“There seems to be no one in charge anywhere, no direction, we are rudderless as a nation”

Interview – Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, Academic

Labour Party & the return of radical politics: ‘Forgive me but I have stopped believing in fairy tales’
Education: ‘Reform or no reform, the system just goes on as it is’

Sometimes, we should stop and ask questions about the orientation – rather the disorientation – of society and where all this might land us eventually. Here is a frank, rubbishing where it needs to be, outspoken statement from a seasoned academic at the University of Mauritius and a keen observer of our deteriorating social mores, Mrs Nandini Bhautoo-Dewanarain, about a whole range of issues concerning our own ‘bad governace’ and the kind of pandemonium we are seeing in different spheres all over in other parts of the world as well. Read on…

Mauritius Times: What’s your reading of whatever is happening in the education sector? The replacement of the CPE by the Primary School Achievement Certificate in the context of the Nine Year Schooling Programme has been announced this week. What’s your take on that?

Nandini Bhautoo-Dewanarain: No one can contest that in theory the move to abolish the CPE is a commendable decision. But if we go by the way the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been proceeding recently in its reforms, I am afraid there is not much to hope as far as positive outcomes from this decision are concerned.

Firstly, how can you abolish examining at the age of 10 but introduce it at the age of 5? This is unheard of in the world! It shows that decision-makers at the MOE have no modicum of pedagogical knowledge as they fumble their way through reforms based on inherited, uninformed and prejudiced ideas. Who came up with the brilliant idea of formally testing 5-year-old kids when there is so much to do elsewhere in the education sector?

In the first place, there is need to address teacher attitudes. I have to tell you I have a very close relative now studying in one of the officially best colleges of the island. I am shocked to discover how teachers treat students. With disdain and contempt. They do not encourage discussion and reflection; there is hardly any attempt to value students’ ideas and to help them build themselves as adolescents. If there is any teaching done. it is in a top-down authoritative manner, not concerned with developing skills and encouraging curiosity and creativity. Students are crushed by teacher indifference and lack of commitment to their task. This is what schools appear to be doing to young people nowadays.

In the bright vision of the future knowledge hub, that does not bode very well. Of course, there are always a few teachers who work but the majority have the wrong approach to teaching and the wrong attitude to their students. I am not saying that students have it all right, but often youngsters have this instinctive sense, which somehow as adults we tend to lose, and they react very badly to this sort of teacher indifference. Unfortunately, there is nowhere they can speak their concern, no one to listen to them.

Often school administrations are also very ineffective in resolving day-to-day issues. My daughter is currently in Lower VI, we are already in March and they have had only one week of teaching for GP, because there was no teacher until last week. They still do not have a teacher for French Literature, they do not even have a classroom and they are condemned to wander about the school grounds with their heavy bags when they should have been in class. It’s only last week that the rector apparently found out that they have no teacher and no classroom and she told them to keep looking for a class. Can you believe this? Is this an attitude that a rector should have?

I am telling you this personal story because it is symptomatic of how the whole system seems to be functioning. Nobody cares. Reform or no reform, the system just goes on as it is. If we don’t change the mentality which is at the heart of the system and makes it problematic, nothing will ever change. And to do this, work must be done first at the level of teacher training and then there needs be follow-up on teachers’ work. But I again query the effectiveness of the teacher training dispensed and whether it really equips teachers to get out of their lethargy and whip up enthusiasm which they can communicate to their students.

And it is in these conditions that the Ministry of Education has devised this stupid and worthless absence policy. I gather that it is meant to tackle problems of mass absenteeism. But should they not have addressed the root cause of absenteeism – why does it exist? Because the school environment right now is not conducive to developing the right skills in young people, it has never been reformed to address the student at the centre of the system. Therefore, youngsters disengage. It is worrying and sad but decision makers do not seem to care nor do they seem to be aware of this reality.

