For A New Social Contract

By Sada Reddi

During her visit to Mauritius in 1956 princess Margaret travelled in an open vehicle. This was rather risky as the crowd tried to get a closer view of the princess. Malcolm de Chazal then wrote an open letter to the Governor suggesting that better security measures be taken to protect important visitors. The governor was furious that a civil servant had dared write to him an open letter and consequently it fell to the Colonial Secretary to formally instruct Malcolm de Chazal to retire six years prior to his normal retirement age. There is no better example of the authoritarian nature of the colonial state.

After independence the successor state was meant to be at least liberal, let alone democratic. But today the liberal regime suffers from a number of aberrations and one major explanation of these aberrations is the elitist control of our society and its pernicious influence thereon. Since it is the lower and working classes that bear the brunt of the various malpractices, they should seek and negotiate a new social contract with the elite to safeguard their interests and work together for a better society.

In seeking to explain why our democratisation process has been so slow, the blame is more often laid at the door of the political class. This explanation is too simplistic for it overlooks the fact that while the political class has its share of blame in the way our society evolves, it must be recognized that the political system has also had to adapt to the social structure dominated by an elitist system which controls most of the levers of power in our society.

At the Lancaster Conference 1965, our political representatives did their best to craft a democratic state adapted to a plural society. But all they could achieve by consensus was simply a liberal state. A number of proposals were put forward; some were rejected, but on the whole consensus was reached on the establishment of a liberal state for Mauritius. After independence it has been extremely difficult to even implement a liberal regime successfully.

Elitist domination of our society

In trying to understand our political traditions, we should remember that our political system was not founded in 1968 after we had been given a new constitution. It had evolved over a long period of time going back to at least the nineteenth century, and was marked by the ascendancy of the White elite, as well as contestation by the rising Coloured elite which was joined by the Indian elite in the first half of the twentieth century.

The political system, formalized by the constitution in 1968, is an organic one, which evolved from our own past political experience, which the discussions at the Lancaster Conference referred to and comprised our laws, institutions, social and economic structure and other conventions and values. For example, some of our fundamental rights already existed during colonial times, and a few of them were suspended with the outbreak of war in 1939.

It is also well known that our judicial system has evolved from the time of the French rule and has been adapted during British rule. All said and done, the colonial system remained authoritarian with powers vested in the hands of one person — the governor right up to 1967–, apart from the fact that in the British colonial system the colonies were administered by ordinances and orders in Council.

In 1968, we inherited all the major features of a liberal state — representative government, cabinet rule, a civil service, the judiciary, rule of law, an electoral system, a mixed economy and even an independent Commissioner of Police and a Director of Public Prosecutions. At the same time, what we also inherited was a centralized system of government where the powers were distributed among various institutions under the control of an elite but also in fundamental ways under the control of the Prime Minister. By elite, we mean the politicians, the civil servants, the professionals who staff all our institutions or parastatal bodies, as well as the entrepreneurs, businessmen and managers in the corporate sector – both public and private.

This elitist domination of our society – under the control of and with excessive powers held by the Prime Minister – is not a post-independent phenomenon and can be traced back to the type of colonial society prevalent in Mauritius. Business interests were represented in the Council of Government from 1831 onwards, and from that time they dominated colonial politics and were represented in all our institutions.

What is therefore new after independence?

All the institutions inherited from the past have been retained and consolidated. The old elite prevails in the private sector where it has intensified its oligopolistic control over the economy and worked closely or accommodated itself with the new elite, which has expanded since independence. For example, the only difference between the old and the new elites is that that the latter is not based on the productive resources of the country; it relies solely on the state for its survival, for jobs, resources, security, honour and status.

However, both the new and the old elites are organically linked by monetary interests for they are interdependent and rely on the state to survive. One section of the new elite relies on political control of the state for resources, jobs, promotion, and security. The business entrepreneurs of the new elite share with the old elite government contracts for they are the ones to procure goods and services to the state. Contractors, big and small, often arrange among themselves to bid for contracts at the highest prices in order to make excessive profits to the detriment of the state and the public.

