50th Anniversary of the Nation
Very few even among those who have consistently opposed SSR’s governments would deny that the ‘old man” has had an immense contribution in the construction of a successful state and a prosperous nation
As we celebrate the milestone of 50 years of independence, the reputation and entitlement of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam to the prerogative of being recognized as the “Father of the Nation” or Prime Minister of the Jubilee, as some have recently called him, remains uncontested. For many, Prime minister Anerood Jugnauth of the “economic miracle” may come as a close second but even his most ardent supporters remain shy of crossing the line.
“Although no one would suggest that SSR lacked character, the public image which is retained is that of a man who was always ready to cut a deal and find a compromise in difficult situations. As much as this can be a weakness under certain circumstances, it was probably this disposition which allowed him to govern the country at a time when the task of reconciling deep divisions and suspicions along racial and communal lines among the various components of the nation represented a real threat to peace and harmony…”
On this historic occasion, it may be worth trying to understand why in spite of some really controversial events which occurred during his prime ministership SSR still remains the favourite politician of so many Mauritians. But first a reminder of some of the most contested and controversial issues which marred his prime ministership.
When SSR became the first Prime minister of independent Mauritius, he had already been the first minister under colonial government following the constitutional reforms of 1963. As such he had led the constitutional talks with the British government, which led to the decisive elections of 7th August 1967. He guided the Independence Party — an alliance consisting of his hitherto arch adversary Sookdeo Bissoondoyal’s Independent Forward Block and the Comite d’Action Musulman of Abdool Razack Mohamed, under the leadership of the Labour Party — to a historic victory against a Parti Mauricien led by Gaetan Duval. The electoral campaign was a no holds barred affair from beginning to finish, and the country came out of it deeply divided. Two years after the elections, Ramgoolam ditched the IFB and formed a new coalition with the same Parti Mauricien.
The political vacuum created by this new situation was an open invitation for a new force to emerge. The international context was then marked by the Cold War and the “contestation” of the existing social order by the immediate post-war baby boomers coming into their adult age. It was therefore no surprise that the challenge in Mauritius came from a youthful party feeding on the radicalization of political ideology, with a call to change what was perceived as an unacceptable exploitative and unfair social order.
In 1969 the Mouvement Militant Mauricien was born. Confronted with the rapid and successful mobilization of the working classes through a classic model of Marxist political ideology and organizational structures, the predominantly conservative Coalition government panicked. A national state of emergency was declared and basic democratic rights including the freedom of the press were suspended. The general elections of 1972 were postponed. Independent Mauritus went through one of the darkest pages of its history until 1975.
Embroiled in an increasingly hostile environment, the Labour Party-PMSD coalition was unable to provide the kind of leadership for implementing a successful economic programme. Socio-economic conditions deteriorated significantly in the country and the IMF and World Bank had to step in with their classic structural adjustment programmes of economic austerity. The immediate effects of such adjustments were to make matters even worse and fuel social discontent in the country to new heights. After a narrow escape in the elections of 1976, the Ramgoolam regime plodded on during its next mandate (1976-82) but besieged by an increasingly difficult economic environment from the outside and acrimonious divisions within. It was ignominiously defeated by the MMM-PSM (the latter being a dissident faction from the Labour Party) alliance in 1982, as not a single candidate of SSR’s led alliance was elected.
Why is it then that SSR remains and will certainly go into history as the “Father of the Nation” in spite of some of these far from honourable turn of events under his regime which lasted from 1968 to 1982? There are many reasons which could explain this seeming paradox, but historians would probably retain three most significant ones.
Although no one would suggest that SSR lacked character, the public image which is retained is that of a man who was always ready to cut a deal and find a compromise in difficult situations. As much as this can be a weakness under certain circumstances, it was probably this disposition which allowed him to govern the country at a time when the task of reconciling deep divisions and suspicions along racial and communal lines among the various components of the nation represented a real threat to peace and harmony. A situation unfortunately only too common in many nations which were then acceding to independence. In this connection the introduction of the now much decried “best loser system” in our local electoral process was a major contribution towards creating a sense of comfort for minorities in the country.
In short Dr Ramgoolam, as the first Prime Minister of the country, must be credited for having set the sound foundations for the future socio-economic development of the country, social peace and harmony.