* On the other hand, the University of Mauritius has been in the news recently – mostly for the wrong reasons. But besides the issues in relation to extra teaching (and apparently abuse thereof) and administrative decisions regarding the transfers of attendants, there seem to be busybees at work to give a bad name to the UOM. Is that impression correct?

You ask me a tricky question since I am part of the institution. Without going into the operational details of how the University is run, I will say that the University of Mauritius has had its days of glory, unfortunately that seems to be a memory of the past.

For a tertiary institution to keep phase with the development of the country, the right questions have to be asked. In the first place: What is the destiny of a University which started out as a functional College of Agriculture? If it needs to train young people, what kind of skills does it need to impart? Are these skills merely material or technical skills? Or does a University need to focus on ideas as well, on the training of the mind to address the challenges of contemporary citizenship?

It seems to me the University of Mauritius could have an edge on other campuses with its Faculty of Social Studies and Humanities and what it can positively contribute to Mauritian society. But not only are Humanities not at the centre of preoccupations of decision makers at the University, the very concept of thinking about the ultimate purpose of University Education seems to be furthest away from their minds. Otherwise, if the focus had been right, they would have known how to negotiate their way out of the administrative red tape that the University has become, where the administrative structure is so heavy and sluggish that it discourages initiative.

It is shocking for us academics to discover that attendants seem to have more power than we the academic personnel have. It is shocking and unbelievable. But that has come about, I guess, with the well-entrenched political practice of ‘caser ses mandants’, where promises of jobs are made by people running for elections to activists in their constituencies. Promises have been made, rewards for constituency loyal service given and in the long term we have an administratively heavy institution where administrative staff outnumber academic staff. Because of this, roles have to be assigned to justify salaries, sometimes redundantly.

Sometimes a lot of the work is inefficiently duplicated by several individuals in a single office. Because of this inefficiency, salaries have to be paid in excess of what should be its target rather than redeployed in research. The little research which some academics are still keen on doing, often at their own cost, remains unrecognized for the most part, because management has not yet learnt to value the work being done by academics. Therefore we always hear of all the negative things about academic life on campus and rarely of the innovations and achievements of the academic staff. And believe me there are many little victories – like articles accepted for publication, books published, featuring on international panels, collaborative research with international institutions, equivalence with international institutions, and the bright career of some of our ex-students.

Of course there are black sheep here, as it could be the case everywhere else. But it seems recently that this is all we have been hearing about. It’s all very bad PR for the University.

* Otherwise, does it look to you as if we seem going through a situation of what is colloquially termed here as « bouge fixe », that there’s a sense of non-fulfilment across the board?

Generally, in the country yes, there is a feeling of discouragement across the board. Whether it is at the political level or at the level of the various public institutions in the country, there seems to be no one in charge anywhere, no direction, we are rudderless as a nation and it seems it will be like this for a long time to come.

* But that comment about the sense of non-fulfillment across the board might however be unfair, because the present government has been in office for only 14 months. The Smart Cities are coming, so are the petrodollars from Saudi Arabia; the Heritage City is also in the pipeline as also a Land Drainage Authority, so there is going to be lots of jobs in the construction sector. Some things change fast, but others take their own time and we should be patient, isn’t it?

All this is a lot of rhetoric coming after a series of very public and serious blunders. You will forgive observers for their cynicism. On en a vu tant passer! We will see whether these announcements materialize into anything concrete or whether they will remain castles in the air.

In any case creating new projects, new structures rather than turning back to tackle existing structures and try to clean them out and make them performative seems to be ‘une fuite en avant’ don’t you think – an escape mode rather than a pro-actively engaged approach.

* There’s also the PRB coming soon, and that will hopefully help silence all the talks about the impoverishment of the middle class here as highlighted by the September 2015 World Bank’s ‘Inclusiveness of Growth and Shared Prosperity’ report on the Mauritian economy. The World Bank’s report may have sounded the alarm, but ground realities were already pointing in that direction since quite some time, don’t you think?