The old elite, despite being invisible in politics, prefers to pull the strings from behind the curtain. While politicians may buy votes, the business elite buys governments. They are powerful enough to wring concessions from the government and these concessions are made available annually in the budgets or in various projects that require government support.

In the 1950s, a dry cleaning and steam plant would not have been set up without the guarantee of a contract for the washing of hospital linen. Similarly, in the 1960s, a pharmaceutical venture would not have been successful as an import-substitution industry without a contract to supply medicines to government hospitals.

Today these kinds of financial concessions have gone to the extreme – inflated and juicy contracts, writing off of debts, ad hoc legislation to sell land to foreigners, and to exempt property developers from environmental control while the middle and poorer classes are impoverished by the effects of inflation and unemployment; on the other hand, insecurity and despair have gripped an increasing number of young people, who now believe their future lies in emigration.

High prices of petrol are today maintained to fill the coffers of the state and to compensate for low economic output and wastage of resources. The elite has betrayed the country on matters concerning the environment and has remained indifferent to the utilisation of high doses of pesticides in the cultivation of local vegetables, likely resulting in various types of cancer. Every family must have heard about a relative or friend suffering from cancer. Unfortunately no research seems to have been undertaken to find the roots of the problem. And one does not expect the private sector-financed environmental NGOs to rake up such issues.

In the past, it was expected that the new elite would be progressive enough to work for the welfare of the lower classes and incorporate the interests of the latter in public policies for the betterment of society.

This is how some major successes have been achieved thanks to progressive legislations and the establishment and maintenance of the welfare state. But it is increasingly felt that the interests of the lower classes are given short shrift. Their aspirations remain unfulfilled, and they are the ones who swell the number of the unemployed and have become the ‘precariat’ – those who live a precarious existence. They realize that their progress is being blocked by the elite but have found no means to articulate or redress their grievances.

In addition to their precarious living, people are plagued by all kinds of problems -– traffic congestion, noise pollution, minimum wages and pensions being gnawed by inflation, short-term employment contracts, voluntary retirement schemes, disciplinary committees, bureaucratic inertia, contaminated bottled water, school dropouts, and loss of livelihoods. Consequently, all our citizens have to bear the consequences of all these problems, which remain unattended.

The elite, initially constituted of kinship groups, has other dimensions which are ethnic, professional, or even religious, and has over the course of time evolved into other types of associations. These range from masonic lodges to service groups and organisations to protect and advance their material interests and are today responsible in a large measure for the destruction of almost all our institutions. The recent conflicts among our various institutions notably the Police and the judiciary is a symptom of a deeper malaise which is undermining the democratic order.

Reversing the decline

All is not lost thanks to the activism of various public-spirited individuals in different social and political organisations, the public service, the legal profession and the press. Additionally, a section of the elite, though not entirely innocent as regards past lapses, has come to realize the shocking state of our country where corruption and nepotism have fallen to unprecedented level for the sake of filthy lucre, and is determined to reverse the process of decline.

Therein lies an opportunity for the lower and working classes to come together for a new contract – with social, economic and constitutional measures. One would not suggest the overhauling of the whole system right away, but certainly a new socio-economic order must be worked out, the poor must be lifted out of poverty and the young must be given hope and encouragement to work and live in the country.

Equally important is the restoration of our democracy. This is an enormous task, and a detailed programme must be worked out with the population. It should not only spell out important projects but also specific and sometimes mundane measures which the public has been demanding for some time.

A few which come to mind are the possibility of limiting an MLA to a maximum of 4 mandates – two as an MLA and an additional two as cabinet minister (if appointed by the PM) at the end of the second mandate -, a freedom of Information Act, eligibility of a certain category of civil servants and staff of parastatal bodies to stand as candidates, reactivation of the Domains Book which lists all crown lands and subsequent changes. Also, no less important, such as having a woman attendant in an ambulance and so many others, some of which may appear mundane to those at the top.

A judicious combination of competent, experienced, and young politicians dedicated to public service should be able to mobilize our people and rise to these daunting challenges. This is our hope on the eve of our Independence and Republic Day celebrations.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 10 March 2023

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