which all participate and in which political actors work constructively for the good of the whole.11

Indeed, the wantok system has shown that it is able to subvert most institutions. Politicians are often accused of showering beer or other goods on small parts of an electorate, generally wantoks, in order to gain power and get access to government “slush funds.” Public servants may feel pressured to give preference to their wantoks rather than to strictly follow law and policy. Finally, judges and magistrates are often pressured by their wantoks, or are perceived to favour them. PNG, in particular, has great natural resources, especially in minerals, gas, oil and timber, and these are generating increasing revenues; but there are complaints that the money is not managed properly and services are diminishing across the country, and that this can be attributed to the failure of its institutions.12

A final word needs to be said about how the wantok system can disrupt local life. First, it can make it impossible to run a small business successfully. Any business, whether it is a shop, a piggery, or a chicken farm, needs to gather sufficient money and resources to begin, and then to protect its profits so as to replenish stock or resources that have been sold. If the wantok system intervenes so that those resources are taken up in the cycle of gift-giving, the business will collapse. Second, there are growing claims that the wantok system makes living in urban areas more difficult. Although it assists those who have recently arrived in a town and those who have experienced hardship, as cities develop people have to rely on the cash economy, and money that is easily let go is soon dissipated altogether.13