Lest we forget: laying the foundations

About a decade before got our Independence, this country – not yet a nation – was written off as a basket case. The doomsayers were two eminent personalities who were to become Nobel Prize winners: economist Prof Titmuss of the London School of Economics, and the West Indian writer VS Naipaul. We were deemed to be overpopulated – an ‘overcrowded barracoon’ –, were caught in a poverty trap and our economy was solely dependent on one crop: sugarcane.

Around that time, Mauritius was reeling under the devastating aftermath of two cyclones, Alix and Carol, the likes of which had never till then been seen within the living memory of most of its inhabitants. Despite these circumstances, we had the temerity to press for Independence.

What led to the movement for Independence had of course been the struggle for workers’ rights, practically all of whom were then employed in the sugar industry. The owners constituted a strong oligarchy which had representation in the Governor’s Council, and thus could influence decisions in its favour.

Dr Maurice Cure launched the call for the working class to rise and claim their place in the sun, and was in the frontline leading them. It was thus that he founded the Labour Party in 1936, and in those early days several others similarly motivated joined him to claim rights for and defend the workers, stalwarts such as Hurryparsad Ramnarain, Pandit Sahadeo, Emmanuel Anquetil.

In parallel, the social ostracism to which the Indian community was subjected was countered by a mass awareness movement, Jan Andolan, spearheaded by the Bissoondoyal brothers. It was the force of these two streams combined, the political and the social, that created the synergy and the demand for Constitutional change, and this happened despite the scare of ‘Hindu hegemony’ that NMU of Le Cernéen drummed into the psyche of the rest of the population.

But the march was on. After Dr Maurice Cure had set the tone, Guy Rozemont blazed the trail for the glorious days of the Labour Party, and subsequently Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam brought together the alliance of Labour Party, Independent Forward Bloc and Comite d’Action Musulman which took the country to Independence on March 12, 1968.

That Labour Party had a tryst with the destiny of the people – it set the agenda, and gave the example, of reconciliation, harmony and peace: the conditions, in other words, for the emergence of nationhood. The dire predictions of the future Nobel winners and the resource constraints of the monocrop economy notwithstanding, it embarked boldly on the path of development and progress based on the Welfare State model.

Health was free; Poor Law assistance was available to the needy; the beginnings of social housing had been laid with the construction of houses for the victims of the cyclones. The University of Mauritius began to take shape in the wake of Prof Colin Leys’ report; the SSR National Hospital opened in 1969, in spite of the criticisms and cynicism of several stakeholders; education became free from the primary to the tertiary levels, and several State Secondary Schools were constructed. The EPZ was set up to reduce dependence on sugar. The government successfully championed the Lome Convention, which in turn triggered the sugar boom of the 1970s, and that in turn led to the flourishing of our tourism sector.

What we have inherited today by way of civil, political, social and cultural rights is the result of foresight by those who were in the forefront of the battle for Independence and, on this count, it is instructive to be enlightened by the analysis and appreciation of independent observers.

Thus, a study entitled ‘Coalitions, Capitalists, and Credibility: Overcoming the Crisis of Confidence at Independence in Mauritius’ (May 2009) by Deborah Bräutigam, International Development Program School of International Service American University Washington, DC with Tania Diolle, Centre for Applied Social Research had this to say by way of Executive Summary:

‘Few countries in the developing world have solved the puzzle of governing for broad-based prosperity. The multi-ethnic Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius is an exception. An isolated plantation economy at the end of the colonial period, dependent on the export of sugar, with a deeply divided population that had just experienced violent urban riots, Mauritius was transformed between 1968 and 1988. On multiple measures  — growth, stable democracy, social welfare, equity — Mauritius has earned its status as a development “superstar”.

A skillful mix of policies encouraged global competition in some areas (tourism, export manufacturing) while taking full advantage of trade preferences in others (sugar). Leaders were accountable for performance to domestic constituents, but kept their eyes on the outside world, experimenting, learning, adapting. They respected and strengthened key governance institutions: skilled bureaucracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, an inclusive electoral system.

Most importantly, an elected leader, avowedly socialist, was able to convince the business community of his government’s credible commitment to their prosperity, and to wrest from them the understanding that their prosperity would have to be shared in order to underwrite the social stability of the country. Social democracy would be combined with managed capitalism. Using a process-tracing methodology, this paper examines how, at the critical juncture of independence, this commitment was forged, and how it was sustained through being embedded into formal and informal institutions.

Violent and divisive elections in 1967 launched Mauritius into independence, but the coalition for development took shape through a painstakingly negotiated government of national unity. This brought the party of the economic elite into a coalition government headed by the socialist Labour Party, a firm sign of the latter’s commitment to market-based development. The national unity government provided the framework for decisions in three key policy arenas: upscale tourism; protected sugar exports into Europe; and export processing zones (EPZs). Trust between the public and private sectors was built through three principal means.

First, key public and private sector leaders used symbolic, public gestures as signals of commitment to cooperation, thereby shifting societal perceptions and easing a potentially dangerous ethnic polarization.

Second, the business class organized itself into a unified, cross-ethnic constituency, with a peak association that could negotiate, and speak with a single voice.

Third, government leaders and the private sector fostered dense clusters of consultation: regular formal and informal arenas for government-business interaction.

Why did Mauritians have the desire and ability to unify? The paper argues that four factors explain this exceptionalism.

(1) Education: The leaders who negotiated these new relationships were exceptionally well-educated. Many were graduates of the main island’s competitive, elite government secondary school, Royal College. At least half of the national unity cabinet of 21 people had earned university degrees in London.

(2) Societal support: A free media, new civic associations, and even the Catholic Church gave repeated and vocal societal support

(3) Transnational networks: These provided the ideas (Fabian socialism, export processing zones) and resources that created a concrete hope for the future. Finally,

(4) Systemic vulnerability (that is, absence of resources or geopolitical patrons; a price-volatile monocrop; hurricanes and droughts): This fostered a sober realization (italics added) that the country needed to unify, or sink.’

We are at a stage today where, unless we regain that sober realization anew, we may sink rather than unify. If the Labour Party is going to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, then it is that Labour Party of the stalwarts that needs to be reinvented, not the cobbled hotchpotch that has made a spectacle of itself in the past several years. Very tall order indeed.


* Published in print edition on 13 March  2015

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