‘Governments will not change our lives’

Interview: Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain — Academic – University of Mauritius

* ‘Our real power lies in the awakening of the people to the hidden reality of how societies are governed, manipulated and controlled’

* Education reform: ‘On prend les mêmes et on recommence

Our guest this week, Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, academic at the University of Mauritius, is a seasoned observer of the social and political scene. She articulates with unabashed frankness what the silent majority is feeling and going through painfully, about topics ranging from what is happening in academia to drugs, the power-elite-business nexus and the political deficit looming on the horizon. A bleak scenario no doubt, but the reality nevertheless that we must reckon with – and prepare to tackle…

Mauritius Times: What do you think would the reading of the average citizen — not the political enthusiast – tell us about the situation prevailing in the country presently at all levels?

Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain: Oh dear – I think the prevailing feeling is one of despair and disbelief. To quote Shakespeare ‘That it should come to this!’ It is the greatest betrayal of electoral trust in post independence memory. The ineffectiveness, amateurism, nepotism, vengefulness, clownish internal bickering in the world of public politics provides a perpetual circus which does not entertain anyone anymore.

There are simply no excuses which can be dug up from a victim position and the pathetic complaint (heard again this week end in the context of the St Felix public beach controversy) that it is all the doing of the previous government holds no credibility, even for the few stragglers who were still keen to believe that this new team was like manna from heaven, come to wipe away all their woes. I think maybe there lies our weakness as an electorate: our propensity to believe that there exists a saviour out there who will resolve all our problems.

That is the unavowed, collective childlike ideological pauperism which aspiring political leaders play on again and again and take us all for a ride with astounding regularity. I don’t know whether it comes to us through the millenarian expectations so encoded in South Asian belief or the consequences of the post-plantation trauma which still linger over the generations or simply the general dumbing down of our capacity for critical reflection as a kind of devolution.

But we get duped by successive political teams again and again. The only thing which differs is the speed at which they reach their target of causing absolute disgust in the population. The present government beats all previous players to the finishing line in this.

* Daily press coverage of happenings in our society can be even more depressing: road accidents kill as many if not more people than in the past; synthetic drugs are said to have found their way into many of our schools and their consumption has already proved a fatal mistake for many a teenager; the number of people who experience physical violence at home or outside has not gone down… Do you have the impression that we are getting out of our depth?

If you look around the world, all societies are experiencing problems in dealing with the internal fragmentation which has come in the wake of modernity. That is because the erosion of old established social frameworks leaves every straggling citizen unable to decide on a framework of belonging and consequently action. The only difference between us and the rest of the world, it seems to me, is that the rest of the world talks, discusses and debates their problems – sometimes with great insights which lead to successful social action, sometimes less so.

But here what do we do? Apart from borrowing the concerns of others and mimicking reactions which do not belong to our geopolitical and socially specific sphere we are still scared to address the fundamental issues at the heart of our society. Yes, domestic violence is a problem because the traditional sense of expectations of privilege of men has not evolved. While women have gone out to work and learnt to juggle work, home, kids and personal and financial independence, men educated or uneducated alike, rich or less rich just sit at home with a false sense of the privilege which is due to them by virtue of their ‘maleness’. Do not dare tell them that gender identity is constructed – all implicit messages around us from religious to popular culture reinforce this sense of male supremacy and precedence. And we collectively gobble it up.

It is no surprise then that in the absence of platforms to debate such crucial issues, ideologies are not changing, gender perception remains archaically stuck in a pre-modern space and those who stand to benefit most by this because of their sense of entitlement react very badly to demands of levelling responsibility in the household or the sense of losing the grip of control over the family.

Our men are generally – with exceptions of course – but they are as hard to find as a needle in a haystack – stuck in a false place of privilege and haven’t learnt to internalise the reality of gender equality in their daily lives. If the educated men are shying away from the slippery slope of gender equality, what can we expect from everyone else. And nobody talks about it because it is not only culturally sensitive – and God forbid that anyone should touch ‘culture’ in the space of multiculturalism where everyone glares at each other, daring them to any move which will not be accompanied by retaliation. But also because we simply do not talk about much in this society.

We think we are a democratic country with the equality of citizenship ensconced in the constitution. But there is a huge territory between equality on paper and equality in real life and we never effectively started debating the road to gender equality beyond a few in-your-face actions which have all so far been destined for grandstanding effects, ‘pour épater la galerie’.

As far as the drug issue is concerned, the larger framework of drug trafficking has too many obscure ramifications and allegedly imbrications with power at the highest level of society for the ordinary citizen to feel that we can begin to reverse it. However, what is sad is that a combination of circumstances is heightening the tragic recurrence of teenage premature death through drug abuse.

