“Political leadership is not inherited. It is earned”

Interview – Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain

“… there are people who have shown the ability to take the reign of leadership but because the autocratic kings refuse to budge, nothing truly democratic will ever happen”

 Education Reform: “What elitism are we talking about when in the past few years we have had students of gardeners, taxi drivers, nurses and bus drivers being laureates or obtaining scholarships for further studies?”

Most of those who feel the pulse of the current situation prevailing in the country are of the view that Mauritius did not get the serenity it was looking for during the last elections. It seems they are having the same sort of reactions that what is going on is neither for the best nor enduring enough to make for a paradigm shift in the life of the nation. In this week’s interview with Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, who lectures at the University of Mauritius, we’ve tried to see the perspective from an educator’s point of view. Read on:

Mauritius Times: What does it feel like to be living in Mauritius these days?

Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain: To tell you honestly, I am probably not the best person to be sharing my views in your columns this week for my sense of things in the country is one of gloom and doom. Nothing seems to be working, all institutions seem to be in a state of stasis, as though waiting for something to happen.

Everyone seems to be scared of taking decisions, in addition, all that has been achieved over the last decade has been undermined by a misplaced cleansing campaign which had not planned out its objectives other than to punish the predecessors. If you look at the many human dramas playing out in the country through forced unemployment of people who have led respectable lives for years, it is a terrible state of affairs.

We seem to be stagnating, and prolonged stagnation leads to regression. Unfortunately it seems to me this is what awaits Mauritius, because those with the legislative power to make change for the better seem to have other interests at heart than the interest of the country.

* The national conversation and much of the media coverage since the beginning of the year have mostly centred on a series of investigations into alleged cases of fraud and corruption, money laundering, Ponzis, conflict of interests and what not, and much less on the real work, if any, that’s being done to help move the country ahead. That couldn’t be helped, for the cleaning up had to be done. Do you share the view that we had no other pressing matters than these to attend to?

Yes, the general euphoria after the elections was about the hope of wiping the slate clean and starting anew, after what was perceived to be the excesses of the previous government. But what the previous government did in ten years, it has taken this government only 6 months to achieve — the level of disillusion is unbelievable at all levels of society.

Maybe it’s our own fault – as a nation we tend to give politicians too much imaginary power. Maybe that is a legacy of pre-colonial times, when leaders were invested with the charismatic power to offer transformations in the life of the people. But times have changed; the conditions of democracy have changed. However, I do not feel that as a population we are educated in one of the assets of democracy – that is, taking our destiny in our own hands, independently of political leaders, who have increasingly become only leaders to their own fame rather than for the good of the country.

Democracy means awareness of our implications in the life of the State. It is far from being a spectator sport. But I think there are too many vested interests still at work within Mauritian society and this skews the equation. The democracy we have here is far from existing on a level playing field – as George Orwell said, “All animals are equal. Some animals are more equal than others.” So that what we have are groups battling it out for their own interest, in finance and business, in culture, in politics. The notion of the responsible individual citizen is still very far from the perception of most people. And I think this is why politicians can still make mincemeat of our democracy by playing on the primary pulsions of people at every election, to gain votes.

I still firmly believe in the power of education to bring change but for the last two decades I have witnessed a ballet of ministers and advisers and no one has been able to bring substantial change to the mindset of the country because they have all been thinking in terms of short 5-year spans rather than long term vision. I guess it would be judgemental to say that there are incompetent people. But when you put people at the head of educational institutions who have no inkling of what the education system is all about, who never have given a thought to the implications of running a Secondary or Tertiary institution for a country like ours, still bearing the legacies of under-development while running after first world ambitions, of course you will not know how to prioritise reform.

One minister spent his time pleasing the gallery, another tried using his autocratic influence to make his presence felt in the day-to-day running of institutions, another fails to take decisions under the cumulated weight of several heavy institutions. You can be a good technician in your field but it does not mean you have the vision to take your institution where it needs to go and in such a case it is easy to become a puppet of circumstances, dancing to every tune coming from outside, be it from the public and private sector. This is what we call an interregnum, a sense of emptiness which lies between two modes of conceiving society – the old autocratic tradition, and the idealised self-respecting aspirational model, invested with probity. The debacle is total in this country.

