Mauritius at 50
It is pointless to plan for the next 50 years. We first need to fix the present to ensure a better future. We therefore need to reboot the country with the values and altruism which underpinned our fight for independence as from 1937
On 12 March, sovereign Mauritius will be 50.
50 years is a milestone in the history of an independent country. Independence didn’t just happen. Freedom had to be fought for. In the 1920s and 1930s Mauritius was not some fairy Wonderland. The plight, conditions of work and living conditions in sugar estate camps of the people were appalling. The sugar oligarchy helped by the British colonial authorities resisted any idea of reform or improvement in the conditions of work and was hell-bent on preserving the status quo of abject exploitation of the sugar industry workers. Majority rule was anathema.
“Freedom had to be fought for. In the 1920s and 1930s Mauritius was not some fairy Wonderland. The plight, conditions of work and living conditions in sugar estate camps of the people were appalling. The sugar oligarchy helped by the British colonial authorities resisted any idea of reform or improvement in the conditions of work and was hell-bent on preserving the status quo of abject exploitation of the sugar industry workers. Majority rule was anathema…”
The workers and the people at large were denied their fundamental rights including the right to vote. The arduous and difficult battle for the rights of the oppressed majority against the combined might of the sugar oligarchy and the British colonial authorities had to be structured into potent and multi-faceted actions. These included the mobilization of the downtrodden masses to fight together for their fundamental rights and freedom, trade union actions to improve the conditions of work of the workers, a battle of intellect and ideas through articles and editorials in newspapers founded for this purpose to rebut the rabid views of the reactionary forces and political action to bring about a true democracy for the benefit of all.
A number of leaders emerged to uphold the rights of the workers and the oppressed multitude driven by the common objective of establishing a far better socio-economic and political order. A leader at the time therefore needed to have multiple qualities to rally the multitude. He had to demonstrate a selfless sense of service to people, have the charisma to connect with and mobilize the people, the determination to take bold initiatives to fight for their rights against formidable odds, communicate with them in their own language and have the intellect to put pen to paper to defend the cause of the common man through press articles, editorials and well couched proposals submitted to government. How many of today’s leaders match up to these essential core qualities?
It must be said that the turning points of our fight for freedom were the labour unrest of 1937 which resulted in a new labour law being enacted in 1938, the labour unrest of 1943 and the strikes of 1947 in the sugar industry as well as the first general elections held in 1948 under a new Constitution which extended franchise to every literate adult which was emphatically won by the Labour Party. These events in essence broke the shackles of the past and cut loose from a shameful and highly decried system. The 1938 labour law represented a game changing break away from the framework of indenture. It assured the protection of the payment of wages and working hours under the aegis of a newly set up Labour Department. The new Constitution was voted in response to the rising clamour for constitutional change.
“50 years after independence is also a time for stocktaking and assessment of the chequered pathway of the country from a fledgling democracy initially groping its way forward before gaining assurance and maturity to grapple with and conjure major structural impediments to be hailed as an economic success story with a low tax rate, providing free healthcare, education to all citizens, transport for students and broad social protection. However, this postcard picture of Mauritius masks the widening inequalities especially in land holdings and wealth, the difficulties of more and more people to meet their basic existential needs…”
Probably nothing better epitomizes the battle for the basic rights of workers and the people at large in that era of darkness as well as the effectiveness of the actions to successfully uphold the cause of the workers than the general strike spearheaded by M.A.L.A. (Mauritius Amalgamated Labourers Association) that brought 18 sugar mills to a halt from 27 October to 5 November 1947. In early October, Jay Narain Roy (JNR) wrote a series of three articles, as Secretary of M.A.L.A in ‘Advance’ and ‘L’Oeuvre’ entitled ‘The Voice of Labour’ to explain to the British authorities, the sugar industry employers and the public prior to the general strike the root causes of the workers movement. He wrote that ‘it is purely and simply an economic struggle to ensure the worker adequate food, clothing, shelter, work and medicine… and I contend that all these come below their economic and human requirements’. He also wrote a poem entitled ‘Sewa’ (Service) on the strike in the ‘Arya Vir Jagriti’ on 24 October 1947. A daily communiqué on the strike was published in ‘Advance’.