Apart from the failure of authorities to take effective action at various levels, we should also be looking for culprits in the deferment of responsibility on the part of parents and educators alike, as well as the disaffection of teenagers and their general social aimlessness. They are not helped by an implicit but dominant social attitude which sees the majority of its citizens as mere parts of a functional machinery, deserving no further attention once the basic necessities are met, as long as they continue being productive in the capitalist system of production. The humanity of the average teenager matters not for this formless machine.

Now to come to the issue of road accidents. Simple observation should tell you that the police needs to step up its sensitisation efforts for safety awareness on the roads, for drivers as well as pedestrians. Occasional little slogans simply will not work because we are dealing with a population which wallows in the belief of their own absolute irresponsibility on the roads.

I cannot count the number of times I have been hooted for failing to drive faster in speed limit areas despite the absence of speed cameras because the guy behind me wanted to overstep the speed limit. If their commonsense does not tell them that there must be a good reason for the speed limit in a certain area, then what can you do as they drive to their doom. But also people generally in Mauritius think that one or two encroachments on driver or pedestrian rights is no big deal. They are all doing it everyday.

Imagine, if only half the population is consciously guilty of only two breaches of road traffic every day, how many we must have per day. Inevitably this will cause accidents. It is a wonder that with such a structure of attitudes we don’t have more accidents! Road awareness campaigns must tackle that reality. And target everyone, not just drivers but also pedestrians. Recently I was astounded by two cases of pedestrians who should have known better, who failed to respect that green light is a go for cars and they should abstain from crossing.

If such people who supposedly evolve towards the top of the social ladder, not only fail to respect traffic rules but also fail to even see and acknowledge them, what then can we expect of young people or other more vulnerable groups. For the internalisation of new habits and social attitudes have a way of flowing from up-down. It is against this that the sensitisation campaigns must consciously work and not feebly come up with a few clips and mottos every so often.

* Laying all the blame at the door of the government would be too facile for ever more complex problems that our society is today facing. Governments may provide part of the solution, but shouldn’t we also be conducting (academic) research to understand what’s happening or do we think we have the knowledge, the experience and the skills to deal with these problems?

Of course we cannot lay all the blame on the government and certainly the academic community needs to be able to contribute their insights here. But I think that our concept of research in this country has been hijacked by statistical surveys and superficial overviews which are encouraged by the misplaced priorities of research funding bodies. They fail to see beyond the short-sightedness of research which can lead to direct applications and statistical data. They fail to see that research has to go into the deep structures of social thinking.

As far as research funding goes, if you don’t have a research project which is tailor made to fit the requirements of the funding boards, don’t even bother applying. As it is, application for funding is a labour intensive laborious process, which often gets caught up in the sluggish nightmare of administrative red tape. As a result not much real deep-structure research is being produced because academic management flies very low generally and they themselves at all levels – research and management – do not know how to value deep-structure research independently of the framework within which they can read it.

* Speaking of academia, we have learnt recently that enrolment at the University is apparently going down. If true, this does not speak well for the University. What’s happening? Is the UOM not attending to matters that are really important and thus losing out to private higher education providers?

You do realise that that I can in no way speak on behalf of the University. Nevertheless my reading of the situation is that the University has for too long complacently contented itself with the position of being the first University in the country and they have never felt the need to go out and woo students.

I have time and again made unofficial suggestions about possible PR initiatives to step up the image of the University, at the level of various Faculties, to boost up the image of the University after the negative coverage we have received over the last few months or years. But eventually the reply I get is that they are looking into the matter and in any case all the proposals are already being implemented. But in truth nothing is done to ‘sell’ the image of the University to the public. At one point this was a position of comfort when we had to deal with rogue Universities. But this is no more the case and we have some major internationally recognised establishments that have set up base locally. This would be the time to wake up and map out an aggressive PR strategy. But it is all silence on that front.

* In terms of knowledge, experience and skills required to deal with our problems, the government seems to persist into believing that as far as the education sector is concerned the Nine Year Schooling Programme is what is required in the present circumstances and is pushing ahead with its implementation. We have not heard much from the teachers’ unions, but some independent commentators have been saying that the NYS Programme will end up producing the same results as the present system – as well as broaden the scope of the private tuition industry. What do you think?

And these critics are right. If you look at the supposed reform nothing has fundamentally changed — except the time frame for examining and leaving school. In addition a few prestige subjects like Creative Arts have been introduced at primary level without proper planning.

One does not change an education system overnight.