I am in no way qualified to talk of the financial sector but as a lay observer I notice that there are signs in that sector which are far from being reassuring. I think we are set for a long period of regression. Things will get worse before they get better.

* The press might have unwittingly lent itself to play into the hands of some political interests, thereby creating the impression that there is muck all over the place. It might be doing its job, but this does not help imparting a sense of confidence and projecting a positive image of the country. Doesn’t Mauritius deserve better? And how do we do that?

It’s tricky to talk of the press. In general they act as a good guard dog against the excesses of politics. But what is surprising is that for the last six months they have for the most part gone over to the other side. Only recently have some journalists begun to snap out of their amnesia to ‘remember’ things from the pre-Labour past as well as to begin to question publicly governmental action.

But the writing has been on the wall for some time. You know as well as I do what has to be repeated again and again, at the risk of offending some of my well-intentioned friends in the press, that the nexus between the press and the private sector is a close knit one. And the private sector means business interest. If this press, funded by the private sector – who will deny that this is a truism which has barely changed over the decades — were to unleash the kind of objective investigations that they should into governmental action, the first to suffer would be their private sector financiers. They all know that and that is why most of the press has been so careful, as though walking on eggs, so as not to offend the monarchs of the day.

As far as creating a bad or good impression, I believe that the juxtaposition of many realities is far more complex than what the recognised narratives of representation make them out to be. The press controls only part of that. You can already sense damage control has been done in the tourism and business sectors to ensure continued profit despite the appalling situation in the country. The world of high finance will always thrive through thick and thin but we are reaching a point where it will probably thrive on the carcass of the impoverished and marooned ordinary citizen, who continue to have their destiny in wages, health care, education and other social facilities controlled by the incompetence of self-serving political powers.

* The politician is usually depicted as the villain in all the plots that have been unravelled to date, here as elsewhere, but you will be pleased to learn that they are soon going to do something about it: a new Declaration of Assets Act coupled with a Code of Conduct for politicians and senior officials will be enacted. Well, all that could clean up the stage once and for all, wouldn’t it?

I read somewhere that government gives the illusion that it works for the people but it is in fact a cooperation which works for its own interest. This goes so much against popular expectations of the duties of government that most people will be rebuffed by the idea. People expect a lot more public accountability from officials of the public sector and politicians than they do from people of the private sector. But it might be good to remind ourselves from time to time that the logbooks of the private sector remain closed to public view.

I think there is a semantic slippage in the way people generally understand ‘private’ versus ‘public’. It is far from having the same division as we usually give to common versus particular ownership. The private sector is in fact a vast cooperation which also functions like a government for its own self-interest, only with more control of information the higher up you go on the pyramid, all disguised under the rules of ‘bienséance”, The government since independence has been tripping over its feet to catch up with the business practices of the private sector, without the know-how to mask the pecuniary interest under elegance, which the private sector knows so well how to do.

All this to tell you that I do not think that Code of Conduct and Declaration of Assets Act for politicians and public officials will bring about much change in the economic equation of the country. The economic scam going on in this country behind secret doors are far more pervasive that what the average citizen can even begin to imagine. The shadow manipulators are probably laughing their way to the podium as they say: “Keep them busy with their Code of Conduct and Declarations of Assets Act” while we keep doing what we want away from prying eyes.”

But maybe I am being too pessimistic, maybe against all odds it will have a positive effect. But the more I discover about the way this country is run the more I doubt it will do anything other than keep us running round in circles while an international-aspiring elite refine their claws for the wider world which beckons to them.

* There’s also the other piece of news in relation to our own political players. Now, we are told that the MMM will apparently have its own Joanna, much in the same vein as the PMSD’s Adrien, or the MSM’s Pravind or the LP’s Navin Chandra. Replacements galore?

There is an Indian academic – Partha Chatterjee – who has a written a major work on Indian Nationalism. It is called ‘Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse’. One of the arguments he puts forward is that the type of Nationalism implemented in pre- and post-independence India was a hybrid of Western exports and Indian realities.

