Interview: Vijaya Teelock, Associate Professor – UOM
“The ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding who controls the strings
as far as land issues… are concerned is deafening”
‘There is collusion somewhere but between who is the big question’
Vijaya Teelock, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Studies and Humanities, University of Mauritius, was a member of the Truth and Justice Commission set up to examine the consequences of slavery on Mauritian society, but was saddled with the additional task of examining two additional issues, land and indenture, without being given additional time or resources for the purpose. Nevertheless, the Commission did as much as it could in the limited time, producing 6 reports, of which 100 copies were made for distribution to the Assembly and other public institutions – but were shelved. She decries this total opacity on the part of the authorities and the occult forces with which they are in cahoots and that perpetuates the industry of ‘faux papiers’ which is highly lucrative to only those privy to it. It is a severe indictment on a ‘system’ which penalises many descendants of those dispossessed, at the same time as it allows others to go on an unbridled ‘betonnage’ of Mauritius, which the political establishment is unwilling or powerless – or feigning powerlessness – to rein them in.
Mauritius Times: We presume that the Truth and Justice Commission must have gauged in its interactions with different stakeholders the degree of complexity involved in setting right land dispossession issues. Even the leader of the Opposition is on the same wavelength with the Government as regards the complexity of the matter. Aren’t we selling false hopes to those who are saying that they have been robbed of their lands?
Vijaya Teelock: You first need to understand how the Commission started in the first place.
If you read the speeches made during the debate on the Bill, the Land issue was an addition. This became a huge load on the work of the Commission which originally was meant to consist only of examining the consequences of slavery on Mauritian society.
Two ‘topics’ were added: indenture and land.
Yet the time frame to study these three issues remained the same. What were the Members of National Assembly thinking when these two additional issues were added?
That research examining 300 years of history cannot be completed in 2 years – where not all documents are available; people are deceased; land has been built upon on; laws are either not adequate, need reform or not enforced; when the principle of equity is not recognised; when dispossession has taken place ‘legally’; when an industry of ‘faux papiers’ has been allowed to flourish for many years… I could go on. All political parties are responsible for the sad situation of those who have lost land. It was unfair to place such a huge responsibility on us.
We cannot reverse history, but we could at least have started implementing recommendations had the Truth and Justice Commission continued to carry on its work. But it was clear we had upset many people and many wanted it shut down as soon as possible at the time. The proof is the almost immediate closure of access by public to the documents they require to build up their case. Who gave the orders at that time to shut down and block access and not even submit all 6 reports to the National Assembly? Why were the 100 copies printed never distributed to the public libraries and other institutions?
BIG question! If you can answer that, you will understand who really pulls the strings in Mauritius.
* Are there lessons to be drawn from the experiences of other countries which have dealt with these land dispossession issues to the satisfaction of the victims?
We were provided reports such as Ahnee report, but the situation in Mauritius is very different from South Africa or Zimbabwe and I do not understand why people keep referring to those countries. There you had an indigenous population that was unashamedly dispossessed of their traditional lands. Land restitution is a necessary step. But there are also vast expanses of land…
In Mauritius there is no indigenous population, Mauritius is an island with no more land available. The laws existing in the French period allowed land grants of massive proportions to be given only to those of European descent and to those of a higher social status. There were a few exceptions such as Malagasy Princess Bety and those lucky enough to be manumitted or who came as free immigrants. There was an unwritten rule that non-Europeans should not acquire large tracts. Indeed non-Europeans could not grow cash crops.
The inequality started there and that led to a pyramidal structure of land ownership where your class and your ethnicity dominated and determined your access to land.
At the time of the abolition of slavery, only those ex-slaves who had saved were able to buy land. Many lost it subsequently because they could not complete payments, or receipts were not given to them when they made payments; or when they went to live in Port Louis for work, they lost touch with the land.
So it is wrong to say, as some do that ex-slaves did not want to work in agriculture: they just did not want to work for the plantation owner, but wanted to be autonomous. I am afraid many people have not understood that and continue to espouse and disseminate false stereotypes of ex-slaves and their descendants.
False ethnic interpretations are also given on the question of land. All ethnic groups have suffered land dispossession: you only need to look at the number of cases since the 18th century: all have suffered dispossession: people of European, Indian and Afro-Malagasy descent.
Of course when Indian immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 19th century and their indenture contracts were completed, many chose to stay back and settle. But it is completely wrong to state that all obtained land. Many did, and did so by buying up plots of land belonging to ex-slaves AND others. It is not right to ethnicise this as one is unnecessarily creating ethnic tension instead of finding solutions.
But we all know some powerful lobbies thrive on ethno-religious division and maintain these ridiculous ahistorical analyses and stereotyping.
* There have always been doubts as regards the land holding rights of some of the major landholders connected with the sugar industry. Activists point to what they call dubious notarial deeds drawn up by some public notaries, themselves forming part of a chasse gardée in years gone, and which have cast a shadow of suspicion over land rights in Mauritius. Did the Truth and Justice Commission see a pattern in this respect?
Unscrupulous people have always existed since the 18th century. Again examine the number of cases in courts at that time or examine land reports of the 18th century. As I have said earlier, an industry of manufacturing ‘faux papiers’ exists. Let us hope this can be controlled, if not dismantled one day.
All groups have made full use of loopholes in the law. People of all ethno-religious groups are partners in crime! It is only in public that they showcase their differences!
