Major changes in our society have only taken place when the people had been duly informed, issues discussed openly and thrashed out at elections. The battle for independence would not have been won if the people had not been convinced it was worth fighting for…
The Mauritius Renewal society was launched at the University of Mauritius to a packed audience of academics, politicians, friends and well-wishers. Some see this event merely as a renewed initiative, started a decade ago, which might not have fulfilled all the expectations of the organisers. Others view it as a deeply felt need within Mauritian society, with almost a sense of urgency, to stop the rot gnawing at our institutions.
There is broad agreement about the malaise permeating all sectors of society, even reaching to the highest levels of the State, something unimagined before, and unprecedented. Phrases regarding bribes, crimes, corruption, nepotism and drugs tumble daily from the mouths of people in the streets and in the media, reflecting both anger and humiliation. Mauritians are so proud of their country that they cannot bear any more this humiliation inflicted on them, hence the need for a forum to air grievances and seek solutions.
Paradoxically, it is this sense of powerlessness that often brings up determination in the people to fight against the normalization of authoritarian, illiberal, corrupt and exploitative practices. Very often in our own history, individuals and groups have stood up for their rights and are counted. In 1926 two Indians were elected for the first time to the Council of Government; the backlash was such that they were defeated in the 1931 elections and RK Boodhun had to accept the post of Nominee in the Council of Government. It was out of such despair that in 1935 Indians flocked in great numbers to attend the Indian Centenary Celebration, an initiative of the Indian Cultural Association.
Indian intellectuals such as RK Boodhun, Rampersad Neerunjun, Kissoonsingh Hazareesingh, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam met on this occasion and subsequently it was the regular meetings of such intellectuals at social and cultural events which threw up a group of progressive politicians for the future development of the island. Similarly, in 1936 it was the defeat of Dr Maurice Curé, the lonely champion of the working class in the Council of Government, which prompted him to found the Mauritius Labour Party. Likewise the humiliation of the Indian labouring classes by colonialism and the colonial oligarchy led the Bissoondoyal brothers to organize a Maha Yaj to raise the cultural awareness of their fellow citizens.
From the 1940s onwards, it was these intellectuals together with those of the different communities of Mauritius as well as working class leaders who brought about the democratisation of politics, built the Welfare State, gave the country its independence and laid the foundation of industrialization with the passing of the EPZ Act in 1970. From the 1970s onwards, a new generation of politicians fought to advance the cause of democracy and of the working class, to further the diversification of the economy, to modernise Mauritius and put environment on the national agenda.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of independence next year, it is proper for any group, particularly the young to come forward and renew their faith for a better Mauritius. The young panelists present at the forum who put their dreams across to the audience, pleading for a more compassionate, inclusive, fair and just society – themes which can be found on the agenda of any youth organization throughout the world – need to go beyond these general objectives and probe deeper into the concerns of the country. Admittedly in the past, there have been lively debates and reports on a number of issues but we are also reminded, for example, that despite the fact that electoral reform has been on the agenda for the past decades, we are not an inch closer to finding an acceptable solution.
In our quest for solutions to our problems, we have very often relied on foreign expertise to make proposals for reforming our society and these have been of great help. We think of Professors Titmuss, Meade, Balogh, Mackay and more recently Albie Sachs. We still need experts but we must also do the spadework ourselves on different reforms we wish to bring to society, and the list is a long one. On one or two major reforms, there have been reports and studies by both local and foreign experts but these have been too few. There are a number of reforms to be worked out in some depth, to be publicized for the general public and to build a consensus around them before thinking of implementation.
Major political parties supposedly have their own commissions set up to thrash out important issues but their reports, if any, are never published except for a brief summary of recommendations in press conferences. The public is left in the dark on their rationale, their assumptions, their data and even their implementation. In the absence of specific reforms and measures, the electorate is confronted with promises in the form of gleaming false teeth and fake black shiny hair which many are tempted to accept as genuine only to deeply regret it afterwards.
Voicing grievances, writing blueprints will be necessary but these will have no impact on society if the people are not taken on board right at the outset. Major changes in our society have only taken place when the people had been duly informed, issues discussed openly and thrashed out at elections. The battle for independence would not have been won if the people had not been convinced it was worth fighting for against all the odds stacked against the Independence Party in 1967.
The struggle for a renewal of our society is going to be a daunting task, too, like many of the struggles Mauritians have fought and are still fighting — gender equality, minimum wage, Diego Garcia, food security, a poison-free agriculture, housing or a portable pension. The question of creating public awareness is crucial if one wants to change the mindset of people. Without an awareness campaign particularly among the young and students, it is difficult to win the battle of the minds.
Our major parties initially organised small meetings to deliver their messages before resorting to public meetings and also used pamphlets and later newspapers. Today social media has become a crucial tool, but to reach out to a wider audience, organisations still need to conduct door-to-door campaigns and hold small meetings.
Any organization, whether it is a political party or a think tank, must take its programme to the wider public. A think tank open to all parties, has the freedom and advantage to propose its reforms to them, and exert pressure to include the reforms in their programme or vent them in the wider society and bring the electorate to act on them. It may provoke debates with other stakeholders to elicit responses that can contribute to a better Mauritius. An electorate properly briefed on issues vital to society can make an informed choice during elections and move our society closer to its aspirations.