By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
Let us first pay tribute to Mr Mohamad Vayid who sadly passed away in a foreign country and hope that official homage will be paid to him by the government. The death of people of high intellectual calibre who command respect is a great loss to the country. As a free-spirited thinker, Mr Vayid’s views on and analysis of society, politics and economy have always been most appreciated.
Our deep feelings go to the victims of the bus accident: the driver, those who have barely started their life as parents and young adults and every man or woman who did not expect to meet such violent death. The tragic end of a dynamic Chinese student away from home is heart breaking especially as most Chinese parents have only one child. The public at large shares the pain and sufferings of the close relatives.
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A press article carried the observation made by a politician and economist to the effect that swindling, fraud and the make-fortune-quick mindset dates back to the early history of the first settlers of the French East India Company. It is not big news but it is useful information that the public should be reminded of so as to dissipate misconceptions on the image of those who pass for civilized builders and visionaries.
An extract from a letter written by Bernandin de St Pierre in 1768 highlights the atmosphere prevailing among the different strata of people employed by the French Company, the social mores of the inhabitants, the business appetite of the employees who sell their work at a very high price and set up several monopolies. The letter also mentions the sense of honour of the military brass who did not rush to join the make-fortune group of the ordinary employees, grumpy fortune seekers who are always ‘mécontents’ about their position.
The island attracted bankrupt merchants, shady characters of all sorts, criminals and rogues ‘des fripons, scélerats, chassés de l’Europe par leurs crimes‘ landing on the shores of the island ‘comme une écume’. All drawn by ‘l’attrait de la fortune vite faite’. How they amassed fortune thanks to slavery is known to one and all. Furthermore, the early settlers lied to the British authorities on the living and working conditions of the emancipated slaves, Creoles, who were made to drop out of the economic structure and left to roam about for a living.
By the same token, some of today’s Europeans who come and settle in Mauritius and Réunion are still drawn by the idea of ‘fortune vite faite’, a good place for laundering ill-gotten money in Marseilles or Italy.
Bernandin de St Pierre’s letter relates how ‘l’amour de la société’ was non-existent, how ‘la discorde règne dans toutes les classes sociales’. The early White society was a much divided society on the basis of wealth, the big shots being the richest slave and sugar estate owners who did not mix socially with the military, functionaries and the less fortunate whites. The legacy of the early White society has transcended generations and is still visible today among the different hues of whites. Internal segregation within white society logically led to further segregation between the top-ranking whites and other ethnic groups and still does.
Except for some journalists and other Internet Mauritians whose favourite pastime is to always complain about unsatisfactory ‘living together’ or vivre ensemble and pin the blame on the uncivilized people that have been at the helm of the country since Independence and on the equally uncivilized voters who elect them every five years, the reality is that inherent wisdom and common sense have always guided other communities to live in harmony, show compassion and solidarity, give help and support to one another when necessary irrespective of faith and ethnicity whether we are Creoles, Chinese, Hindus or Muslims.
This is how we have grown up and socialized in the villages and in the towns for decades before and after Independence. And we do not owe the values of solidarity and compassion to western education or Catholic schools.
It is still true in the villages, maybe less so in town areas due to newly-gained prosperity and burgeoning individualism. Most of the whiners about ‘living together’ who publish their views in the press are town-dwellers hailing from Port Louis, Quatre Bornes, Beau-Bassin Rose-Hill region, which probably accounts for their persistently negative perception of social interaction.
Another reason is that they discard other factors in their analysis and focus obsessively on race and ethnicity to explain everything. Of course, it is much easier and more convenient to sling poisonous arrows at visible and powerless people than at the invisible and powerful sections of society. For a change, we suggest that they turn their attention to historical facts, the legacy of the past in today’s society and write fearlessly if they do care for free speech. For obvious reasons, many of them would not dare to.
The article draws your attention as you keep wondering why on earth lending rates in French banks plummet down between 1 and 3% but not in Mauritius, why you can publish free ads in the main newspapers in Europe but not in Mauritius, why fees for ads are around Rs 55 daily for a limited number of words and they double if you add one single word, half a page of colour or white and black ad in special business magazine for a sale in a foreign country is Rs 11000, the same fee as in France, sales are almost non-existent in Winners supermarket chain, cinema fares ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 400 to Rs 400 are as high as in Europe, and who import films and how high is the tax levied by the government. Overall it is a ruthless business atmosphere. The list goes on: internet fee, the standard of living, free education which costs a lot, the Rs 8 000 average salary in the hotel industry which makes millions in terms of yearly profits, slightly lower wages in the textile industry, the huge profit ideology dictated by wildcat capitalism and wide gap in salaries.
The point raised by the politician is that swindling and the quick-fortune ambition prevailing today can be traced back to the early history of the country. Historical facts should be better made public than hidden.
However, all this being said, there is no point in looking for scapegoats in the swindling habits of people on a daily basis today, gambling at casinos and the get-rich-quick mindset. There was a time when civil servants, police inspectors and sergeants across the ethnic spectrum, Protestant and Catholic white mulattoes, Creoles, Muslims and Hindus were imbibed with a sense of professionalism, carried out their duties selflessly as commis de l’Etat and felt honoured by the status and trust they enjoyed in the government, sarkar job. That was the generation of our parents. One can argue that there was no prosperity in those days and people were not tempted to get rich by any means.
We cannot seriously find excuses for today’s corrupt mindset in the past colonial history of the country. It is most unlikely that the legacy of the 18th century vanished into thin air for a while and reappeared again since a few decades. Colonization has left longstanding imprints in social cleavages, the concept of power and domination but it should not obliterate the failures and shortcomings of those who were entrusted with the task of orientating the country on the right track since Independence.
A new breed of crooks and swindlers from all walks of life emerged over the past two decades. It should be a matter of serious concern to society that people lie, cheat and swindle their fellowmen shamelessly. People are unlikely to find the right role models among those who jump on the bandwagon of politics and claim to lead the country. Casinos mushrooming across the island is a choice made by representatives of the people. They could have promoted cricket and other sports to provide healthy leisure to the people.
We have adopted a western type of education that does not look after the holistic development of children and alienates them from a broader range of knowledge and the blessings of their own culture. When prosperity started flowing in, some people lost their minds and continue to fall into the traps of modern-day Mephistopheles who promise wonders to them. Their frail moral groundings give way and they become easy preys to corruption. Just look at how big shots in drug traffic continue to operate.
External factors in a globalized world cannot be overlooked either. American style capitalism glorifying spending and consumption as virtues and all the publicity that goes with it in the media engenders unnecessary and superficial needs in society. The list of reasons for the quick-fortune mindset is not exhaustive. That cheating and swindling others is common practice within family circles should be of equally serious concern to all of us. What percentage of the population is prone to resort to any means to achieve quick enrichment is yet to be assessed.
But we should like to think that most of us are sane and do not need undesirable role models be they 18th century whites or today’s big wigs among corrupt brownies to shape our destiny.
* Published in print edition on 10 May 2013