I think if we adapt that theory to the Mauritian context we will see that the pre-enlightenment attitude towards reverence in political succession has become very much part of our local culture. The surprising thing is that you would have thought that the uneducated population of the early to mid twentieth century would have fallen prey to this but not the supposedly educated populace of today. But I think our sense of contemporary democracies is derivative from the old pre modern ideas, that is why ‘princes’ and successors are needed to be crowned in the case of the demise of the ‘King’. And that is true within the corridors of power, even as it is the case in all political parties. It says much of our supposed notion of modern democracy. Which begs the question: how successful has been our decolonisation process?

* But, one should not in all fairness condemn, in the name of some so-called political correctness, the Joanna, Adrien, Pravind or Navin Chandra to the sidelines if only because they share the same patronyms as those of the leaders, isn’t it? Each and everyone of them has the legitimate right to an aspiration to serve the country and to seek the support of the people for that purpose, hasn’t he?

Maybe they do but political leadership is not inherited. It is earned. And there are people in all these parties you mention who have shown the ability to take the reign of leadership but because the autocratic kings refuse to budge, nothing truly democratic will ever happen. It is as though these leaders deem it to be their “Right of King” to be where they are.

I think we are all helpless witness to the absurd farce which politics afford us these days. We should allow them to play their role to the end of this farcical pantomime until it all results in self-implosion. That is the only way things will change, not from the outside. Human rationality is powerless in front of this obscure hunger for inherited power.

* To come back to the ‘real work’ we mentioned earlier and that’s required to help move the country ahead, this one promises to reform our education for the better, at least at the primary level: the proposed nine-year schooling plan of Minister Leela Devi-Dookun Luchoomun. The details will be made public later this week, but that’s already a good start for a new departure, isn’t it?

Frankly I have stopped hoping that there will be any real educational reforms. I have seen too many ministers come and go with their over inflated egos and their personal political priority. The idea of nine year schooling dates from the 1970s when Ramesh Ramdoyal, then director of the MIE presented this project. Do you seriously think that it will be implemented now when it has taken four decades for people in the legislation to understand its importance?

In any case, I think if we go ahead with this reform we risk getting stuck in structural change at the expense of fundamental change. It cannot be left to stand independently. It has to exist side by side with widespread measures to implement a change of orientation in students, teachers, parents and the population at large.

You do not just snap out of a competitive system. You need to make the stakeholders really believe in the fundamental necessity of this reform by showing them and turning them into active partners rather than mere receivers of dictates from above. The teacher and the parent must be made to feel that they have an active say. And in order for that to happen they need to be educated into understanding the implications of the new system. Not in a formal way but in the sense of sensitisation – ‘prise de conscience’ – through dissemination of information, public debates and explanations. Where both parents and teachers are treated as intelligent beings. Then over time we will witness a real change.

If we talk of change we need to talk about changing the core ethics of the system. Without the desire to generalise, because I know there are some fantastic teachers out there, totally committed to their students and to their profession, we also have to admit that there is a good proportion of appallingly incompetent and lazy teachers, who have not the slightest understanding of their purpose and role in the system, who resort to threats, and disciplinary tactics of another era to keep students in control or to mask their improper mastery of the discipline they teach.

I will give you an example. In what concerns literature – this is a discipline which has huge potential to unlock the imagination of children if properly taught and make them develop critical skills and help begin to articulate reflections about their place in the world, as well as contribute to the awakening of an aesthetic sense.

But is this happening in our schools? No! Not in the appalling way that literature is taught, as a dry subject, where rote learning dominates, where there is no attempt to make students connect. I have seen many many young minds being totally put off from studying literature by their incompetent and uninspiring teachers.

I give you this example because literature holds a dear place for me but also because through a properly taught literature class one can unlock unbelievable potential in young people. Do you recall Dany Devito in ‘Renaissance Man’? Would it not be wonderful if this could be true on our local scene?

But structural change will not bring about such inner transformation. Something deeper, more fundamental needs to be addressed – and not many are ready to do this.

The incompetence of many teachers contribute to a system heavily loaded on lack of performativity which they help to render even worse. It is surprising how the enthusiasm of young teachers who join the profession soon convert to cynical disinterest after a few years – maybe when they see the attitude of their seniors or maybe because the system does not show that it values their contribution.