There needs to be adequate teacher preparation to adopt new teaching strategies so as to make the vision of education for tomorrow effective. But in this reform, ‘on prend les mêmes et on recommence, encore et encore’

And meanwhile matters in the classroom are getting worse. I am in no position to comment on what happens at primary level. But from what I can observe at secondary level, teacher performance in the classroom is deteriorating at a stupendous rate. It seems no one cares to teach anymore. At least the teachers should be teaching the subjects they are paid to teach. But very few do that. From the feedback I have all excuses are good for teachers to skip classes or give students tests which are rarely returned.

For technical subjects like Maths, Physics and Design teachers have a reputation for insulting their students from week 1 and promise them that they will fail. For literary subjects, the last I have heard is a teacher who comes to class and tells her students ‘Even I do not know what this short story is about’. In the age of google! That a teacher can say such a thing when they have whole libraries at their fingertips simply through googling! I cannot understand this laziness.

In another instance a teacher takes 2 years to finish a novel, boring her students to death and one week before SC exams the only class discussion she has is to give the students the Cambridge marking scheme. What do students need to know about marking schemes? Teach them how to appreciate, react and empathise with the great emotions of literature. But how can you do that when you come to class and make young people copy notes for hours or read out only a summary of the chapters of the novel, then hide away behind pompous questions which are never discussed but to which the students are expected to answer intelligently – and if they don’t the latter are reproached with having no literary skills. But no one is born with literary skills! They have to be taught! And if teachers won’t teach them at secondary schools, where do they expect their students to learn it all? At University?

As it is, in year one we have to do a lot of basic work which should have been covered in schools, such as features of the novel, how to read character, or versification. I had the shock of my life this year when my current Year I students said that had never heard of Romanticism. What are they learning at school? It seems not very much. From some explosive conversations I have had with some teachers, I have heard some pretentious teachers say that their students are dimwits. Is this the respect that teachers nowadays give to their students? And use it as an excuse to teach nothing!

If students come from backgrounds where they have what Bernstein calls impoverished codes and limited networks of knowledge, is it not then the role of teachers and school management to provide the framework of support which these students need? Trust their instinctive intelligence and give them the tools which can help them through life. For trust me young people know instinctively when they are being taken for a ride, who works for their good, who contemptuously looks down on them.

When the choice of texts was being made for my daughter’s Form IV year, they changed from ‘The Tempest’ to ‘The Merchant of Venice’ within a week of school starting. Given that I feel ‘The Tempest’ is a play which echoes better with the postcolonial situation most local readers of Shakespeare find themselves in, I enquired and expressed regret at the change of texts. Do you know what I was told by the teacher? She said they were changing texts because they expected that three quarters of the students would fail the Cambridge exam and have to repeat. And since ‘The Tempest’ was on the syllabus only for one year more that wouldn’t do!

Can you imagine what that says about their attitude towards their students! If that is anything to go by, no wonder our education system is in such shambles. Statistics and data which we occasionally present at international forums mean nothing. We are failing our young people through a mismanaged education system and collective lack of conscience on the part of many teachers. And no one seems to be conscious of the need to change course before we crash.

Everyone is happily contented with their humdrum daily routine and with shrugging responsibility for failure – ‘Pas moi ça, li ça’.

* What about the broadening of basic general education for all, reducing the inefficiency of the system by improving literacy and numeracy for all and preparing all our children to lead useful and meaningful lives? Will these have to wait for another reform?

At the rate we’re going, this will never happen. Because the people who are actually involved with the students do not seem to care for the young people they teach. I cannot say the same for primary school teachers, many of whom I have found to be very committed and conscious of their responsibilities to their students.

But the secondary school teaching staff is a different matter altogether. And the Minister seemed to be so badly advised on every single matter. I don’t see things getting better so soon – it would take a whole overhaul of our collective mindset to allow true reform to happen.

* As far as the drug problem is concerned, a commission of enquiry is working on this question since May 2015, but almost 17 months later we have yet to read its findings and recommendations. There may be good reasons for the time this is taking, but since there have been calls to bring back the death penalty, the matter should be pretty serious and pressing, isn’t it?

It is shocking that any 21st century leader should be calling to bring back the death penalty. Because they cannot cope with the reality of criminality which demands complex multi-level strategies of action. It’s easier to bring in repression which has proven the world over that it is ineffective.

Talk or read up the experts in the field: criminality and deviance are caused by social and economic conditions as well as cultural politics of belonging, identification and disidentification. Tackling criminality and deviance demands multi-level action, but it demands more importantly that we stop burying our heads in the sand and pretending the latent problems we have in our society will go away just because we do not talk about them.

