“With our deserted homes, villages, towns, Mauritius is going to become an underpopulated barracoon

– not even a worthwhile place for senior citizens”

Interview Sada Reddi, Historian

* ‘People want to live in peace and a drug-free society. We need decent jobs, a proper workplace and a liveable environment — that is what young people aspire to’

* ‘The country will not break even if politicians goad some people to create havoc and disturbance’

Historian Sadda Reddi shares his perspectives on our difficulties often brought about by government interference where it should not have, its actions and inactions and poor implementation. Lack of research on underlying complex social issues, from poverty to education, leads to poor short-term fix-it solutions and the inability to stem the spread of social scourges, while “brain drain” is preoccupying. However, despite the overbearing political forces, he believes the population has acquired the resilience and wisdom to negate downward pull tendencies of the body politic.

Mauritius Times: One of the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) has been implemented, last Friday, with the inauguration of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum. What do you see as the significance of this museum, which is located alongside the Aapravasi Ghat, in 2023?

Sada Reddi: The setting up of the intercontinental Slavery Museum was long overdue and is to be welcomed as it will allow the public in general, both local and foreign visitors, to discover a very important part of Mauritian and world history.

First, there is no national historical museum which depicts the history of the country. So, it is a welcome addition to existing museums such as the MGI’s folk Museum or the museum on the sugar industry and will enrich the heritage infrastructure of the country. Moreover, the museum is organised in the perspective of history from below and enables us to know more about the victims of the cruellest form of exploitation here and worldwide.

As to the intercontinental Slavery Museum’s relationship in being located near Aapravasi Ghat, there are different ways to look at it. Some will view the proximity as bringing together the unity of two major labouring classes who are at the foundation and development of Mauritius and many other countries; others like many historians, can see two distinct ways of capitalist exploitation or even two unrelated pasts.

Though every visitor will have his own perspective, however given that the heritage sites are close to each other people will feel a sense of connection between the themes of the two historical sites and develop greater empathy and understanding after visiting one after the other.

* The setting up of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum is to help us understand “the history of our past, slavery in Mauritius and the impact of the international slave trade”. This has come at a time when the debate about slavery, wokism as well as legitimate social grievances has been very much revived in many parts of the world. What’s your take on these issues?

Wokism has become a ubiquitous issue in many debates in today’s society, and there are many definitions and dimensions of wokism that it is difficult for me to make sense of what it means.

Basically, what I see is that there are many people in many countries have suffered all kinds of injustices in the past and there is a need to redress these injustices. Some people on the right have used the word to denigrate those who genuinely seek to redress legitimate injustices. Another dimension is the use of correct words, which taken to extremes, result in limiting somebody’s freedom of speech and even some honest differences repudiated without taking into consideration either the context or intention.

* In the United States of America, teaching about slavery and the experiences of other minorities was the cause of more disputes. It would seem we also in Mauritius have not been able to agree with the teaching of our common history or that what is being taught might not be adequate. What are your views on this matter?

At the University of Mauritius, I have never come across any criticism that history teaching was biased, and we did teach Mauritian history and history of several other countries like China, Europe, India, and Africa.

At primary and secondary level, we must make a distinction between academic and school history. Where the bias may creep in could be in the content that we teach and that we leave out from the primary and lower secondary curriculums. Since we cannot teach all the history that we want at these levels, we have to be selective, but we can do so without being biased. That depends a lot on the curriculum developers and the curriculum team and often on the political regime in place. Having been a member of the curriculum team in the 1980s, I can tell you there was indeed political interference.

However, whatever is taught has to be selective, which many will consider inadequate, ignoring the fact that school hours are limited, and many subjects compete for curriculum time in the timetable. As for teaching, a teacher has all the tools to teach correctly and professionally.

One of the most important skills to develop in history teaching is critical thinking; others such as empathy and also language skills irrespective of the official curriculum are also required. In the 1980s the Curriculum Development centre operated professionally and autonomously but I do not know how it’s doing presently. 

* On the other hand, there are limits to what governments and public policy can do or can afford to uplift the lot of deprived sections of our society including the descendants of slaves. What’s your assessment of how our governments have delivered in that regard, and do you think there are issues which have not been adequately addressed?

All governments have always had the intention of uplifting the deprived sections of society and have implemented several measures over time. Where governments have failed is when they had come up with solutions which did not work. One important approach which is lacking is there is no understanding of the problem because there is no local research undertaken to understand the problem, which results in the failure of the solutions proposed or implemented even if they came with the best of intentions; they are thus castigated as being too cosmetic.

Lack of research distorts all the solutions to all our problems, whether these concern education, poverty, traffic management, health, infrastructure, drugs, food security and so on. At all levels and in many spheres, we are content with a ‘copy-and-paste’ approach. If we look at the Ministry of Education’s intention and objectives as regards the Extended programme or the Academies – they are commendable but when it comes to implementation, the situation is drastically different from what was expected.

when we look again at the Ministry’s brochures, we can only say that they are just rhetorics.This is what has happened to the Extended programme or even to poverty alleviation or the housing programme – all the issues involved directly or indirectly have not been taken into serious consideration. Take a specific example: a person obtains an NHDC house, he has a regular job and pays back his loan. However, after some time he loses his job or falls ill and cannot go on working. He cannot repay his loan; he has to sell his house for a pittance to pay back the loan and he becomes homeless again. Such examples can be seen in many government programmes.

