When selling the country as a prominent tourist destination, the country’s multiculturalism is often put forward. One of the favourite terms used to describe Mauritius, apart from “Paradise Island”, is “Rainbow Nation”. The concept of the “rainbow nation” finds its origins following the first democratic elections in post-apartheid South Africa.
Coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela also used the term to describe the fact that people of different origins were living side by side in harmony. Indeed, for aeons, we, Mauritians, would be the first to acknowledge that we are progressive in that we have learned to live together with people different from each other in many ways, before this had become an issue in countries which have seen mass migration. The timing could not have been better to discuss the concept of the “rainbow nation”, with Mauritius being on the eve of half a century anniversary of independence.
As per our history, groups of people came to the island, whether as colonisers, settlers, slaves, or indentured labourers. When all these groups eventually found their places on the island and devised a way to live side by side, the “rainbow nation” of Mauritius came to be. Similar to the rainbow, as long as each group knew their places in society and remained there, without overlapping the other, everything went by smoothly.
However, with a desire of social mobility, more opportunities and independence, citizens starting to feel the need to rock the boat. But this would be no mean feat, for despite the lofty aspirations of an independent nation, segments of the population felt that they would be misrepresented should one segment gain the upper hand over the other, hence the emergence of “community leaders”, largely based on belonging to a particular religious group. This would greatly influence Mauritian politics.
It is no secret that many, out of fear of being trampled upon in post independent Mauritius, a feeling exacerbated by political tactics, fled the country before it even attained independence. While others felt the brunt of racist tensions during the dark period that was the “bagarre raciale” in early 1968, it was clear that the rainbow nation was going through the perfect storm, which would put the very notion of vivre ensemble to the test. Survivors of this painful episode recount how they do not wish this upon the country again. Over the years, Mauritians have largely remained a peaceful people where political stability and economic prosperity of the 80s and early 90s meant that people could concentrate on social mobility and acquire a superior standard of living than their ancestors.
Come February 1999 though, Mauritians of my generation and the population at large would experience a real eye opener on the status of the Mauritian society and the fragility of the oft-touted “social fabric”. The death of Kaya in police cell would generate days of conflicts and would teach my peers and I a thing or two about the underlying tensions that exist in this society.
As we stand on the threshold of marking half a century of our independence, we must face the facts: we are still a largely divided people who is struggling to find a common identity. If we have been lured and complacent in thinking that a collective mindset has progressed in proportion with urban buildings progress, we are deadly wrong.
Politics as the maintainer of communalism
Since the first general elections, in 1967 and a political system designed to cater for a multicultural society, no real effort has been made to bring this system up to date. Up to now, candidates within parties are chosen by religion, by caste and by proximity to religious communities. On a constituency level, candidates are placed where they would more likely be able to score points by playing the communal card. Coupled with the Best Loser System, this stagnant political system has only served to maintain the notion that stability only comes by way of communal representation. However, as many have observed, this system no longer serves anyone but still many fear change.
People who have tried to bring about a different way of doing politics have shared their frustrations regarding the layman’s mindset and stand on local politics, that is, acknowledging that they are used by politicians but convinced that any other way would be disastrous. The incestuous relationship between religion and politics in what is supposedly a secular country can be seen during every religious festival and every time a politician takes the liberty to address congregations during such festivals.
This system has ripple effects. For instance, job allocation is often a result of rewards given to those who have helped in elections or who are part of particular constituencies, hence once more, based largely on communal belonging that meritocracy. We have to ask ourselves why this system perpetuates.
Should a survey be carried out today regarding how Mauritians identify themselves, I do ask myself how many would identify as Mauritians. What does it mean to be Mauritian, actually? Greeting our fellow citizens on their respective festivals? Proclaiming that one feels Mauritian on Independence Day? Rallying together when a Mauritian sportsperson is competing on the international stage? All these do help to kindle the Mauritian identity but it clearly is not enough.
Our society has been in the grips of communalism for so long that we are not able to discern it, rather we accept it as the norm. Since our childhood, we are boxed into communities. In school, we are divided into oriental languages class according to the last names that we bear, already creating groups. We are made aware of our differences in prayers and ways of living while talking to our friends, not to mention some parents who would “advise” their children to be friends only with children who would be “parey kouma nou”.
We grow up with a mind that is already trained to notice differences. Mind you, this can also be a good thing, depending on the upbringing and the mindset. For instance, recognizing that someone does not eat beef or pork certainly helps in fostering respect. However, so much time is spent on focusing on differences, that we fail to see just how many things we share and how much we have in common.
We can boast ourselves of our exemplary “vivre-ensemble” but we cannot at the same time dismiss the latent racial tension that exists in this country. If recent events are to go by, there is great cause for concern.
A few months ago, a politician allegedly held a controversial discourse in the confines of his office, during a meeting with stakeholders. This year, during Berguitta cyclone, while volunteers were rallying to help those in need, racist comments about those who sought refuge in shelters were also rife.
In a day and age where technological progress has facilitated sharing and exposure, we are able to discern just how long a journey we have to undertake to move from being a “rainbow nation” only for pamphlets to that of being a true melting pot. Over the past years, social media has been the real barometer of the nation, whereby citizens have had the ability to make their voices heard. This is not the time to discuss the limits that should be observed but rather, these very alarming opinions that can be accessed on social media reveals the extent to which Mauritius remains fragmented as a nation.
The way forward
Paradoxically, we realize shared values mainly given the chance to go abroad. As the cliché would have it, the Mauritian does not feel Mauritian unless s/he goes to experience life abroad. It is only an occasion of deconstruction of received ideas that will allow for the construction of a new identity based on commonness rather than differences.
One of the ways that will allow Mauritius to move forward progressively would be the cultivation of a Mauritian identity. We should not fall into the trap of extrapolating from other countries, for we are a country with specificities, which make it unique. Rather, we need to devise our own way of living together with equal rights and opportunities for all as a given.
We find ourselves today in a tug of war, where we are transitioning from a rainbow nation to a melting pot, where there is a clash between the safe and the unknown. While a large group is pulling towards a Mauritius, more in line with the world off our beautiful seas, which allows for a more cosmopolitan society, in that opportunities and policies are shared indiscriminately by each and every citizen; another group, maybe larger one, does not want to do away with a systemic mindset that divides but provides a comfort zone. There are hundreds of thousands of Mauritians who wish to see a more progressive Mauritius and are working, in their own way, towards that. While being aware that the change that they so long for might not be of this generation but the next, they are still laying the foundation so that the next generation will already have a legacy to carry onwards and upwards.
We do not disregard the needs that were important for a certain period. But it is high time that we recognized that it is no longer relevant for our society in this day and age. We do not despair, for more and more Mauritians feel the need for a more cohesive society, based on equal opportunities and access. And hundreds of thousands of Mauritians rise above attempts of blatant racism but it is not enough. It is time to raise collective voices and involve in collective actions. Talking about it, without pulling any punches, is a great start.
*Text developed in the context of Let’s Talk, monthly session organized by the Embassy of the United States of America.