“We have to act now”

Interview: Sheila Bunwaree

‘Waiting four more years is tantamount to putting the entire nation at greater risk’

* ‘More than any other time in our post-Independence history has the phrase ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ been made so relevant’

* ‘Comfortable majorities often mean the rise of authoritarianism, populism and the clamping down on certain fundamental rights’

Our interviewee this week is sociologist Sheila Bunwaree who, while despairing at the current dispensation and governance of the country, sees as a positive development the possibility that a new political group could emerge. The country is in dire strait in many respects and it only by the infusion of new blood and new ideas that we salvage it.

Mauritius Times: The Avengers group of lawyers with Rama Valayden in the lead together with a few others have announced their intention to go into politics. The Avengers would probably want to build upon the popularity and goodwill they have earned for having taken up the Soopramanien Kistnen case and demonstrably going to great length to go to the bottom of this matter. That’s not good news for the MMM and the Labour Party, for there’s going to be some serious competition now, isn’t it?

Sheila Bunwaree: Considering the personalities and background of the ‘Avengers’ group of lawyers, the announcement of their intention to go into politics is no surprise. In 2014, analysing what was happening on the political scene, prior to the general elections, I wrote on the necessity for new political parties, new blood, new ideas, innovative ways of engaging in politics to emerge. And now with the rapidly decaying political system, more than ever before, we need competent and ethical citizens, to come together to work for the common good.

That the avengers would want to surf on the popularity they have earned, through the Kistnen case, should not be seen with negativity. Let us be honest, anyone else in their shoes would have done so as well. In all objectivity, I believe that is rather demeaning to define or describe anyone fighting for the fundamental rights of people, as ‘faire politics lors cadavre dimoune.’ Searching for the Truth, for Justice and assisting the oppressed is a component of a different kind of engagement in politics, so badly needed in our society.

It is important to remember that the different layers of the Kistnen case symbolise all that is morally reprehensible with the current system. If certain politicians are shying away from denouncing these wrongs, ordinary citizens who are concerned about the Mafioso democracy that we are becoming, should not hesitate a single minute to bring their contribution for a much needed moral renaissance.

And if the Avengers’ move brings in more competition to a system that remains blocked with electoral reforms apparently stalled for ever, with little possibility for greater inclusion and a diversity of ideas, a system which remains ‘unfree and unfair’ due to the prevalence of money politics, I cannot see any true democrat be it from the MMM or Labour Party or elsewhere unable to appreciate the significance of such competition. The latter can contribute towards getting rid of the rot. Competition can be healthy at times and can consolidate democracy.

* The ‘Avengers’ might have rightly gauged the existence of a vacuum on the political front at this point in time for want of a credible alternative to the current government, and feel that with the right political message and theatrics they might make some headway in the opposition camp. What do you think?

The existence of a vacuum on the political front has certainly been gauged not only by the Avengers but a number of other groupings/new political parties, not satisfied with the way that the mainstream parties and the current regime are handling the affairs of the country. The question to ask however at this critical juncture of our history is ‘what is the right political message’ and ‘from whose perspectives is it right or wrong?’

True, denouncing how law and order has become topsy-turvy is of utmost importance but not sufficient in these very trying times. We have some serious challenges and people want to know how you will improve their daily existential conditions, what the new normal in the post-covid and post-wakashio era, will look like.

For people to start building up hope again, to feel that they belong, that opportunities are truly equal and that there is a fairer and more secure future, the country needs serenity, competence, ethical governance in all spheres, capacity to innovate and bring out the best in each unit of the country’s human capital.

A credible alternative requires a right policy mix built on technology, innovations, new economic pillars, empathy, compassion – a policy mix which ensures that people are free from want, from disease, joblessness and homelessness. In short, we should be hospitable to the politics of the common good as described by Professor Sandel and Vandana Shiva.

If I remember correctly, it was Albert Einstein who said that we should free ourselves from the prison of the ‘… delusion of consciousness’. And this can only be done by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and nature. Needless to say that such a societal project can only be built if transparency, accountability and humility serve as the scaffolding of such a societal project.

No room whatsoever for theatrics and falsities in such a paradigm!

