Nearly a week after the riots started in London and then spread to other parts of the UK mainland, everyone including politicians and social commentators still seem puzzled at the reasons that lie behind what has taken place. While criminologists and other experts are saying that the rioters and looters are most likely to come from low income and high unemployment estates in London and other big cities, new information has now emerged through the courts on some of the backgrounds of the rioters. Although most of them do indeed come from deprived milieu, police have arrested a teaching assistant, university students, graduates and the children of wealthy parents, hence people coming from highly regarded areas of the country. The argument that all of the trouble makers are poor people from deprived backgrounds does not really stand up, then. Be that as it may, since the beginning of the riots in the UK, I have been reflecting on the events surrounding the death of Kaya, one of Mauritius’ most popular contemporary singers and undoubtedly the best seggaeman the country had ever had, in police custody in 1999.
Of course, the current riots in the UK are not similar to the riots of 1999 in Mauritius. The only hint of similarity may be that the riots in 1999 were the first riots in 30 years since the independence of Mauritius, while the riots in the UK are the first riots on the British mainland for three decades.
The riots in Mauritius were a result of Kaya’s death in police custody and revealed a ras-le-bol of a section of the population towards public institutions, hence towards the government. On the other hand, the riots that started in London coincided with the death of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, from Tottenham by Metropolitan Police marksmen, although at the moment there is no substantive evidence that the shooting and the disorders which followed are linked.
The rioters in the UK burnt commercial buildings, buses and cars and ransacked mainly big popular stores for high-value consumer goods like flat screen televisions, smart phones and sportswear. Many of these young people had nothing to lose, having always watched from a distance those who had and those who could live the life of extreme consumerism.
By contrast, the rioters in Mauritius attacked some police stations. They also ransacked the offices of the Citizens Advice Bureau, the national television station, the house of a member of Parliament. Put simply, it was the symbols and locations of power that were targeted primarily.
Nevertheless, while the British Prime minister has called the rioters and looters ‘mindless’ and ‘sick’ people, I have been wondering whether these labels could be transposed onto the Mauritian rioters of 1999. The answer is a simple no. The rioters in Port Louis, Rose Hill and Quatre Bornes were not ‘mindless’ let alone ‘sick’. They had purpose. The question is: what sort of purpose?
At the minute, the British government and other experts seem to be finding it very difficult to identify the reasons why a section of the population has taken to the streets. Twelve years ago, the Mauritian authorities and other experts found it very easy to identify the factors that caused a section of the population to express their anger after Kaya’s death, by burning and destroying symbols of civic and social power. More worryingly – and I am not trying to be sensationalist – I think that similar incidents could happen again in Mauritius. Why? Because many of the conditions which led to the original disorder are still present.
Clearly the Mauritian rioters expressed their revolt towards established order and demanded higher status and a greater share of the burgeoning economic cake. And the death of Kaya in Alcatraz was in many ways a wake-up call. Of course, no one can condone these acts which left the island of Mauritius in a state of unrest for many weeks. Nevertheless, the signal that the riots sent could not be ignored.
What the rioters did in Mauritius was wrong but the reason for the collective rage needed to be addressed. After all, these mainly young people would not have confronted the police if they respected the police or if they felt that the police was on their side. They would not burn the offices of Citizens Advice Bureau if they felt that these were places where they could receive help and support. They would not burn buildings representing the symbols of the power of the state if they had any sense of civic pride. The rioters of 1999 represent a section of the population that felt detached from the rest of Mauritian society.
So, twelve years after Kaya, I wonder what the successive governments have done to address the issues that contributed to the riots of February 1999. Have they just pushed this dark episode under the carpet as if it never existed? In the meantime, what has happened to this frustrated segment of the population? Have they by miracle found a ‘simé la limière’? Or are they still carrying the weight of their malaise deep within them? And what about their families and friends, their community? I suspect that that section of the population is still among us – poor, disenfranchised and alienated from many of the core institutions that make up civic society in the country. The malaise that they felt in 1999 has not disappeared in the last decade – it is certain that it is still bubbling away. Indeed, the stories in the Mauritian daily newspapers are vivid proof of that. Pretending that all is well in the society arc-en-ciel is but doing very little to tackle social inclusion. It’s like putting a sticking plaster to stem the flow of blood from a major severed artery.
But we should not despair. These are issues that are never too late to be addressed—and they can be addressed. Only ‘mindless’ governments in a ‘sick’ society will pretend otherwise.