Do you seriously think that the PRB caters properly to the loss of buying power? I have nothing to complain about personally. However, when you look at the whole structure and the disparity in wage increase between the lower and the higher levels of institutions, it is extremely shocking and often unfair. The people who are struggling will not be relieved, on the contrary taxes will increase, price of goods will go up and often at higher rates than the wage increase workers at the bottom of the salary structure benefit from.

On the other hand, the shameful proportion of wage increase at the top end of the scale is outrageous. The capitalist system thrives on this disparity between wage scales. The capitalist system exists to protect those at the top end and sees the workers either as productive hands or as consumers, not as human beings. The profit system is very dehumanizing. That is why you get companies the world over, who even as they announce profits, lay off many of its salaried employees.

The local capitalists do exactly the same here. And you will note that we hear of injustice and the impoverishment of the population only in cases where there are industrial conflicts when brave people like Ashok Subron and Jane Ragoo throw their weight into the battle. But for the most part there are so many strategies for benumbing our reaction and outrage at many levels, so that we disidentify with those who suffer and identify with an ideology of consumerism and success touted as the proverbial carrot. This is done through the strategies of elite control, mostly through the entertainment industry, a section of the national press and the world of advertisement and tourism. All of which thrive upon selling dreams of the inaccessible tropical paradise where all can live a life of luxury under the blessings of a tropical sun.

But if you speak to three quarters of the population, the tropical sun is a curse rather than a blessing, for they are fixed into a hierarchical and unfair social structure. They see the rich and the expatriates getting increasingly richer with greater life opportunities while they keep struggling to get out of the gutter, or, if not them, at least their children.

There is plenty of money in this country but there is little redistribution. The real puppet masters are not in the government. They are in the private sector, the sharks of big finance who wish to remain invisible from the prying eyes of the public and therefore who can thrive on the opacity which social invisibility confers to them.

The PRB will not change much fundamentally to the pattern of money flow. It will give temporary relief before the frenzy of inflation takes over and push people further back into a corner. We have to address the whole system but there are not enough people who see it and those bright minds who could have a critical acumen on the matter have been employed by this very private sector which seeks therefore to neutralize their nuisance power, by turning them into allies rather than opponents.

* There’s even worse: a large swathe of the people in employment seem to be unable to catch up economically. Mrinal Roy pointed out in an article in this newspaper, last week, that ‘sugar industry workers still, for the most, earn, as is the case for some 56.7% of the employees of the private sector or 262,800 employees (revealed in December 2015 in the context of the exercise for salary compensation), up to Rs 10,000 per month’. Whoever spoke in terms of « developpement à deux vitesses » was right throughout?

Exactly what I am talking about. These workers have to strike for a few hundred rupees wage increase while their employers are multimillionaires personally. The general workers earn salaries which hover around Rs10,000 while their bosses get bonuses which are counted in millions.

If you think about it, the capitalist system as practiced in Mauritius is a continuation of the exploitative system of colonial exploitation. The only difference is that from time to time there is a token acknowledgement of workers’ rights to keep up with the life of the times. But it is just that – a token acknowledgement. Because in fact the workers are being wringed out of their energies and life resources by this system, made to do heavy labour over long hours and paid very little for labour intensive, work which often could easily be done by machine.

You would think that being aware of all this the capitalist would not be able to sleep at night through the workings of a guilty conscience. But they are fine because they inhabit the ivory tower where they do not see the social reality but only figures, profit margins, working hands and consumers.

* There may or may not be a causal relationship between poverty and crime. There’s a clamour to bring back the death penalty whenever some horrible crime is perpetrated, but that may not be the answer to the wider social malaise behind this kind of extreme behaviour. Where do we go for the answers ?