The challenges of orchestrating the “economic take-off” of a country like Mauritius, endowed with no mineral or raw material resources, were enormous. Looking back at the economic history of the immediate post-independence period, one can safely conclude that the priorities of the government were not at any time focused on the type of radical economic policies which were needed to really transform the very nature of the “plantation economy” inherited from our colonial experience. Instead, true to Dr Ramgoolam’s inclination for compromise, it chose to accommodate the owners of the “commanding heights of the economy”.
It must be said that contrary to popular belief a faction of this “landed bourgeoisie” supported the independence movement and were therefore well disposed towards the new government. As for the others, who actively and financially supported the anti-independence opposition, it did not take much to convince them about where their best interest lay once independence was a reality.
Indeed the grand coalition with the PMSD in 1969 with the blessings of the French government through the presence of Gaullist Minister Michel Debré was a clear indication of this shift. The option of not challenging “king sugar” and indeed of deepening the sugar plantation model (an iconic objective of 750,000 tons of production) was a safe but clearly inadequate strategy in view of the need to create employment for the growing number of working age educated adults reaching the market every year. The economic woes of the country expanded exponentially as unemployment reached nearly 30% of the labour force in the 1970s.
The upside of this commitment though was two-fold. It set the foundations of what came to be a key success factor in the later economic success of the country – an institutionalized form of Public-Private Partnership quite unique among developing countries. It was this “collaboration” which led to the successful negotiations of the Lome Convention and the Sugar Protocol which were so crucial for later capital accumulation that brought about economic diversification and creation of various pillars of economic growth.
SSR set the foundations for Public Private Partnership, a unique model of collaboration and consultations between the State and private operators which facilitated the economic take-off of the country.
“There was nothing “natural” or “inevitable” in the fact that at the time of independence Mauritius chose to be classified as an African nation in international fora such as the United Nations or the Non Aligned Movement. This was a deliberate, highly political decision taken by Prime Minister SSR. The wisdom of such a choice which may have seemed questionable at the time was indeed the subject of severe criticisms if not ridicule from some quarters. In fact this is perhaps the most illustrative example of SSR’s vision and right sense of history…”
There was nothing “natural” or “inevitable” in the fact that at the time of independence Mauritius chose to be classified as an African nation in international fora such as the United Nations or the Non Aligned Movement. This was a deliberate, highly political decision taken by Prime Minister SSR. The wisdom of such a choice which may have seemed questionable at the time was indeed the subject of severe criticisms if not ridicule from some quarters. In fact this is perhaps the most illustrative example of the vision and right sense of history and geo-political strategy deployed by SSR during his prime ministership.
This decision paid handsome dividends when Mauritius, as a member of the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) group of newly-independent nations engaged with what was then the European Economic Community to negotiate the various trade conventions (from Lome to Cotonou) which formed the bedrock of the export driven manufacturing sector in the late 1980s. As for the Sugar Protocol, it was the result of the successful combination of the Public Private Partnership and the vision of Dr Ramgoolam to join the African Union and thus tie our destiny with the continent. It allowed Mauritius to extract maximum benefits for the country’s sugar exports over many years.
The geo-political and strategic vision of SSR created the conditions for surplus capital accumulation which lifted the country from a developing nation into a middle income economy.
Last but not least among the greatest achievements which make SSR so deserving of the title of Father of the Nation is his determination to endow independent Mauritius with a Welfare state. It is perhaps a unique example of a country which so doggedly pursued such a policy after independence. Following in the steps of the Titmuss Report which made strong recommendations to that effect, Dr Ramgoolam’s government set up the national pension scheme, free health and social security systems for the protection of the downtrodden. Later on, he introduced free education (some would say under immense pressure) which has contributed to the formation of a basically educated labour force and to fairly rapid social mobility.
SSR’s signal contribution to independent Mauritius has arguably been the institution of the Welfare State as also his later determination to safeguard it even under tremendous pressure.
Very few even among those who have consistently opposed SSR’s governments all through what can be described as the Ramgoolam regime from 1968 to 1982 would deny that the ‘old man” has had an immense contribution in the construction of a successful state and a prosperous nation. Undoubtedly he has also had his weaknesses, but as one looks back over the 50 years of independence no objective observer can doubt that he largely deserves to be called the “Father of the Nation”.
* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018