“Mauritius has successfully reinvented itself in the recent past, it is capable of punching well above its weight”

Interview: Thomas Eriksen, Professor of social anthropology

* ‘I think it is premature to do away with the Best Loser system…
…If and when Mauritius truly becomes a meritocracy, the Best Loser system will be seen as obsolete’

* ‘The Mauritian multicultural model is an impressive achievement, but the republican idea that what matters is citizenship, not where your ancestors were born, could be strengthened’

To celebrate the 50 years of Independence, the University of Mauritius is organising in collaboration with the Mauritius Research Council an international conference, this week, on the theme ‘Mauritius After 50 Years – Charting the Way Forward’. The Conference will examine the challenges and opportunities facing the country and the lessons learnt down those 50 years.

Prof Thomas Eriksen, who is currently Professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, as well as the 2015-2016 president of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, will deliver the keynote address at the opening ceremony.

Prof Eriksen has done field work on Trinidad and Mauritius as well as India, Norway and Australia on issues relating to identity, nationalism, globalisation and identity politics. A considerable portion of his work has focused on popularizing social anthropology and conveying basic cultural relativism as well as criticism of Norwegian nationalism in the Norwegian public debate. We caught up with him during the conference, and he expressed his optimism about Mauritius’ capacity to reinvent itself, as it has successfully done in the recent past. What is important, he says, is not to get stuck in the past, but to build on insights and experiences from the past when creating a better future. Read on.

* If we were to examine how Mauritius has fared during the last 50 years, and consider comparisons between two different set of countries, one our peer nations in Africa and the other some of the South East Asian nations such as Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, etc – both of which either became independent around the same time and were more or less in the same economic conditions as when we achieved independence in 1968 –, we’ll come up with two different pictures. So the question is: have we really done well?

I think the answer is yes, although you could always argue that others have done better. Given the small scale of Mauritius and its remoteness from its main markets, as well as the other challenges faced at Independence, the country deserves the epithet ‘miracle’. On the whole, the economics of scale do not work in Mauritius’ advantage because of the small population.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate, rather than compare oneself to South Korea and so on, to make comparisons with other small, multiethnic nation-states with a history of sugar and indentureship. I am thinking of countries like Trinidad & Tobago and Fiji, but one could also look to Guyana and perhaps a few other Caribbean countries. The picture would then look quite different, and the unique achievements of Mauritius in overcoming looming overpopulation, overdependence on sugar and ethnic tensions would be allowed to shine in their own right.

* We might or we might not have done better had we taken the road travelled by the autocratic regimes of South East Asia, unhindered by opposition, to move forward. It might be politically and academically correct to take objection to the ways and means adopted by those regimes, but the South East Asians do not seem to mind so long as results are delivered. Would this have been possible here?

Definitely not. Any attempt to install a more autocratic, less democratic political culture here would have been met by outrage and probably riots. It would have been a more violent place, more dangerous to visit for pale-skinned people like myself.

There are important historical and cultural differences between Mauritius and the South-East Asian countries which are relevant here. After slavery, the emancipated Creoles developed a strong individualist ideology emphasising freedom. Later, trade unions opposing colonial authorities and colons grew strong. And today, one of the hallmarks of success for Mauritian democracy is the independent, often critical and courageous press.

The sometimes confusing plurality of parties in shifting coalitions and alliances add to an image of a country whose citizens are not content being ruled, but insist on having their voice heard. Put simplistically, Mauritian culture is more individualist, South-East Asian cultures more collectivist when it comes to leadership and participation. So even if a more authoritarian regime might have been more efficient in terms of productivity and planning, it would go against the Mauritian spirit.

* On the eve of a mid-century, what would you say are the fault lines and critical issues pertaining to the development of Mauritius that need to be addressed?

Well, some challenges are not going away. In spite of diversification, Mauritius remains economically vulnerable, being a small island hooked up to unpredictable global markets.

Education is also a key issue; de facto access to good education is unevenly distributed, and so is achievement. And of course, there is always a risk of ethnic polarisation and destructive forms of identity politics. But I should add that in the thirty years or so that I have followed Mauritian society, the tendency has been that people identify more and more as Mauritians, less as Hindus, Tamils, Creoles and so on.

Finally, let me say that like everywhere in the world, environmental issues, to do with everything from pollution and waste to climate change, will be increasingly important here as well.

* The “rise of ethnopolitics, dynastic leadership, outdated form of representation” qualified as “democratic deficits” in the Mauritian model are some of those things that are thought to be holding us back to a more “inclusive, representative and participatory” society. Is that indeed the case?

This is a complicated question, and obviously, it has been discussed extensively in Mauritius for a long time. One of the key features of a fully-functioning modern democracy is that kinship has been separated from politics — that people acquire positions on their merits and not through their family connections. It is easy to see that Mauritius struggles with this problem. But let us keep in mind that so do others!

François Fillon fell from grace because he mixed family and formal positions, and in my own country, our former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was the son of a former Foreign Minister. Just to mention a couple of examples. One aspect of Mauritian society which may aggravate this problem is its small scale; there are only so many people available for particular positions.

Regarding ethnic politics, it will be a dimension of Mauritius public life indefinitely, since ethnic identity remains an extension of kinship and family, and can offer security and opportunities. But it needs to be counteracted by a concern with class and inequality, gender and not least the shared challenges facing all Mauritians, to do with the economy, foreign policy, the environment and so on.

* What does the experience elsewhere inform us about how change from those “democratic deficits” has been engineered and the outcome thereof?

If we look at Europe, two extremes regarding electoral systems are the UK and the Netherlands. The UK is facing exactly the same problems as Mauritius. A party which gets as much as twenty per cent of the votes may be rewarded with just a handful of MPs, since their electoral system is the same as here.

