Interview: Prof Sheila Bunwaree
* ‘The challenge is for the leaders of the Labour Party and MMM to let go of their egos, make space for renewal, innovate’
* Emergence of demagogues or populists: “Such a risk exists”
Sheila Bunwaree is a member of the MMM but she makes it clear that in this interview she is speaking mainly as a social scientist who is a ‘Researcher/Consultant’ on ‘Governance and Development’. She salutes Bruneau Laurette for initiating the protest march of Saturday 29 August but feels that it is the two traditional parties, MMM and Labour Party, which have the pool of competent people who are willing to engage and cogitate on the major issues that the country is facing, and propose solutions based on a human rights approach, as the current ones making up the alliance are in disconnect with the people.
Mauritius Times: Most of the people you come across these days might not be happy with the way the government has been running the country; in fact, they might even be angry. But do you understand why they chose to respond to the call of one individual who had remained unknown for the multitude until the Wakashio shipwreck and whose backings are also unknown?
Prof Sheila Bunwaree: Before I even start responding to your question, allow me to say that I am doing so in my capacity as a social scientist, ‘Researcher/Consultant’ on ‘Governance and Development’ and not as a political party member/representative. That said, it must be clear to all those asking themselves questions about my political allegiance, that I am well anchored within the MMM and very proud to be part of the MMM family – a party whose values and principles I adhere to. But enough of my political belonging, let’s get to your question.
The country is running amok. Injustices of all sorts, nepotism, corruption, ineptitude, rapid shrinking of the democratic space, erosion of workers’ rights, waste, attempts of some obscure minds to divide the country, have become the order of the day, causing a lot of frustration and anger.
While people’s taking to the streets is largely attributed to the call of that one individual – Bruneau Laurette, we must not forget the context. He appears on the scene in the context of the Wakashio oil spill. He certainly needs to be saluted for his mastery of knowledge around issues of maritime security, etc., as well as his capacity and courage to denounce a rotten and malfunctioning system and to lean on a private prosecution in an attempt to put an end to a ‘culture of impunity’ and irresponsibility. Congrats to Bruno Laurette!
Several analyses have been made but his action and subsequent moves will demand sustained observation and deeper analysis. He has certainly been a catalyst in pulling out the big crowd of august 29, but it is important to remember that the country has gone through a triple crisis: a sanitary crisis which worldwide is still not under control, an ecological crisis with the Wakashio affair, an economic crisis which started well before Covid, destroying livelihoods and lives.
The sufferings of the people are multiple – loss of jobs, drugs destroying families, criminality and violence, their sea and its marine life brutally taken away from them, children losing their lives because of lack of decent housing, and the dead dolphins – were far too much for an ‘environmentally conscious’ youth to remain insensitive and silent. When all of this happens within a framework of arrogance and denial: ‘kotte mone fauter?’ people cannot help but get angry.
All Mauritians who believe in the necessity of standing together as ONE in the face of adversity, immorality and opacity, used social media to call upon each other to show solidarity in saying ‘enough is enough’ and that we refuse to be taken for granted. Some others, including myself, concerned also about our social cohesion, national unity and maintenance of peace and stability, also made a call to the people to join the protest march and make our voices heard.
* One could presume that the government could have been taken aback at the crowd that assembled in Port Louis on Aug 29 to defy it despite all the moneys that it has been distributing all around in terms of increased pensions, assistance to employees and corporate sector, etc., with a view to keeping everybody happy and quiet. It does not seem to work that way all the time, right?
The government has definitely been taken aback although it would not admit it. Let alone that, it also fails to respond to the population adequately.
Listening to the PM on MBC TV two days after the protest march, we can only conclude that he is incapable of understanding ground reality and remains very poorly advised despite the millions of rupees of taxpayer money channeled to pay their fat salaries and privileges.
On the one hand, you have a nation which is hurting, whose trust in the authorities has dwindled, which seeks transparency and the truth, and which expects a well-defined strategy to put the country back on track. On the other, you have a PM who shows neither compassion, nor an indication of how he is going to handle the multiple problems the country is confronted with. Well, we heard what we heard, leading to greater frustration and anger. You are right: the ‘goodies’ offered do not mitigate the profound malaise that the country is experiencing.
No matter what you give or do to try and buy people’s conscience, when people have a ‘ras le bol’ and when their aspirations and expectations are no longer met, there is bound to be further discontent and wrath.
