A Final Jeremiad

The country had a few good things going for it in the second half of the last century – Universal Adult Suffrage, a coalition movement by Labour, the IFB and the CAM, parties which had bitterly fought one another previously, to work jointly for Independence, then of course there was Independence itself – sadly, and hopefully temporarily, without the Chagos Archipelago and rich waters around it. 

That was quickly followed by another coalition to heal past wounds and work for the development of the country, by the creation of the Export Processing Zone to boost the economy and of the DWC to provide employment to all (people then were interested to perform any job that came their way provided it paid decent wages.) The greatest feat of the seventies was the launching of free universal education.

A fall-out from Deng Xiao-Ping’s categorical “No!” to Margaret Thatcher about a continued British presence in Hong Kong beyond 1997 paved the way for FDI from a few Chinese investors and that started a wave of industrialisation in the country that saved us from the slavery of the monoculture economy. The “rest”, as the saying goes, is history.

But it was not all as rosy as it sounds. In continuation of a long British tradition in education, the pronunciation of neither English nor French was taught in the country, even though for the vast majority of Mauritians these languages are foreign. Towards the end of nineteenth century, Henry Sweet, one of the founders of the International Phonetic Association – along with Paul Passy in France, Wilhelm Vietor in Germany and Otto Jespersen in Scandinavia) – had warned that “Pronunciation is not caught. It has to be taught.” His advice went largely unheeded even in the UK. Sociolinguists even campaigned against it. In the colonies the situation was worse. Unlike the French, the British took no interest in getting the natives to speak their language correctly. They were happy just to imitate their approximate talk and make fun of them. But the fairer section of non-white community in Mauritius, indistinguishable from the “real” whites for most us, made great efforts to study the language, and it was their efforts that led to spreading of English in education, albeit with a French accent and French-modelled pronunciations. No effort has ever been made to improve upon that, and we are still stuck with it.

Politically, the country did experience some really thorny problems in the period – like the very abusive and hurtful language used against one community and the unfortunate and highly regrettable brain drain from another community that followed. Shortly after, in the early seventies, came the widespread choking of the communication arteries of the country that many still believe was a desperate bid to seize power by unconstitutional means; that was followed a decade later by a practical demonstration of a flaw in our Constitution that allows one party to corner all the seats of the Legislative Assembly – a flaw that was not foreseen and not allowed for by the founding fathers. In our three-member constituency system, coupled with our basically two-party system, even a slight preference for one party over the other yields all three seats of the constituency to the party with the slight majority. A difference of less than 1% in votes leads to a 100% loss of a 3-seat constituency. With 60 single-member constituencies, the loss of all 60 seats by one party would still be theoretically possible, but most unlikely.

Immediately thereafter came the establishment by constitutional amendment of the “lève paquet aller” system for senior civil servants, thereby destroying totally the apolitical culture of the Civil Service and making subservience and mediocrity rather than initiative the principal characteristic for promotion to responsible positions. Simultaneously an attempt was made to banish all languages, cultures and civilisations not born strictly in Mauritius, and with them the full panoply of diversity they represented, not to mention the destruction of archives at the MBC.

Worst of all was that brazen physical attack on a sitting Prime Minister by members of a faction of his own party while he was addressing a public gathering – his microphone was snatched away from him in the middle of his speech (“Move over, you impostor! Make way for the true leader!” – or something to that effect, he was apparently told, in Creole of course.) The good old doctor, better known as SSR, had to come out of his well-earned retirement to nurse the almost fatally wounded Prime Minister back to health and self-confidence. Again, the “rest” is history.

Sadly, most people in their forties and younger will only know about “the rest”, that is to say a country largely without the extremes of poverty and with reasonably comfortable and pleasant infrastructure, a largely literate population with plenty of schools, universities and hospitals. Few would know, or will care to find out, about what went on before “the rest”. That is why, whenever I write for Mauritius Times, I consciously make an effort to write for the young, to give them an inkling into what went on before.

I belong to a generation that in our childhood had food in thalis, tea in katoris, and water in lotas; we had to sit down cross-legged on mats to have our food, which we did with our fingers. We are a fast disappearing lot. I believe that those of us who can do so ought to leave traces of how we lived in our childhood. Several of my schoolmates, all much more qualified than myself to write about the past – or indeed about anything else — are still around. I earnestly hope that they will decide to put pen to paper, sooner rather than later.

History books are not likely to tell of the immense difficulties that we had in our childhood associated with living in straw-covered, mud-walled and mud-floored huts that our mothers kept spotlessly clean by regularly plastering them with a mixture of cow-dung and red earth. Some of us had to clean the family cowshed before going to school and to collect fodder and firewood on coming back from school. For those of us lucky enough to have parents who would insist on our keeping up with our lessons, studying had to be done with the help of conical tin cans fitted with a wick, which served as kerosene lamps.

Some may call this a “jeremiad”, but I must make it clear that I am not shedding tears about this. Far from it. I take great pride in recounting our past. By any standard, a move from zero to eight implies a much greater effort than one from eight to ten. I believe that the young people of today ought to have some information about what their elders had to go through to get them, that is to say the young, where they are today, so that they can learn from them that the key to progress is reliance on one’s own efforts and the proper use of one’s time. (In the interest of accuracy, I must add that I fall far short of my own or any standards in the matter of proper use of time: that story would be a genuine jeremiad; I will skip it for now.)