In the Netherlands, by contrast, the whole country is just one single constituency, and representation in parliament is proportional. As a result, the Dutch parliament is full of tiny parties, and producing stable coalition governments is exceedingly difficult. Perhaps a middle ground — proportional representation at the level of the constituency — might work. It would certainly make it easier for new parties to enter and with them, new people and ideas.

Closer to home, there aren’t many examples to emulate. Mauritius is by far the most democratic country in this region, not least thanks to the freedom of the press and the willingness among politicians to make difficult and sometimes unpleasant compromises.

* However, the transition to ethnopolitics seems to be becoming the “new normal” in many places, resulting in violence and killings in certain countries. The ingredients for Mauritius to go down that road after Independence were there. What do you think are the factors that spared us from self-destruction? The quality of the leadership across the board then present in our society, the Ramgoolam-Duval coalition, the rule of law, the Best Loser system, the characteristics of tolerance of a large section of the population…?

Yes, and in Europe, where much of this debate concerns immigration, it is almost an official fact now that our national populations are divided between “nativists” and “globalists”. Add to this the politicisation of the Muslim minorities in Western Europe, and you get a dangerous, divisive and increasingly violent cocktail.

In Mauritius, where immigration has not been an issue in the same way, a similar controversy nevertheless exists concerning the nature of the Mauritian nation: Is it identical with its ethnic mosaic, or is it rather based on things that all Mauritians have in common? When you say “Unity in diversity”, which of the words do you emphasise?

I think the factors you mention have all played a part in preventing the country from falling apart. But it is also a fact that Mauritians have more in common than they are often aware. They have been through a version of the same educational system, they read the same newspapers and take the same bus, they speak Kreol and increasingly work in the same places regardless of ethnic background.

In other words, the cultural differences are less pronounced here than in most postcolonial societies. It also helps that there was no indigenous population: everybody’s descended from immigrants, so nobody can lay claim to the territory by virtue of being a first-comer.

* Many Mauritians take objection to the Best Loser system which makes it mandatory for candidates to elections to declare the community appurtenance so as to be eligible to participate in elections. On the other hand the main criteria to explain voting behaviour here appears in large measure to be communal appurtenance. One is feeding the other. Political correctness would do away with the Best Loser system, but will this be in the long term interests of Mauritius?

I am not a Mauritian, so I really shouldn’t comment on this. But I must admit I’ve given this a lot of thought, so… Personally, I think it is premature to do away with the Best Loser system, for the reasons you suggest. If and when Mauritius truly becomes a meritocracy, where your ethnic background has no relevance for your career opportunities, the Best Loser system will be seen as obsolete. But this is not yet the case. People identify with their community for a variety of reasons; it is about family and kinship, a sense of belonging and security — it is not just politics, power and privilege. So many trust “their own” more than others. Others don’t care, but so far they are, as you point out, a minority.

* Would you therefore say the Mauritian multicultural model is still relevant in today’s times?

Yes. Way back in the late 1980s, I wrote an op-ed article in a leading Norwegian newspaper called “What can we learn from Mauritius?”. At that time, minority issues were becoming a hot topic in politics back home, and I argued that the Mauritian way of balancing ethnic identity with a shared national identity should be an inspiration to countries with a much shorter history of dealing with these complexities.

Having said this, though, we have since then seen that it is also important to give a space, and legitimacy, to people who reject ethnic identity as a marker of who they are. Living in mixed marriages, moreover, can still be a challenge here. So I would say that yes, the Mauritian multicultural model is an impressive achievement, but the republican idea that what matters is citizenship, not where your ancestors were born, could be strengthened.

The downside of multiculturalism is always that while it values diversity and the right to belong to a cultural community smaller than the nation, it may contribute to creating boundaries, encourage ideologies of purity, and create difficulties for people who don’t fit in.

* One thing however that strikes the reader of the Mauritius 50 Years conference programme is the loaded statements with regard to the role that languages should play in the construction of identity in Mauritius. It states that there is still debate about the role that Kreol should play, and adds that “whole industries have been created around the promotion and teaching of so-called ancestral languages” (italics are mine). Would you say that the state’s present language and education policies are not viable? What would happen if one language were to be imposed?

I agree that the formulation about “whole industries” is unfortunate and patronising.

The problem with Kreol is that although everybody speaks it, it is an identity marker for one particular segment of the population, so it inevitably becomes politicised. So again, on the whole, the compromises that have been reached seem to be viable. However, it is obviously important that children do not become disillusioned at an early age by not understanding half of what is being taught. That was the situation in the village where I did my first fieldwork, where kids who had never learned English came home with textbooks in English. So again, a mix of different strategies, taking the needs of different groups into consideration, is probably the Mauritian way here.

But let me add that a real asset for Mauritians in the wider world is the increasingly fluent and sophisticated mastery of not only French, but also English in the population. That is real knowledge capital; it is hard to get, it travels, and Mauritians have it.

* As regards the way forward, it has been argued that Mauritius will have to design new transformative policies to overcome the “inertia” of the existing successful model resulting in the kind of stagnation and social morass associated with the “middle income trap”. We are talking here of disruptive reforms. How can and does the past inform us about our future?

Difficult question! I hope we come up with some answers during the conference, and also in the book I am editing with Dr Ramola Ramtohul at the University of Mauritius, where we are trying to take stock and look ahead.

The short answer, for now, must be that Mauritius has successfully reinvented itself in the recent past, and it can happen in the near future as well. What is important is not to get stuck in the past, but at the same time to build on insights and experiences from the past when creating a better future.

Mauritius is a small country, but it is capable of punching well above its weight, and I have confidence that you will continue to do so in positive ways in the future as well.

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