Sugar estates have been the target of accusations – that is true. In the past there is evidence that they have encroached on others’ lands and gradually taken over lands belonging to others. The Truth and Justice Commission received many complaints to this effect and we were able to go on site and verify this. I hope one day, they can accept that this happened and not try to deny or hide it. A very deep historical wound will be healed if they do.
But greed for land is not limited to a group. Many families in Mauritius steal land from members of their own families: brothers from their sisters, elder siblings from the younger ones, executors from the heirs, the list is very long… I hope one day the legal, notarial profession can clean up and remove the ‘brebis galeuses’ amongst them from functioning once and for all. Mauritius will be a better place, even if we cannot remove material greed altogether.
* Access to information buried in 100-year old legal deeds or well beyond 100 years, the constraints posed by the fact that some of the lands could have been acquired (in good faith) by other parties or through legally valid prescriptions, coupled with the imperative for respect for the law in an “Etat de droit” in the Mauritian context are some of the factors put forward to explain the complexity of the matter. Would you say that it is nevertheless doable?
Yes, there are many recommendations made to this effect in the Commission’s report on Land (Volume Two): creation of a Land Bank, etc., to compensate those who cannot regain land which has been ‘legally’ sold, etc.
But you have to remember that the Commission’s attribution was also the search for the Truth and this is what we tried to focus on to give closure to many families who wanted to ascertain that they indeed had owned land once upon a time. It was important to conduct preliminary research (in two years, we could not do more) and establish whether these families had indeed owned land or not in the past. Many families are fully aware they will not regain their land, but they at least wanted the truth established.
This is why Dr Veerapen and myself as two of the three Commissioners still alive (!) (the other member was Lindsay Morvan who later resigned) have strongly recommended that the Land research Unit must be revived and be staffed with both former researchers of the Truth and Justice Commission and newer members to ensure a continuity of the work.
The Commission also recommended that a Notarial Acts database be put in place. The open source software had already been designed and customised and we had started inputting some 100,000 acts. I know this is a drop in the ocean as there are millions of acts but if this had been continued we would have come a long way now. Many millions are rupees are being spent to scan notarial documents but are we verifying how many are authentic or biased? A few million could be spent on entering basic data in a database, and that’s when one will see if there are anomalies or wrong data, etc…
* What do you make of the alleged collusion between the political establishment and the ‘Gros Capital’ and different interest groups which would explain why certain issues are not set right even in the light of compelling evidence pointing to illegal acts and practices (like the issue of land dispossession) or which go contrary to the national interest?
There is ‘gros’ capital and ‘petit’ capital too! Material greed is a feature of Mauritian society, there is no social, cultural or economic group that is spared this trait!
Again it is time the professions involved in legalising land transactions clean up their act.
The political establishment will be the beneficiaries as ordinary Mauritians will recognise that it is under their mandate that this clean-up occurred.
* Do you get the feeling that governments have down the years become weaker in the face of different interest groups, due to the increasingly pervasive influence of neo-liberal forces in the economy and which might be responsible for some of the problems which Mauritian society is facing, like access to lands for housing, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.?
Certainly the economic structure and philosophy in place since the past 20 years has favoured inequality, land speculation, environmental degradation… as efforts are spent on making more and more money rather than improving the conditions of daily lives of the population, cleaning up the air they breathe, dealing with climate change, improving the quality of education, and really studying who are really poor in this country. Many do not want to show their poverty and they are left behind…
* As regards access to lands for housing for the middle class and people down the social ladder, Smart Cities, IRS and ERS projects do bring in FDI but they do not make economic sense in the long term given their impact on house and land prices. What’s your take on that?
Again improving the quality of life of Mauritians should be the priority. Another economic future should be envisaged.
I am not an economist but mega structures and mega new villages is only adding more concrete structures to the Mauritian landscape, and blocking the access of Mauritians to our island’s forests, mountains and natural beauty is not the way forward.
Philanthrophy and generosity of spirit is in short supply in many elite groups in Mauritius. We claim on having a European-style material lifestyle but where are the non-material qualities?
* It has taken a hunger strike (by Clency Harmon) for the Government to become alive to the need for some form of redress in the matter of land dispossession. It took similar hunger strikes by lady school cleaners, BAI policy holders/investors or CWA contract labour for things to start moving. These have mostly been grassroots initiatives or in some cases driven by trade unionists – not by politicians. What does this tell you about the people’s faith in politics and politicians in today’s society?
I am not in favour of hunger strikes in theory as I do not believe one should place ultimatums on a government. There must be other ways of negotiating. Maybe our negotiators need more training! The trail of politicians going to visit Mr Clency Harmon is interesting: they all were in power at some point; what did they do when they were in power? The ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding who controls the strings as far as land issues, access to civil status archives (that are over 100 hundred years old) are concerned is deafening. There is collusion somewhere but between who is the big question…
* In fact it is mostly “small parties” or trade unionists and grassroots movements which are bringing up serious issues affecting our present and the future in relation to the environment, urbanisation, etc. We rarely get to see such initiatives coming from the “mainstream” parties. Why is that so? Have they lost touch with the people and their needs and expectations?
The old parties have their power base and their vote bank. But they need to think differently. They are stuck in the mindset of the past.
However, past conflicts, tensions, prejudices and stereotypes still exist: it is HOW we resolve them that is the question: new methods and approaches have to be found.
The new parties leave much to be desired. They need more experience in dealing with the mass of the population and extend their power base. They should also connect with those not connected to social media, give up their egos…But it is good to see young people being active.
* Published in print edition on 12 April 2019