We are already through the first half of the first quarter of the new century. Have we accomplished anything worthwhile as a nation? I am now a full-time observer and have plenty of time to watch.

In the first half of the last decade, many secondary schools were established, and in the second half, free transportation was extended to all schoolchildren. By any account, these are very solid achievements. It would be churlish not to mention also the great improvements and additions being made to our road network. Minister Baichoo seems to be producing a new road every week – “thanks”, it is customary, almost mandatory, to add, “to the Prime Minister”. Some believe that his “thoughts” ought to be published just like those of Chairman Mao!!!

Take for instance the MID project: this is a very laudable initiative; we should aim at self-sufficiency in the major items of food and fuel consumption. We already have plenty of local fruits. We should produce our own rice and wheat; our cars should run on ethanol. There are a few other matters too, but not with the same impact. One small point I would find difficult to skip. The treatment that one gets in the Cardiac Centres of our hospitals can rival for quality with any other centre in Europe, Asia or the Middle East; the personnel discharge their tasks with exemplary dedication. If there are some matters relating to the handling of massive numbers of patients who turn up every day, these are matters falling under the responsibility of the parent ministry. As far as the medical and technical personnel are concerned, hats off!

And now the jeremiads! In the first half of the last decade, we again had the familiar constitutional amendment to protect a sitting Minister from investigation and possible prosecution and to wind up the Economic Crime Office. We had the famous Illovo mari deal, achieved by bypassing the State Law Office – a very sad precedent indeed, now that the floodgates have been opened. Education was made compulsory beyond the age of puberty to sixteen: at the age of fourteen, a child can be taught to work and made into a good apprentice; at sixteen, he or she does not want to be ordered around. Result: for manual work go to India or China, as long as the supply lasts; the only manual work we are interested in locally is pocket picking.

Worst of all was the adoption of a script for the Creole language that totally disregarded the fact that the language was no longer the property of just one community but of the whole nation, and that many people use Bhojpuri or French sounds while speaking Creole. Conversations of such people can now only be scripted using pre-1835 Creole sounds – a little as in the story where travellers had to be “lengthened” or “shortened” to fit the bed. This is pushing the notion of “ène sel nation ène sel lepep” to an intolerable limit. In the process a symbol for the schwa sound has been omitted – a vital sound for both English and French, to say nothing about Bhojpuri and other Asian languages. All our successive Ministers of Education have swallowed hook, line and sinker the positions of the sociolinguists, by and large a subversive lot. This is a very poor showing for the successive governments that pay lip service to notion of “Unity in Diversity”!

The second half of the last decade brought forth the famous National Residential Property Tax, coupled with the simultaneous abolition of the deduction of interest on housing loans – a double whammy, if ever there was one! It is not possible to mention all the elements of the economic policies of that period without shedding tears – of anger, that is, not of sorrow. But one element of those policies has to be highlighted: it was the massive reduction of import duty on cars, without prior preparation of the transportation system to accept such a rude shock.

Before releasing the floodgates, the flaws in our bus transport system should have been addressed, our Municipal Corporations should have been taught a little more about their responsibilities (like providing parking lots and using parking money wisely) and thought should have been given to our pedestrians, who are now having a very hard time on our roads. Entitlements, once granted, are practically impossible to withdraw – unless the economy attains Greek proportions. God forbid that that should happen to us. The nation will lose valuable time in traffic jams on our roads for years to come! The loss is incalculable.

We are now threatened with another policy from the same source – this time in the matter of electoral reform. We all agree that reform is necessary, as a system where a single party can corner all the seats is dangerous for democracy. But the proposal being talked about, if we have understood it rightly, will enable party heads to designate some who will get access to the Legislative Assembly. Besides it is based on abstruse calculations which only the author understands – hopefully. We do not believe that even the party heads should be guaranteed a seat. All the founding fathers of our Constitution lost their seats at some time or other. Even leaders of the new parties have lost their seats. And that is a very good thing – we have known some arrogance from some leaders even as things stand, but you wait until the leaders are guaranteed seats to know what arrogance really means. A Nero or a Caligula will be choirboys compared to what we will see. The pain that an arrogant party or country leader can inflict is simply unimaginable. We will be right back to Papadoc and his Tonton Macoutes. That is a development that all right-thinking people must unite to stop.

We want to be in a system where it is the elector who decides who gets into Parliament and who not. We believe that a system where every elector votes for three candidates, and every constituency returns four deputies, would ensure that every member who gets into Parliament has been sent there by the electorate. The corresponding numbers for Rodrigues should be two and three. On top of this there should be an additional number of deputies returned under a communal representation balance scheme like the present incorrectly named Best Loser System. Such a system should continue as long as censuses show that people want to belong to one of our four electoral communities, namely the Chinese community and the three other recognised religious groups in the country minus their Chinese members. (That was the way the Founding Fathers found to keep the integrity of the Chinese community; if they abandon the privilege of belonging to an ethnic community and opt to belong to one the three religious communities, a right they could certainly exercise as a group, the Chinese community will disappear; that will be a historic loss to the nation.) The Constitution must be amended to ensure that a single party, even if it were to win all 62 votes if they were to be counted as in the current system, cannot tinker with its fundamental provisions.

Throughout the period under review, the teaching of both English and French has been sorely neglected, in spite of the fact we have set ourselves many goals that will require us to play our full part in international affairs. This is a matter that we will come back to later.


* Published in print edition on 23 August 2013

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