Where do we go from here?


Truth and Justice

A Truth and Justice Commission was set up in April 2008. Its main task was to investigate the truth regarding slavery and indentured labour in Mauritius during colonial days and to make a report thereon. The report was submitted to the President of the Republic at the end of November last. Now that the report is in the hands of the government, the opposition fielded a question this week on the actions that it was proposed to take in the light of the Commission’s recommendations.

The reply was that, given that the report is voluminous, it would be desirable to examine its contents first and take the actions that would be deemed necessary in consequence.

This is fair enough. One does not expect the government to implement all of the recommendations contained in the report, but that those which are implementable and will start making a difference in the lives of the affected people will surely be proceeded with. For example, as if pre-empting some of the recommendations made by the Commission, the government has already introduced the Creole language in schools; it has only recently introduced the Equal Opportunities Act, a step that the Commission has equally recommended for having fairer social justice in Mauritius.

As it happened in South Africa, commissions of the sort generate a host of expectations on the part of those who are the subject matter of their concerns. In Mauritius, there was an expectation among the Creole community in particular that the Commission would be recommending monetary compensations to be paid to descendants of slaves, given the vast scale of suffering, exploitation and property confiscation resorted to by masters of the past age. The Commission has found evidence of the huge atrocities inflicted by the combined concerted efforts of the Catholic Church, the Chamber of Commerce and the Sugar industry. These have been invited to publicly tender apologies for wrongs done. So far, they have found no better device to react to this proposal than to let the current Secretary General of the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry to front for them. Surely, he has nothing to do. The Catholic Church issued a Communiqué yesterday bringing out how it has been tendering apologies all along at the international level in the past for having condoned the inhuman treatment of slaves and how it has made amends in Mauritius by opening up its hierarchy to the descendants of the slaves themselves.

The Commission has found out how exploiters, including unscrupulous notaries acting vicariously for those exploiters, wrenched away the possessions of those who could not defend themselves against the legal and commercial armada. However, the Commission has not recommended monetary compensation against all the abuses made by the powerful of those days in view of an identification problem as to who really are the descendants of slaves today. While one understands the impracticality of tracing out and pinning down financially the guilt of those who are sitting on huge fortunes inherited through ruffian practices of those days, the hand of history has, as it were, swept the victims of those shameful exploitations off their feet for ever. A lot of land was seized unlawfully or “prescribed” against the helplessness of their true owners. The economic elite that has emerged out of this process has gone on consolidating its growing power ‘sans partage’.

On the other hand, the Commission has endorsed the broad conclusion that severe and enduring moral and physical damage has been inflicted by the wrongful practices of slavery and indentured labour. It has therefore stood up the colonial governments of Holland, France and Britain, who were the perpetrators of these inhuman practices, to tender apologies for their past actions. Those countries have been invited to support materially the actions the Commission has recommended towards giving directly more decent living conditions and social opportunities to the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers than what prevails today in this milieu.

This recommendation will go in the direction of implementing work that was initiated when the Ministry of Social Integration was first created. In other words, the task of restoring the descendants of the affected people to decent living conditions is to be carried out through various means of empowerment of the people who deserve to be embraced by what the Commission has called a system of “social justice for all”. The victims of the old system of slavery in its distinct manifestations have to be positively discriminated into by specific schemes. This should entail implementing decisions to improve their housing conditions and to give them objective access to specialised technical training so that they could catch up from the relative state of neglect in which many of them, Creoles in particular, are finding themselves today.

The Commission has no doubt brought into limelight what we see every day. The Creole community has not been making the headway that it ought to have made with the passage of time. It has not been rising reasonably well from the handicaps of a distressful past at the hands of pitiless masters who have exploited the community to the maximum. Why? What should be done? We hope that there are answers beyond what we have mentioned above in the Commission’s report.

It jumps to the eye that the absence of a dedicated leadership has proved to be damaging to this community in particular. This leadership is not simply political or ecclesiastical; it has to be at the level of the grassroots. The family is the nucleus around which enduring values are cultivated or, alternatively, destroyed. We are seeing even today, and not solely in the Creole community, families that are quickly torn apart because of an insufficient amount of parental emotional maturity. Where parents are enlightened guides to their children towards hosting ambitions for better tomorrows, they lead their wards to safe ports. Where however parents are too much engrossed in their own indulgence, they are unable to introduce the amount of discipline that should make their children achievers in a society that does not discriminate in terms of access to education, transport of school-children, healthcare, etc., among its citizens. Micro-level adaptation and self-improvement is key to development. Governments can exert influence at this level only indirectly. Individuals can do so directly.

It is the hallmark of developed societies that their micro-level leaderships will face the direst hardships to give their new generation the indomitable will to fight up against all the odds. If that were not so, how could we have a President Obama of the United States? One will normally expect the children of Barack and Michelle Obama to imitate or emulate their parents trying to hit the stars in their turn. True leadership at the family level means that, no matter all the difficulties we’ve been through in the past, we should not use this as an excuse not to break new social barriers. As in the past, the elite which wield economic and social power will not give up their strongholds for a song. You have to fight it up, make constant inroads by ceaseless efforts without which there is a risk that the chance of a new life may slip out of your fingers. A time comes when you cease correcting what misfired in the past; you engage in building up new substance, leaving old baggage behind. People have to be pushed in this direction of “assuming their own responsibilities” first and foremost.

Many descendants of slaves and indentured labourers have at times chosen a lifestyle of least effort. It is in circumstances like this that the role model slips out of the picture and brings in a reversal of fortune hitting against the catching-up process. If you abandon culture and espouse something alien that does not manage to eke out the genius that was found in your cultural roots, you will soon be disoriented, much to your loss. On the other hand, a persistent dash at technology and things modern, keeping your feet firmly planted in your real cultural roots, has the potential to get you even higher than the modern technology alone. It is this kind of creativity and leadership qualities that the State should inspire into individuals by projecting an all-round image of its own fairness towards all and nudging up a bit those who need to be nudged up. It is only if we are really headed north, delving deeper into the future of greater splendour rather than into a past of more bitterness than joy, that Mauritius will find its true expression of well-being all around.

* Published in print edition on 9 December 2011

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