We are truly in the worse possible hybrid position in our society – between libertarian values of equality and authoritative conservatism which exist by crushing people lower down on the pyramid rather than by showing that they are valued. It is a self-defeating system.

If the destiny of this nation lies in the upliftment of its people through education, then the way the education system runs does not allow us any hope that this vision will succeed with coming generations. That of course does not apply to elite private education, where the children of the rich receive the best education to ensure that they take over the reigns of power in the future society, thus ensuring the reproduction of privilege, in a very Althusserian way.

We have to ask these questions before implementing reforms: we are educating them to be what? Political correctness will say that everyone is being educated to be leaders but when the system fails and is allowed to remain this way it must be clear to all that it is not leaders who are being trained but cogs in a machines.

* Should we undertake the reforming act so that one of its byproducts would be to ‘kill’ the elitism that most education systems all over the world usually end up with? What goal will such a pursuit serve eventually?

I do not think that elitism can ever be totally eradicated. Unfortunately societies are never totally egalitarian despite the fact that the ideal of the new society yearns towards egalitarianism.

However, when you speak about elitism, I guess you are referring to elitism of the public system as opposed to private schools. If we take these fee paying private schools you will see that this is where you have real elitism, where young people are being taught to be global citizens – they are being taught to take over social, political and cultural power in generations to come.

If we talk about the elitism or the public system, I think that this is a false debate. The elitism in this system exists through the role of the personal background of the students and the investment of time and attention of their parents in their education.

From what I hear of the kind of teacher attitudes everywhere, I defy anybody to show me that elitism exists in the caricatural way that it is often described in some quarters. What I see are hard working young people and their committed parents who give everything often sacrificing on socialisation, entertainment and material luxuries in order to put in that extra effort to buy books or pay tuition fees or transport fees.

What elitism are we talking about when in the past few years we have had students of gardeners, taxi drivers, nurses and bus drivers being laureates or obtaining scholarships for further studies?

Because the children of the rich do not depend on scholarships to study. Their road is already mapped out from them with a silver spoon from their birth. It is all the others who have benefited from the current system. And you can hardly call that elitist when somebody whose parents have a combined income of Rs 10,000 wins a scholarship, do you think this happened by a magic wand? It takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice to succeed in this system for those who are up to the effort.

Granted that there are some who do not have even the minimal funds to go that extra mile. But those hard working students and parents should not be turned into scapegoats for a system which is failing those at the bottom because of the lack of commitment of the real elite – social, economic and cultural – for reform.

I could give you examples of scenes I have witnessed and stories I have heard when working for the MBC. But I have realised that stories like this become the focus of good conscience for some NGO movements who do their bit to justify their privilege and then turn the page and move on, not to speak of foreign academics and journalists who come to study the quaint livelihood of the ‘locals’ for distorted reportages which show only one side of the country.

I have recently heard a French expatriate settled in Mauritius tell me that he would recommend to tourists to take the scenic Southern route, not only for the landscape but for the quaint little villages along the road. Where the French expatriate and tourist see quaintness which reaffirm their sense of privilege, where the foreign academic sees anthropological subaltern conditions, I see people who need to be helped, uplifted out of their situation of unbearable poverty in these villages. But the supra elite does not care – they are content to leave things lying on the borders of their rich estates for the pleasure of the tourist gaze! For change to happen the fulcrum of attention should be placed elsewhere, not just on the public education system but the complex system of social exploitation whereby such people are still being made to live in these conditions of social destitution.

* We should not jump the gun, but there is a nagging feeling though that we might end up disappointed with such and other reform proposals for we could be addressing the wrong questions in the first place as well as, again, seeking to be politically correct. What do you think?

I totally agree with you there. We would all be happy to see real, thorough reforms happen. But I reserve my right to be sceptical about the whole issue of reform. In any case even if the first phases are initiated they will only endure only so long as this government is in power, to be replaced by a new set of measures in case of political alternance. Thus are we eternally condemned, like Sisyphus, to roll our rock eternally uphill – for every one step forward, three steps back.

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