It is no surprise that this government wants to bring back the death penalty. After all it is headed by the man who is notorious for having said “mo pou coupe la main.” Let us see what Human Rights organizations will have to say if they do take the drastic move of reinstating the death penalty. If they are saying this, it is sign that they are unable to cope because they do not understand anything and do not know how to act otherwise – so the most populist and shocking practices which are being used to torture people elsewhere under reactionary ideologies, not in phase with the modern world, might be introduced as palliative.

Do we listen to sociologists and psychologists in this country? This is a country which does not listen to its youth or to its professionals. We know that there are serious problems with the dissatisfaction of youngsters with the conditions of their existence. It has been so for a long time and it has many causes.

It is caused by a combination of disparity between social aspirations and the reality of the life opportunities, by the dissociation between the dreams sold by the capitalist system and the inability to achieve even a parcel of that dream (because of the skewed financial and social ladder we spoke of earlier), it is to do with the contradictory messages of the various cultures to which they are exposed in the nightmarish crossroads of multiculturalism – as some narratives argue for absolute individual freedom; others advocate absolute individual control, with all the gradations existing in between.

It is to do with the inevitable breakdown of traditional affective and social relationships which come with the mutations of modernity. It is to do with the easy models of violence which are increasingly made visible by a sensationalist media. But above all this youth malaise exists because we give very little space for young people to explore and express their concerns, the angst of adolescence with all its questions, doubts and instabilities.

You can’t expect everyone to read Rimbaud, Mallarme or TS Eliot. If they did, they would begin to get some answers to the agony of existence. But they don’t and they won’t do so, so there should be other platforms where they can explore their concerns. We’ve been talking about it for a long time but nothing is done through the blind dumbness of decision makers who cannot see beyond the limits of their 5-year mandate (and often not even that far).

It is imperative to create public platforms for social exchange of ideas – like debate clubs or participatory theatre to which young people could be persuaded to attend and then become participant. Because social theatre deals with the real issues of everyday life, with real human concerns. It could be one way of opening up the energies of our young people and give them a platform to explore ideas and channel their unruly energies into something more constructive.

It could also be done if schools were to provide platforms for debate about social issues. Such platforms exist in Catholic schools. Unfortunately they do not exist in public schools. All this will of course only attenuate matters. It will not deal directly with violence but will have a significant dissuasive effect on the practice of social violence and, most of all, it will liberate the positive energies of our young people and direct it elsewhere than through violence.

But who cares? No one, it seems.

* The Labour Party, which celebrated its 80th anniversary last month, seems to believe that a « more radical programme » could provide the answers to the economic plight of our fellow citizens. What do you think of that? Another shot at populist politics? Or is it a much-needed shot in the arm for the party itself?

The Labour Party is trying to reinvent itself because it seems to believe in the possibility of an electoral victory in the near future, given the appalling state of present governmental politics. But no one is fooled – the Labour Party cannot reinvent itself just as yet, by keeping the same outdated structure and attitude, by still playing on an old-fashioned sense of inherited leadership which is a legacy from an older world but which has unfortunately infected all our political parties, who are all collectively unable to reinvent themselves.

The disillusion with political engagement is also a global feature. Traditional politics do not seduce anymore because not only do we live in post-ideological times, after the demise of  Right and Left as political rallying points. In fact all political parties before they come to power are left-oriented and when they come to power they are right of centre because they have to pactise with the leverage of financial power, who usually does not want too much social equality established. So, the world over, left-wing politics has been a disaster when installed in power.

The latest case in point is probably the big disappointment when we saw Alexis Tsipras turn away from his radical left-wing politics to bend his spine to Brussels, even ousting the leftist Yanis Varoufakis, a rare gem in the world of economists. It is for all these reasons that, despite the populism and common sense tone of his political campaign, Bernie Sanders cannot win – because nations are not ready to accept once again left-wing politics – it is contrary to what as governments they do in truth. They become stooges of the big bosses of finance. So, to talk about a left-wing reinvention of the Labour Party here where more than anywhere else we have seen the lack of commitment and ethics of these people when they were in power. No! It won’t happen. This is not to say that those currently in power are better. Far from it!

