In April 2008 a Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) was set up with the task of uncovering the truth about slavery and indentured labour in Mauritius during colonial days. Its report was submitted to the President of the Republic at the end of November 2011, following which the opposition fielded a question in Parliament in the first week of December 2011 on the actions that Government was proposing to taken in light of the Commission’s recommendations. The reply was that, given that the report was voluminous, it would be desirable to examine its contents first and then take the actions that would be deemed necessary.
One could not expect the then government to implement all of the recommendations contained in the report, but that it would at least proceed with those which were thought implementable at the earliest – which would make a difference in the lives of the affected people. That was not to be except for prior to the submission of the TJC’s report the introduction of Creole language in schools, and the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission, a important step that goes in the right direction and which the TJC had subsequently equally recommended for ensuring fairer social justice in Mauritius. Nothing much has happened since, except for the setting up by the current government of an inter-ministerial committee presided by Hon Xavier Duval with a mandate of looking into the implementation of the TJC’s recommendations. Not much has been achieved on this front as well.
As it happened in South Africa, such commissions generate a host of expectations on the part of those who have been victims of past injustice and oppression. In Mauritius, there was an expectation among the Creole community in particular that the Commission would be recommending monetary compensations to be paid to descendants of slaves, given the vast scale of suffering, exploitation and property confiscation resorted to by masters of the colonial era. The Commission did find evidence of the huge atrocities inflicted by the combined concerted efforts of the Catholic Church, the Chamber of Commerce and the Sugar industry. These had been invited to publicly tender apologies for wrongs done. Their reaction to that proposal was to have the then Secretary General of the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry to front for them. The Catholic Church issued a Communiqué in December 2011, pointing out how it had been tendering apologies all along at the international level in the past for having condoned the inhuman treatment of slaves and how it has made amends in Mauritius by opening up its hierarchy to the descendants of the slaves themselves.
The Commission also found out how exploiters, including unscrupulous notaries acting vicariously for those exploiters, wrenched away the possessions of those who could not defend themselves against the legal and commercial armada. But it did not recommend monetary compensation against all the abuses made by the powerful of those days in view of an identification problem as to who really are the descendants of slaves today. There is also the impracticality of tracing out the guilt of those who are sitting on huge fortunes inherited through ruffian practices of those days. However it is known that a lot of land was seized unlawfully or “prescribed” against the helplessness of their true owners. The economic elite that has emerged out of this process has gone on consolidating its growing power ‘sans partage’.
The question of land dispossession has again come up eight years after the TJC submitted its report. 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 and CWA contract labour for things to start moving.
One may conveniently seek refuge in a legalistic approach, as done by some members of the government, and contend that the issue of land dispossession and redress is complex – in much the same way as it did earlier as regards the school cleaners or BAI policy-holders, etc., most of whom if not all having been the victims of fraudulent practices by private parties and companies but also of public institutions which failed in the first place to assume their role of oversight in their respective sectors, namely the Ministry of Labour and the Financial Services Commission respectively.
It also amounts to a government failing to live up to its constitutional and moral obligations to promote the norms of justice, fairness, and equity – the consequence of which is that hunger strikes are now viewed by victims of injustice or fraud from diverse sectors as the only way to get the government to get off its high horse of self-sufficient legalism. When people show courage and the willingness to ultimately sacrifice themselves by means of a hunger strike, it is usually to demand from the authorities, which are perceived to have distanced themselves from the concerns of the common people, that their grievances are looked into with compassion and that the decision makers act sensibly.
There seems to be a conspiracy of silence, an impenetrable veil behind which are hiding those who are pulling the strings and directing governments to give in to their agenda, which is not necessarily in the national interest or the general welfare of the people. Who are they? And why do they wield such influence, whether it is in the energy sector where, for example, the IPPs get away with using coal at the same time as this is denied for other promoters on environmental grounds, or the massive development projects which as our interviewee Dr Vijaya Teelock points out is resulting in the expanding ‘betonisation’ of our land with the consequences that others outside of these privileged zones have to bear the brunt of.
In the street protests in Algeria that have resulted in the ousting of the ailing long-serving President Bouftelika, the people said that they had had enough of the nexus between the politicians in power, wealthy businessmen, and the military. We don’t have a military here, but the other two groups are present, as they are in many other countries. Is their combined agenda the reason for the inaction on the part of those who are supposed to work for the people? Will we come to the point where hunger strikes and small protest groups are not sufficient to bring about change? We do hope for the country that we may not reach that day.
* Published in print edition on 12 April 2019