* As regards the need for a credible alternative to the government of the day, there seems to be a growing perception that the main political parties of the country – the Labour Party and the MMM – seem to be unable to challenge the ruling alliance. Do you think that’s a correct perception, and why is it so?

Perhaps we should start looking at – who forms part of this ruling alliance? A former vice prime minster whose name is apparently cited in the ADB report regarding the St Louis scandal, who has been revoked but is still sitting in Parliament. It is the same person who looked right in the eyes of Alvaro Sobrinho and doing his own due diligence, facilitating Sobrinho’s entry on our land. It is no exaggeration to say that this man’s little party has been reduced to nothingness.

Then we have a Senior Minister from the so-called ‘Plateforme militante’ who justifies the bulldozing of the shelters of the homeless during the lockdown by saying that he will not tolerate any form of illegality and allow the country to turn into a Far West. But now that we are truly becoming a Far West, with so many mysterious deaths/horrific crimes, putting our security at stake, this highly legalistic minister seems to have no voice. Silence is complicity.

The ruling alliance headed by the Angus Road master also includes a bunch of newcomers to the world of politics. Many of them seem to have blinkers on their eyes, unable to discern between right and wrong.

* Do you think it’s really difficult for the Labour Party and the MMM to challenge such a ‘ruling alliance’?

Judging by the number of brilliant interventions from members of the opposition denouncing the multiple scandals, highlighting the incompetence, the poor and inadequate policy making, the malfunctioning of our institutions, it is clear that it is just a perception and not the reality.

Moreover, the resurfacing of Minister ‘mentor’ on MBC, a few weeks ago, testifies to the fact that the ruling alliance is feeling so very challenged, that it sought support and assistance from SAJ. The latter referring to his son’s leadership as ‘fort’, at a time when the multiple indicators of poor governance, opacity, mismanagement are systematically calling for people to take to the streets is revolting. I prefer not to comment any further on this scenario.

Anything morally wrong, false and unjust can and should be challenged. The march of 13th Feb. as well as the avengers meeting of 31st Jan speak to this. Every single citizen who has the interest of the nation at heart should give a helping hand, especially at a time when the speaker has hollowed out democracy by all sorts of strategies to shut the opposition out.

* It’s possible that a majority of the people are not comfortable with the government’s doings and misdoings, but that remains to be ascertained. But there might also be a dichotomy between those who have already made up their minds about whom to support next time round and the others who feel they have no choice than make do with the current team. What’s your take on that?

Recent studies by Afro Barometer and Kantar highlight the extent to which people are uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the current state of governance. Talking to people on the ground also points to a similar situation. There is almost no need for any further ascertaining.

The accumulation of scandals, the injustices of the system, the lack of transparency and accountability, the differential treatment of citizens in front of the law, the different excluding mechanisms of our society disempowering the poor and vulnerable even further, imposes an obligation on us to defend the fundamental human rights of fellow citizens, particularly if we want durable peace.

Hopefully enough, the dichotomy you refer to would get smaller with at least some in the current team actually speaking to their conscience and exercise the choice of being on the right side of history. Otherwise, they may not be able to look in the eyes of their children when the latter ask them where were they when the entire nation was under siege.

* But isn’t it premature and odd to talk about an alternative to the current government, which has only completed one year in its mandate and has four more years to go?

Premature and odd? Not at all. This is a government by default. It is important to remember that only some 28% of the population voted for them.

Some people may continue to describe those who oppose this government as bad losers, but this is not a question of bad or good losers. The disgust with the government started since 2014 – when some of us could see what was being plotted. The transfer of power from father to son widely decried as illegitimate by some led to the manufacturing of PKJ – a weak leader — increasingly seen as a danger for our society in certain quarters.

The slide towards new forms of authoritarianism, surveillance and control is not auguring well. It is good that last week through the debate organised by the PMSD on the role of the DPP, we were reminded of the dangers associated with this regime especially when they wanted to bring in the Prosecution Bill. Being concerned by the erosion of democratic norms and seeing Duval’s sacrifices for democracy, I can recall saluting his initiative in a press article a couple of days after he left government.

Waiting four more years is tantamount to putting the entire nation at greater risk and directly threatening the future of the younger generation; we have to act now.