* Whatever is happening elsewhere shouldn’t also leave us indifferent. In the USA, a big clutch of states went to the polls Tuesday night, and it now seems that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are firmly on course to face off in the general election. What’s really news about this is Donald Trump, almost joyously haranguing his way to the White House. What do you think of Trump’s populism – the appeal of demagogy before the masses, to be more precise?

The Donald Trump phenomenon is extremely interesting. If he does win with all his vulgarity and outrageousness and prejudices, it will be many years of shame for America and for the Republican Party. It seems to me the Republican Party are themselves so embarrassed by Trump that they may advise to vote against him. He is the greatest enemy because he is like the manifestation of our worse nightmares embodying all the prejudices of white reactionary America, nostalgic for a bygone but delusional sense of racial grandeur, which they hope to regain if he comes to power.

It is the same phenomenon with all right-wing politics across the world – from Britain, France, Germany, Greece, India – in practice. All right-wing politics surf on the populism of the moment, reviving myths of the bygone glory of the founding fathers of the nation in order to persuade voters that they can regain the self-importance the leveling out of modernity takes away from them. But these people are dangerous and full of contradictions and ultimately they serve their own interests.

By playing on the worse fears of the average American, Trump is winning the Republican primaries. It is no debate of ideas, it is like the return of a dark repressed underbelly of racism and prejudice which had been hiding all the while under the veneer of the progressive American Dream. I do hope that if/when he wins the Republican primaries, this will be enough to induce Democratic supporters out of their cynical lethargy about the elections. In the same way that Marine Le Pen’s victory at the first election rounds in France always acts as a catalyser for anti-FN voting in France, at the second round of elections. This will be the Republican gift to the Democrats if Trump is elected in the primaries to face off the Democrats.

But then one never knows with America. The country is so huge and there are vast swathes of conservative farmers in all those states, who have fixed ideas about the nation they want, whose ideas have remained unchanged over the generations. It will be this vast silent majority who will unfortunately ultimately decide, not the educated vocal politically progressive supporters.

* It’s said that public awareness is key to stopping demagogues — the public, although usually fickle by nature, will turn against such demagogues once they realize that they are being manipulated to satisfy « the demagogues’ own egotistical craving for admiration and power ». We are thankfully not there yet as none has crossed the line from populist politics to demagogy. But, to use a cliché, eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty – here or elsewhere, isn’t it?

It really depends on what kinds of ideas are being used by these demagogues. Trump triumphs because he responds to social anxiety about the loss of American self-respect and supremacy. It is all ideological of course and has never really been that simple. But then political discourse always thrives on a retroactive reconstruction of the past.

That is why right-wing conservative rhetoric is worryingly triumphing in India as well and getting very serious as it infiltrates University campuses and other spaces of democratic freedom. You can see how the right-wing rhetoric in India appeals to people by using the mythopeic-cum-religious narratives as catalysers of sympathy. Once that is established, the political leaders can come up with whatever rubbish they want and people will bow down in obedience. Trump must be appealing to a similar dream of loss of American grandeur and playing with the rhetoric of fear of the other, in many ways very much like what Hitler did in the years leading to the rise of Nazism.

I am not sure that the triumph of the faculties of reason will put these nightmares to rest, because the reasoning faculties have been dumbed down in most people through the onslaught of trash media and cheap entertainment, which soporifically lull us into acquiescence and submission to the reign of the obvious and the obnoxious.

* To come back to Mauritius, we’ll have, on the one hand, the « miracle économique », on the other, there’s going to be « radical » politics – whatever that means. Either way, we’ll survive. Right?

The Economy will be the big winner of course – everything will be done to ensure that Big Capital wins in the equation. How much of it will percolate down to the public is a moot question. As far as the return of radical politics is concerned, forgive me but I have stopped believing in fairy tales.

 

* Published in print edition on 4 March 2015 

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