* On the political front, the question of Sir Anerood Jugnauth’s succession has been raised lately. Though his continuation in office has not been questioned within his own party, at least publicly, there have been persistent rumours about the PM and the Minister of Finance not being on the same wavelength regarding certain policy issues, among which the Heritage City project which was subsequently shelved. These must have prompted the PM to come out to say that he is very much in the saddle and “in command”. Does that reassure you?

What is there to be reassured in this scenario of a weakened old man taking the office of Prime Minister. Anyone with a minimum of clairvoyance could have foreseen that from day 1 of his election he has been paving the way for his son to take over. What is there reassuring in the fact that when Lutcheemeenaraidoo resigned in the wake of the leaked information about his Euroloan, SAJ held on to the ministerial seat of Finance , waiting for his son to be acquitted from his legal charges.

There are probably a lot more conflicts which do not come out in the open. But in the end, they can fight as much they want as long as the good of the country does not suffer. Stopping the inordinate grand dreams of a Heritage city which would have been a financial sinkhole was an excellent move. But what else is being done on the positive side? Nothing much. And all those hollow budgetary measures remain but that – hollow declarations rarely followed by concrete action. But then this scenario was also the case under the previous government. People should stop buying the great budget ritual and ask themselves how their lives will get better by the new measures announced. Rarely is that question asked, even more rarely answered.

* There has not been much by way of concrete achievements by the government, except for the determined manner in which the hawkers’ problem has been taken care of. Internal bickering and various other allegations involving persons close to the regime have not helped the government’s public image and credibility. Do you think a change in leadership will help improve matters for the government – and the country?

I have stopped believing that politicians can change anything. After the Occupy Wall street protests of 2011 many hidden truths have come into public knowledge about the nature of governments. Many progressive economists like David Graeber and Danny Dorling have shown that governments the world over function like a private cooperation. Their public mandate is to work for their country but their real mandate is to work for their own self interests. You can imagine if the political leaders of a small country like Mauritius come into contact with such attitudes at international political meet-ups they will adopt it straightaway and this is exactly what they seem to have done. When they see that international Heads of States recognise only the 1% of the Global elite, then what chances does a puny nation like ours have under the current economic system which is always tailored to favour the rich and the powerful?

We should stop believing in the fairy tale that government will change matters. Our real power lies in the awakening of the people to the hidden reality of how societies are structured, governed, manipulated and controlled, be it through language and culture, through identity politics, through occasional puny financial incentives which are doled out, like the proverbial carrot, to keep the populace working and hoping for a better tomorrow.

Governments will not change our lives. The postcolonial disillusion is absolute. In many African and Asian nations the disillusion kicked into motion very soon after independence. In our case we have had a rosy interim of a few decades where we were allowed to believe in the socialist illusion of a better tomorrow. But in my reading, I think many of the members of the government are making hay while the sun shines. They know that the real power brokers are not in the midst of government but among of the financial elite. They are the ones with true power.

When I say the postcolonial disillusion is absolute it is because we have failed to reinvent our social, educational and political institutions. We are still functioning with archaic systems and the concurrent archaic mental frameworks which allowed us to thrive a few decades ago but which are proving to be totally inadequate for contemporary times and the new challenges posed by globalisation, transnational finance, ideational networks of identity and information exchange. Our mental and institutional framework to cope with these new realities into which we are forcefully being drawn through the power of technology is totally inadequate and nobody seems to worry.

So, to come back to your question about whether we can still expect governments to save the day- this is so far off from what should be our real concerns. While the government is fumbling its way with internal bickering and generalised inefficiency, international capitalism is entering through multinational investment projects and transnational finance. Is it not shocking that despite all the difficulties the people face on a daily basis the Government still invests a fortune to sell Mauritius as a tropical paradise and all that money goes into private companies which tell you it is their prerogative to decide on what happens to their profit? Who is the government working for then? The people or the big multinationals? And the tourism sector is but the most visible aspect of the hidden transnational finance which circulates through our jurisdiction.

* The opposition has been saying that the country should go back to the polls if Sir Anerood Jugnauth decides to call it a day or, for whatever reasons, be unable to carry on. The laid down rules in the Constitution provide for the MP who commands the majority in the House to take over, and it appears that only Pravind Jugnauth would be able to fulfil that requirement. Would you say that notwithstanding that constitutional provision it would require popular sanction?

It would be an absolute disgrace if Pravind were to step into his father’s shoes unelected ! We have had political dynasties before with the Ramgoolam and Duval families but never have any of these flirted so disgracefully with breach of electoral agreement between the people and the politicians. I wish that whoever advised Pavind Jugnauth on playing a low profile before the verdict on his case could advise him once against stepping unelected into the his father’s prime-ministerial shoes. I think they should definitely go back to the polls.

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