* We were talking earlier about the Soopramanien Kistnen case and the determination of the ‘Avengers’ lawyers to resolve this murder case. But we have also seen some institutions appearing unwilling to take the bull by the horns in relation to this and other cases. Do you think we’ll ever get to the bottom of this matter?

I cannot but agree more with you that certain institutions seem to be unwilling to take the bull by the horns.

Let us, for example, take the pretty straightforward case of the fictitious employment of Mrs Kistnen as Constituency Clerk. The law is very clear regarding such cases. I certainly do not wish to substitute myself for the court nor engage in any form of contempt of court but suffice it to say that a ten-year-old kid, if informed of what the law says and if presented with all the evidence gathered so far, would not find it difficult to see what is just.

More than any other time in our post-Independence history has the phrase ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ been made so relevant. As citizens searching for the truth, we must clamour for justice to follow a JUST course. Is it following a JUST course right now? I leave it to the intelligence of the average objective Mauritian to make his/her own judgement.

If machinations and high political connivances are at work, if people leading our institutions do not have the necessary moral fibre and the efficiency required to stop all the nonsense that has been going on for years and do not put some order in the mess that we are in, there is little chance for us to get to the bottom of this matter and yet we desperately need to.

If we fail to do so, the country will enter in one of its darkest chapters.

Despite the difficulties, I believe the 3 Rs – Resilience, Resolve and desire to Re-engineer state-society relations by many of us will assist in the process of deciphering the truth and help in getting to the bottom of this matter. It may however take a long time!

* As regards the St Louis Redevelopment Project being investigated by ICAC, a former Vice Prime Minister has been kept on a leash – outside of the Cabinet – , and Prof Kasenally has lately been hauled up for questioning by the anti-corruption agency. The credibility of ICAC itself has taken a hit with the long list of high profile cases which remain unresolved to date. Is there a problem therefore with the oversight such institutions that are deemed by virtue of the related legislations to function independently of political proximity?

There are far too many cases that remain unresolved, and as Transparency international Mauritius bureau’s director reminds us that there is no national strategy to combat corruption. We have an arsenal of laws but enforcement remains poor. We often catch the small fish while the big ones are left untouched. And for that matter, if we think of the annual budget that goes to ICAC – some 200 million rupees, if I am not mistaken, then we have every right to ask where and who is doing the oversight work?

Clearly the system is not functioning leading the Parliamentary Committee to contest the way things are being done and asking for change. The method of nominations at institutions such as ICAC should definitely be revisited – it can no longer be in the hands of the PM if we truly want an independent, well functioning institution.

* All this would mean that in our present set-up a government with a comfortable parliamentary majority can, with the support of some institutions, do as it pleases and operate in a manner that makes it almost unaccountable to anyone, isn’t it?

The perversion of our current electoral system often leads to a government with a comfortable majority. Such tyranny of numbers is very unhealthy for our democracy. Comfortable majorities often mean the rise of authoritarianism, populism and the clamping down on certain fundamental rights. Yes, they can do as they please – the emergency procurements/pack and blister story during lockdown, Safe City project with millions of rupees going down the drain without ensuring our safety, the white elephant that the Cote d’Or stadium represents – just a few examples, to show how unaccountable they can be. This cannot go on. We must stop it.

* 2021 will no doubt be a very challenging year for the economy, for the middle and working classes and the jobless and society as a whole. It’s also likely to be tough times for the government. Are you worried that our social peace might be jeopardised?

Yes, being ‘une militante de paix et du développement’, I am deeply worried and concerned. As you may know, I had several years back founded the Institute of Social Development and Peace. We researched and studied how exclusion in various forms could pose a threat to peace and development. And now with Covid-19, the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, and new forms of poverty arising and people competing for the few resources available, there is bound to be conflicts and violence.

This is why I referred to the necessity of reengineering state-society relations earlier and in so doing ensure more inclusion and justice for all. Without justice, there can be no peace, particularly in a multiethnic society as ours. We need to shift from what Johann Galtung calls ‘negative peace’ to ‘positive peace’ – if we want to hold the nation together in a lasting manner.

* Published in print edition on 29 January 2021

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