What one expects from a ‘commander in chief’ under such circumstances is someone who shows empathy, readiness to listen and to act accordingly. When TRUST is broken between the rulers and the ruled, it is important to work on rebuilding that trust. But it takes much more than simply inheriting a throne to be able to do this.
* Politicians’ moral behaviours affect how the people evaluate them. Does Laurette’ success in mobilizing that crowd unseen for a long time therefore mean that the traditional politicians across the board are also a devalued lot?
That people’s moral behaviours affect how people evaluate them is undeniable. By and large, people want to see politicians who are ethical, competent, honest, humble, respectful of the ‘Other’, capable of devising and implementing a societal project which speaks to the betterment of each and all.
I hesitate to attribute the success of the crowd solely to Bruneau Laurette although his initiative and efforts must be saluted, as I mentioned earlier.
Coming to the traditional politicians being a devalued lot – I would tend to disagree. For sure, traditional politicians have made mistakes; but looking at the incredible numbers of young people, professionals, new blood, emerging activists as well as old ones, coming back to the mainstream parties, I would be tempted to say that there is a growing recognition in the population that ‘l’heure est grave, il y a urgence’ and that we need to use our collective intelligence, to offer a new political landscape and an innovative societal project to the nation – one that works, one which takes a plurality of ideas on board, one which can respond and adapt to the complex geo- strategic relations unfolding in front of us.
But to transit to a new polity, the country needs to give itself the chance of a transition period. The traditional parties have within them people of great experience and wisdom with an agenda for change and transformation. True, these parties may be having ways and methods that people are tired of. The question of succession planning, dynastic politics, inequitable women’s representation, rigid hierarchies and party structures, disconnect with the grassroots, the reproduction of the same political elite remains problematical.
But in the face of lies, incompetence, floor crossing infused by the mere desire of power, privileges and control, citizens who are truly concerned with the betterment of society, who see politics as genuine service to the nation, are still willing and ready to bring their contribution within the traditional mainstream parties.
The devalued lot are those politicians who so easily renege on their values and ideals simply because they have to be ‘redevable’ to their boss, they are those who condone the many lies and incompetence of those at the top. The devalued lot are those who use and thrive on occult forces to divide the nation, those who have no other argument than systematically pulling examples from prior to 2014 in an attempt to show the failings of their opponents. Such an approach is an insult to the Mauritian citizen’s intelligence!
* But if there is indeed a feeling of disenchantment with the current politicians who have occupied the political stage for a long time, there is the risk however that the current circumstances could make a fertile ground for demagogues or even populists to emerge. What’s your take on that?
Indeed, such a risk exists. We have seen the rise of demagogues and populism across the globe. But it seems to me that there is a growing awareness in many quarters, both internationally and locally, that we are at a turning point in our social, political, economic and juridical history and that the current juncture – the search of a ‘new normal’, while full of challenges also constitutes an opportunity.
Politicians, the intelligentsia and civil society at large have the potential of steering clear from populism and demagoguery if they embark on some serious rethinking and make the reinventing of our nation a priority. 52 years after independence, we are still stuck with a political and economic system ill adapted to modern times.
A good starting point would be to revisit our constitution and for all citizens to be given the opportunity to pronounce themselves on what kind of constitutional changes and society they aspire to. But we must act fast!
* How would you respond to the view that the Labour Party and the MMM remain to this day our best options for the country despite their shortcomings?
Both the Labour party and the MMM have a very rich historical past and have fundamental values and principles which have informed the development strategies of the country. The visionaries of these two parties have been the hallmarks of same. Their strong links with the workers of the country enabled them to have a strong power base but they have both, perhaps inevitably, experienced some forms of ‘embourgoisement’. But despite this, they carry much more weight in people’s minds.
The Labour party and the MMM are seen as more credible than those political parties which are born in the corridors of power and/or those which are tiny, insignificant offshoots of one or two people who have deflected from the mainstream parties. People like charismatic leaders and want substance and strategy. Both the MMM and the LP have these. This does not mean that they do not have shortcomings, they do. But they also have the capacity of revamping themselves.
The challenge is for the leaders of the Labour Party and MMM to let go of their egos, make space for renewal, innovate and ensure that the phrase ‘it cannot be business as usual’ does not remain mere rhetoric. Needless to say, that in a sea of confusion and chaos, these two parties are indeed the best options for the country.
