Abolition of slavery
They were brought here as slaves. They were freed in the late 1830s when the law of abolition of slavery was allowed to take effect. They have been free men for 170 years, an event the nation will celebrate on the coming 1st February.
In this interval, many emerged from their ranks who became top administrators, politicians and educators in this country. Many of the excellent craftsmen from among them in the different trades are remembered with pride and satisfaction by those of the previous generation. They were trusted for nothing less than excellence and great ingenuity in areas of responsible work where they were called upon to deliver. Yet, if one were to take stock of the plight of many of their descendants today, it is a sad thing that the majority of them have not followed closely in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors in all the different walks of life. Something has failed them on the way. This can be nothing else than leadership.
The present generation has realised this key shortcoming. Some of them have revolted against the hierarchy which they believed up till then to be protecting their interests or giving them a fair chance to prove their mettle and rise. This happened in the Catholic Church in which priests from the Afro-Mauritian fold, commonly referred to as Creoles, were suddenly faced with glass ceilings. They realized that they have not been able to ascend the social ladder despite all the cooperation they have tendered for a hundred years or more. The pari passu clause broke down from the point at which it started mattering. Preferring the private sector to the public sector when it came to working life, they again failed to make their mark as entrepreneurs in their own right or as managers of recognised mettle. There is no denying that the superstructure in which they traditionally placed their trust has not given them equal attention after having obtained their numerical support in its diverse pursuits, including in the political field.
Have they fared better at the level of the family? For, in the case of others who, having had identical handicapped starting points as the Creoles, it is the family that has acted as the spur to progress. Everyone was at more or less the same point when Indian indentured labour started coming into Mauritius in the 19th century. There was hardly any concrete advantage on which to build up a solid base. Everyone was handicapped by interdictions of physical displacement from one place in the island, to which he was restricted in those days, to any other except after obtaining a special pass. Social association was thus not possible on a wider scale than that of the immediate community to which the worker was tied by contract. This was applicable to Hindus, Muslims and Creoles, just the same. Everyone was subjected to the same low salaries and corvées as the others. What will explain in that case that Hindus and Muslims, while not forming part actually of the top business conglomerates of the island, succeeded to obtain and preserve nevertheless some commanding commercial heights here whereas this kind of ascendancy is not so evident in the case of descendants of the Creole community?
The difference appears to lie in family traditions. Descendants of Asian families have been more frugal than those from the Afro-Mauritian fold. It is not a matter of one lifestyle being better than the other; it is more about keeping an eye to the future, building up on stepping stones by pushing social and academic achievement to ever higher levels. It is keeping family units tied together, preferably for the whole lifetime. It is about not losing the momentum of progress of the family as a whole when bad times hit or even when the going is good. Some of these families moved up because of an inherent passion for self-sacrifice on the part of elders in the family.
Seen from this angle, the family has benefited from an effective economic leadership in one case and less so in the case of the Creole community. What needed to be done is to change priorities and that was the responsibility of the leadership. Those who have benefited from this kind of leadership have actually made headway. Unfortunately, the majority from the Creole community has not derived this kind of persistent support from a leadership attentive to its aspirations. Moreover, for historical reasons, the community has held leaders from the Hindu and Muslim communities at a distance, preferring to be led by people of the same confession but who happened to belong to numerical minorities in the same fold. Yet, those Hindu and Muslim leaders have advocated nothing less than the universal distribution of social welfare benefits across the spectrum, without regard to communal considerations.
We were all minorities at one time. America has proved that in democratic frameworks which really work, the highest post of the land is not denied to a brilliant son of the land without consideration to the fact that he may belong a minority racial group. The real chains were broken nearly two centuries ago. The invisible chains that stand in the way of further progress need to be thrown out next for the Creole community not to continue to cast its lot among the worst off in the Mauritian community. Those were the ages of bullock carts, forced labour, ignorance and repression. Times have changed. With internet technology and globalisation, the focus is now on ways to increase social mobility. At the heart of this effort lies education. Education is the liberator of the modern age. Past investment in education under the leadership that has obtained so far has, in quite a few cases, produced disappointing results. Absence of adequate achievement at this level has caused frustration and induced many, and that too not solely from the Creole community, to have recourse to petty and bigger crimes.
One has to arrest this. Let not the tyranny of the past and past habits foster a subculture of under-development in an entire community. Let a few rise from the ashes of the phoenix to show the way, not by isolating the entire community into a self-inflicted ghetto but by making it open up to the much wider opportunities that the bigger world has to offer. Such leaders have to set the example for a new departure to a better future. History has proved that putting trust in single leaders has not directed the Creole community to the best outcomes; working together with a trusted, wider and more inclusive leadership can be the next step towards a more stable and reliable leadership. Unless there is a breakaway from established attitudes, it will become increasingly difficult to adapt to and integrate with this big world. It is better to be one with the mainstream than to operate as a perpetual victim along with vindications of one sort or another. Standing on one’s own feet will give the confidence to go the further mile. This in itself will break down artificial economic and social barriers.
At the dawn of this new millennium, the economic powers of the world have been courting Africa. It is because the Continent can help them meet their basic needs in commodities and materials. People come to your doorstep when you are empowered, not when you are in destitution. There was another time when Africa was a mere pawn in the game of European imperial struggles; this time is now behind us. More respect will come to Africa as it becomes a world reference for good governance, at least not as bad as what western capitalism has displayed only a couple of years ago. As this happens, members of the African Diaspora, including the one in Mauritius will feel justly proud of themselves. There is nothing wrong if they decided to cast off the slack from the past and move on to a more assertive universal standard of achievements in the diverse economic and social fields right from now. The time has come.
* Published in print edition on 28 January 2011
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