* Although many amongst the deprived sections have educated themselves and improved their material conditions, there is still the worrying failure rate at the levels of the CPE and the National Certificate of Education (96.5% failure rate registered this year for the first batch of extended streamers). This state of affairs may represent a disaster waiting to happen. What do you think should be done to avert that?

The failure rate at CPE always hovers around 30% and this has never been acceptable, but what is worse at present is that the quality or level of education at all levels has gone down. As outsiders, we always look at the pass rate in local examinations such as PSAC or the Form III examination. This cynical attitude towards educating our young is a disaster for the country and it is no surprise that middle class parents are deserting our public schools and once middle-class parents go for private education, the worst is waiting to happen.

It is the same everywhere: whenever the middle class abandonsa public service — whether it is the education or health sector or even a particular geographical region — the standard of the service falls down; it’s inevitable. A honest and truthful evaluation of the system is necessary. Too many measures have been simply imagined from the top by an elite which is cut off from the ground reality. Micro sociological studies should be started in different localities to understand and come to grips with the problem; if we do not understand the problem, how we can provide the correct solutions?

Of course, there are other issues which can be tackled immediately – human and other resources — but this will require deep thinking and collaboration of all stakeholders.

* Land dispossession and its resolution through firm and sustained actions, as recommended by the Truth and Justice Commission, remains one issue that does not seem to have received the proper attention of the authorities. There may be legal impediments as well, but could it be that there are other reasons that would explain the inability or reluctance to take decisions?

I would not go into the many problems of land claims with which I am not very familiar with, but the fact that there is restriction imposed for the consultation in the National Archives of notarialdeeds – based on which historians have helped us to advance our knowledge of Mauritian history is a clear indication that the authorities would like to block land claims by those who had been defrauded of their land rights.

In general, land issues have always been a complicated issue for in the past many sugar estates simply took possession of a lot of lands which did not belong to them. I remember the remark noted in a surveyor’s report of Britannia Sugar Estate that he could not determine the boundary of the estate. Apart from surveyors’ errors or the malpractices of a few notaries in the past, one can understand the difficulties encountered by many people to recover their ancestral lands.

* The focus in the coming months will likely be on politics, in particular the next general elections, potential candidates and their profiles… It’s likely going to be a tough and uncompromising battle. With the demise of SAJ, the old generation of politicians has gone away. How does the current generation of politicians and the leadership of the political parties fare, according to you?

I must say that I am personally disappointed with several young politicians, their overinflated egos, their lack of understanding of the problems confronting the country, naturally their lack of experience, and above all their poor ethical standards, having forsaken all the principles that they once held. More often they behave like a bull in a China shop.

My best illustration of the difference that obtains between apolitician of the previous generation and a young one today is the example of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s refusal of a high price for our sugar on the world market in favour of a lower guaranteed price under the Lome Convention, and the way the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement with India was signed away.

* Do you think that deep down the old divisions between diverse groups that almost broke the country apart in the past are still there, or have we made some progress towards better integration?

We all know that divisions, which threaten to break the country, are always politically motivated and engineered by the henchmen of politicians as we have seen it in 1965 and 1968. Politicians are always responsible in one way or another either through their sinister action, inaction or policies.

But the country will not break even if politicians goad some people to create havoc and disturbance due to the everyday solidarity of the people to counter such evil action. I do not think there is any need for any form of integration — whatever that may mean. We are a plural and multi-religious society, and we hold dearly to a number of moral values, and we adhere to the principles enshrined in our constitution even if, as it often happens, our politicians betray those same principles.

People want to live in peace and a drug-free society, they want the restoration of our democracy and that our institutions function as stipulated in our constitution and every citizen is treated with respect and our fundamental human rights respected even if we have to add a few more rights in our constitution. We need decent jobs, a proper workplace and a liveable environment — that is what young people aspire to.

* What are your expectations from the people’s representatives – whoever gets elected to power next time round?

People want our representatives to be ethical in their conduct, they want them to have a shared vision of how to improve our economy, our society, and the environment we live in and to make no compromise on the underlying principles enshrined in our constitution; they also want to see equality made a reality for of all our citizens.

* The issue of future employment opportunities, decent living conditions and career advancement has become a source of worry for many of the younger generation, and lots of them are looking elsewhere.What would you tell to those who say they do not see any future here?

We can understand the worries and anxiety of young people about their future. During the last decade we have not been able to add a new pillar to the economy. The blue economy has not taken off and the only sectors which have registered some progress are tourism and global business/finance. Inevitably young people do not see any future, and those who even have a decent employment find the salaries too low given that the rupee has been depreciated by 25% or more since 2019 and they find it hard to pay back their loans.

I do not mind young people going away for some time to acquire some international experience and coming back thereafter. But when it comes to professionals going away, that is much more worrying for families and for the economy for they are going for good when we are already suffering from a shortage of trained professionals. It is for the government to decide whether they are going to arrest this trend or not. As for the private sector, they could not care less as it would seem to me that they would prefer low-paid foreign workers for the sake of their profit margins; other considerations which do not impinge on their profitability is no concern for them.

If we do not do anything urgently, with our deserted homes, villages, towns, Mauritius is going to become an underpopulated barracoon – not even a worthwhile place for senior citizens. But there is hope that our people can and will change the situation once they will find their future at stake.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 8 September 2023

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