* The recent Labour Party, MMM and PMSD ‘entente’ to counter the government has been decried by some as ‘l’alliance de la honte, de la haine vis-à-vis de Jugnauth’. What potential do you think the synergy between three parties hold for the future?
I am more inclined to say that this TRIO is an alliance of ‘Experience, Wisdom and Intellect’, imbued with true democratic principles, coherence and a strong predisposition to synergise and collaborate further in order to save our country from a motley of groupings (MSM, ML, plateforme militante, parti cerise/ou poire?) who clearly are unable to get the country out of the abyss into which it has sunk.
The towering political figures of each of the three parties you mention, have a legacy that they wish to leave behind. Having the capacity to pool together the best talents of the country, these three parties’ synergy does hold a lot of potential. Being cognizant of the threats hanging on our heads and the danger that Jugnauth’s regime represents for the nation, the three parties may have to engage in certain compromises and their followers should strategise pragmatically in the best interests of the nation.
I am confident that as true patriots, they can do this much and so much more for the nation.
* What about our small parties which have been unable to go beyond their sincere and useful contributions to debates on policy issues?
I had myself founded a small party: ‘Parti Justice Sociale’ and we can see increasing numbers of small parties – sometimes driven by a strong personality, with very interesting and innovative ideas, but sadly these small parties will not be able to make a breakthrough.
Some of the older small parties too definitely make significant contributions to debates on certain policy issues but, unfortunately, the current electoral system and the prevalence of ‘money politics’ does not allow for a level playing field. As such, there is very little room for a plurality of ideas. The country has everything to lose if we continue this way.
In the persistent absence of an electoral reform, we have to devise a new ‘modus operandi’ so as to be more inclusive and forge political consensus on key societal and environmental issues. Citizens’ awakening and new forms of civic engagement with multiple pressure points and initiatives will certainly contribute to transforming the political landscape with the smaller parties having more ‘voice’ and ‘agency’.
* What do you think are our best, or let’s say the least worst option in the circumstances for promoting the people’s welfare through human-centred economic development, and advancing the country’s interests within the democratic framework?
Given the complexity and scale of challenges we face, our best option, in fact our priority should be the revival of our economy, while ensuring that it is inclusive. We cannot possibly go on indebting the nation and future generations, stifling all creativity and innovations, and risk a Greece-like crash.
We need a new development paradigm with the environment, green jobs, technology and innovation as the central pillars. But if we carry on focusing on growth without creating productive employment, we are doomed. 1 in 4 of our young people and large proportions of working age women are without jobs. A nation with little or no work opportunity is doomed to fail.
If we look at our institutions, let us take the case of the newly created Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) for instance, there is every reason to worry. Some Rs 80 billion have been put at the disposition of the MIC to supposedly assist enterprises with difficulties and to finance new development projects. Initially the name of Lord Meghnad Desai was brandished around to tell us that he will play a lead role in the organization but that name seems to have disappeared.
Who at MIC has the competence and aptitude to appreciate and understand the technicalities of companies in difficulties and new projects? Are the companies being imposed necessary conditionalities such as environment protection, EIAs, and a minimum amount of new jobs created to absorb the unemployed, etc.? It’s all shrouded in opacity.
It is our legitimate right to know, but sadly we are not informed where our scarce resources are going to? How can we possibly advance the country’s interests under such conditions?
* The focus in a preceding question was on human-centred economic development, but for that to happen, it would probably require a rethinking on our democracy, of the way the country is governed at different levels and in different sectors, on re-distribution of wealth and resources, including our lands, on the delivery of social services, etc. What are your thoughts on these issues?
Indeed, we need to rethink our democracy and urgently address wealth concentration and the land question. Ensuring a human-centred economic development cannot happen without an underlying rights approach to development. The right to food, to decent housing, to a safe environment, to quality healthcare and education are fundamental human rights. Without these, democracy loses its significance.
Shifting our focus from electoral democracy – (i.e. alternating government peacefully every 5 years) to substantive citizen-centric democracy is therefore a must. Citizens should be empowered to revoke their parliamentary representative(s) if the latter fails the constituents. There should be no room for complacency. The introduction of a “recall your parliament” legislation is an absolute necessity.
Opportunity to participate in public forums/debates on critical issues shaping citizens’ lives is also very important. Bottom up governance is necessary to ensure that a rights approach to development is pursued and delivered.
* Published in print edition on 8 September 2020