This debate is still topical today when some still find nothing better than propose, some 70 years later, to cap and restrict the meagre workers’ wages to save an obviously uneconomic sugar industry when without the hard work put in by them there would be no sugar industry.
The strike action resulted in the signature of the first collective bargaining agreement in Mauritius between M.A.L.A. and the Mauritius Sugar Producers’ Association (M.S.P.A.). In an article in ‘Advance’, dated 8 November 1947, entitled ‘After the strike’ JNR wrote that the strike ‘was remarkable in three ways: in its duration, in its widespread nature with about 100,000 people mobilised for action and in its peacefulness’ – a fact recognised ‘by both representatives of government and the employers’.
Yes, the times were different. The arduous battles required grit, leadership, intellect, potent arguments, writing and communication skills and the mass appeal to mobilize the downtrodden to resolutely fight for their rights with discipline and unwavering determination. The key to the emancipation of the people and the independence of the country was the promotion of the education of the masses.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of our independence, we must therefore above all gratefully remember and honour all the foot soldiers, the anonymous unsung heroes of our independence, who relentlessly helped with their unstinted efforts and meagre means the cause of freedom braving the might of the sugar oligarchy despite the threats to their employment. They would not be cowed down in their fight for their rights and freedom. They are basically our parents and grandparents. We must also remember and salute all the highly respected tribunes who as from mid 1930s toured the country, took stock of the dire conditions of livelihood and woes afflicting the people and mobilized them to fight together for their fundamental rights and freedom. Their actions and initiatives would trigger a wave of contestation of the established order which would swell into a movement for freedom and independence.
50 years after independence is also a time for stocktaking and assessment of the chequered pathway of the country from a fledgling democracy initially groping its way forward before gaining assurance and maturity to grapple with and conjure major structural impediments to be hailed as an economic success story with a low tax rate, providing free healthcare, education to all citizens, transport for students and broad social protection.
However, this postcard picture of Mauritius masks the widening inequalities especially in land holdings and wealth, the difficulties of more and more people to meet their basic existential needs, the growing questions being asked by the people about the quality of public services, the patent inability of government to be a fair arbiter of public interest and the absence of a level playing field in terms of opportunities as well as transparent and merit based employment, etc.
Fixing the present to ensure a better future
In many ways, the present crisis involving the head of the State epitomizes plummeting standards in the country and how the people seem to have been short changed by the political choices, partisan and power driven politics of omnipotent party leaders over the decades since independence. The seminal ideals, ethos, values which put the people and their continued and inclusive well-being at the centre of all actions during the battle for independence have been supplanted by endless politicking, the relentless pursuit of power by all means, dynastic politics, poor governance, scandals, ineptitude, an overbearing stranglehold of government and its coterie over key institutions and state companies and growing inequality.
It is pointless under such circumstances to plan for the next 50 years. We first need to fix the present to ensure a better future. We therefore need to rid the country of this poor legacy and reboot it with the values and altruism which underpinned our fight for independence as from 1937.
This means firmly rooting meritocracy, inclusiveness, equal opportunities, unity, solidarity, land reform and bridging inequalities at the centre of government action and the national ethos. With competence, pluri-disciplinary professional acumen and a collegial approach at the helm of the country, we will as a nation be able to achieve in five years what would only be achieved under the present inept system in 50 years. As we proudly hoist the national flag in our homes on Independence Day, let us all stand up to trigger this necessary sea change to realize our loftiest ambitions as a nation.
Preserving our unity and harmony came up as a potent leitmotiv when people from all walks of life were asked in the build up to 12 March about what they wished for the 50th anniversary of independence. Let us together build on this solid foundation and acquis for a better future for all.
We learn from failures not from success.
* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018
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