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Matariki – The Eyes of God

When the constellation Pleiades, a star cluster, rises in the sky in May and June, the Maori nation of New Zealand celebrate the beginning of a New Year.

H.E Mike Burrell, High Commissioner of New Zealand to South Africa hosted an evening of stargazing and storytelling at his residence in Pretoria, South Africa.

Photo: Debbie Yazbek

Matariki is both the name for Pleiades and translates to the ‘eyes of god’. In traditional times, Matariki was a season to celebrate and to prepare the ground for the coming year. Offerings of the produce of the land were made. It was also a good time to instruct young people in the lore of the land and certain birds and fish were especially easy to harvest at this time.



Dr. Mathole Motshekga, the guest speaker on the occasion, shared his knowledge of indigenous culture, referring to the cosmic realm that has a direct influence on planet earth, and has inspired many symbolisms adopted by humanity. He pointed out that many similarities belong to the universal astrological occurrences, which ironically humanity has used to create division and conflict.

The recent revival of Matariki by the Maori Language Commission is to reclaim a traditional culture and a focus on regenerating the Maori language.

H.E Mike Burrell, High Commissioner of New Zealand to South Africa and Dr. Mathole Motshekga addressing guests
Guests stargazing
Photographer: Debbie Yazbek

Speech by H.E Mike Burrell, High Commissioner of New Zealand to South Africa at the event

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Greetings, Greetings, Greetings to you all.

And welcome.  

My name is Mike Burrell and I am the High Commissioner of New Zealand. It is my great pleasure to be able to welcome you all here tonight to this, the New Zealand High Commission’s inaugural celebration of Matariki.

It is great to see so many of you here tonight to celebrate with us.

I would like to acknowledge our guest speaker, Dr Motshekga; and our Honorary Consul from Cape Town, Father Michael Lapsley.   

I would like to welcome our colleagues from DIRCO, and other representatives from the South African Government. As well as friends from South Africa’s business community and civil society.

A special welcome also to our friends and colleagues from the Diplomatic Corp.

And a very warm Kia ora to all our friends from the New Zealand community who are here tonight.  

We are here this evening to celebrate Matariki. But many of you will be asking – what is Matariki?

Matariki is the Māori name for the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades. In New Zealand, the stars come into view, low on the north-eastern horizon, in the last days of May or in early June. They appear just before dawn. Many of you will be glad that we’re not following the ANZAC Day tradition and holding this event at dawn.

Various iwi (Māori Tribes) would celebrate Matariki at different times. Some held festivities when Matariki was first seen in the dawn sky. Others celebrated after the rise of the full moon, or at the beginning of the next new moon.

Different iwi ascribe different meanings to the ascent of Matariki each May or June.

Matariki literally means the “eyes of god” (mata ariki) or “little eyes” (mata riki).

According to legend, when Ranginui the sky father, and Papatūā-nuku the earth mother, were separated by their offspring, the god of the winds Tāwhiri-mātea, became so angry that he tore out his eyes and hurled them into the heavens.

Others say Matariki is the mother surrounded by her six daughters. One account explains that Matariki and her daughters appear to assist the sun, Te Rā, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.

For all iwi, the importance of Matariki has been captured in proverbs and in songs, which link it with the bright star Whānui.

Traditionally, Matariki was a time to remember those who had died in the last year.

But it was also a happy event: crops had been harvested, and seafood and birds had been collected. With plenty of food in the storehouses, Matariki was a time for singing, dancing and feasting. And of course story telling.

Matariki celebrations were popular before the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, and they continued into the 1900s. Gradually they dwindled, with one of the last traditional festivals recorded in the 1940s.

But throughout the 2000s, they have been revived. Only a few hundred people took part at first.  But in just a few years, thousands of people around New Zealand were once again honouring the “Māori New Year”.  It is marked with fireworks, bush walks, tree plantings, arts and crafts, carving and weaving, and of course – Kai: the Māori word for food.

So why celebrate Matariki here tonight in South Africa?

New Zealand and South Africa share a friendship that is built on a long history and a common set of values.  Looking back at our shared past, New Zealanders and South Africans have fought alongside each other, met countless times on the sports field, and joined together to defend the principles of democracy and to speak out against the scourge of apartheid.

And it was in the spirit of these close ties that we thought it was time that we celebrated our shared diversity.

New Zealand, Aotearoa, is a bicultural and increasingly multi-cultural country, built upon a partnership between the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, and the Europeans and others who came after.  Today many New Zealanders celebrate this diversity in a range of ways including Waitangi Day, and, increasingly, Matariki.    

Given that we are living in the Rainbow Nation, a country where people celebrate diversity, we thought it appropriate to share with you New Zealand’s own celebration of tradition, culture, and diversity. We look forward to strengthening our cultural ties with South Africa through events like this.

Tonight’s event is also about science and learning.  We are honoured to have scientists from the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa here with us this evening to help bring us closer to the stars.  Thank you to Dr Johan Smit and his colleagues for their enthusiasm and support.

If you haven’t already, please do go outside and look at the wonders of the night sky through the telescopes that the Astronomical Society have very kindly brought along tonight. Their scientists will be able to explain to you what you are looking at.

If you would like to know more, please walk through to the media room where you will see a presentation about the constellation of Matariki.

In recent years, science and technology have become an important part of New Zealand’s relationship with South Africa. Last year, we had the pleasure of welcoming a delegation of Department of Science and Technology officials to New Zealand, led by the honourable Minister Pandor. I welcome our friends from DST that are with us this evening.

South Africa is playing a major role in the astronomical sciences, not least through its role as a host country of the massive Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project in the Northern Cape.  

In their own innovative ways, New Zealand tech companies are contributing towards global efforts to “knock down the logistical and financial barriers” to learning about, and reaching, outer-space.

Like South Africa, New Zealand is a founding member of the SKA Organisation. Scientists across New Zealand are centrally involved in developing technologies for the project.  We are following the development of the SKA closely.  
And just last month, New Zealand “entered the space race” thanks to the innovative efforts of New Zealand and Los Angeles-based firm Rocket Lab.  The company’s 3D printed, battery-powered, and low-cost light rocket “Electron” was successfully launched into space from the North Island’s Mahia Peninsula in May.  Which allows me to say for the first time, sometimes it is Rocket Science.

Matariki is a celebration of Māori culture, and brings together all New Zealanders. It is a time of feasting, fun, storytelling and festivity. We hope you enjoy our inaugural Matariki celebration and hope it is the first of many to come.




February/March 2020

















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