On March 12 next, Mauritius will boast of a half-century of freedom from colonial rule, 50 years during which the young state has achieved much headway while such progress should have been furlongs ahead had it not been for the ‘pervasive and corrosive’ political interferences that at times dangerously brought us to the brink of a banana republic. And such interference, albeit of varying degrees, has been a constant of successive governments. Interference alien to the Civil Service of the colonial era!
When the country achieved Independence in 1968, I was a young civil servant attached to the Foreign News Service of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, well-known at the time by the editorial staff of all dailies but now defunct, ‘fatally assaulted’, as it were, by Internet, a position which enabled me to know more of what occurred in the outside world than within our shores, and too young and carefree to fully grasp what really lay ahead in terms of opportunities the new status afforded. But things changed rapidly and I made my entry in the trade union world having sensed avenues lying ahead to improve conditions of service generally.
I became an official of the Government Servants Association (GSA) in 1969, to coincide with the birth of the MMM, a newcomer on the scene determined to spread its tentacles both in politics and trade unionism, and which posed quite some anxiety to the broad-based and, by far, the largest Civil Service union that the GSA was and still is, to forestall ‘infiltration’. But throughout my trade union days, along with my contemporaries at the helm, we successfully managed to maintain unflinching neutrality in partisan political considerations, which was not to the liking of ‘some’, which caused some frictions we invariably brushed aside, and other ‘mesquineries’ which led to the withdrawal of the GSA from the Federation of Civil Service Unions. In the months and years after Independence, some of the newstyle political masters (ministers), apparently spurred by their new upgraded status, behaved like proprietors of the Civil Service (myself a victim of that in 1986 when I had already laid down the arms and did not seek Union assistance), causing havoc at times, even getting some supervising officers and others of superior ranks to throw up the sponge in despair, while others cowardly caved in to such frenzy even to the point of abetting in some ‘magouilles’ concocted by such masters. The few who resisted by getting those overlords back on earth can be counted on the fingers of a single hand.
I worked in 5 different ministries in different capacities
During my Civil Service years, when I worked in 5 different ministries in different capacities – a real rolling stone that gathered no moss, yet considerable momentum -, I have seen a string of Ministers, under different governments, come and go, some really mediocre even to the point of creating fiery clashes with trade unions. Here, I have particularly in mind that former Labour Minister of Cooperatives who drove the GSA to the limit, through repeated attempts to overstep his prerogatives, and his rude attitudes unbecoming of a Cabinet Minister, unmatched by no other buffoon of similar rank that may have followed, of officially requesting his revocation and which gave rise to the following anecdote. Days after receiving our request, SSR met the then General President of the GSA in the corridors of Government House and remarked ‘sa ousi zot dimande hein, revokasion minis’. The guy was subsequently revoked! This episode itself gave rise to another anecdote when another Labour Minister, months later, became locked in a serious confl ict with the Union – a tussle in which I happened to be the main spearhead on account of my ‘proximity’ with the case -, one of his Cabinet colleagues reportedly told him: ‘Taler linion bez twa kouma …(untel)’. The guy backpedalled.
Fifty years after Independence, because of scattered and occasional misfirings, there is still a strong perception in the public civil servants, as a rule, are lazy, incompetent, arrogant and only concerned with PRB, promotions and softer working conditions. The Civil Service has a fair number of bright, dedicated and competent guys as smart, if not smarter, than many in the Private Sector in key positions. But, here again, political interference, arrogant or weak supervising officers have taken their toll, constantly stifling the mindset that makes one strive to deliver, the determination and will of many to give their level best to allow the service to which they are attached to fi re on all cylinders.
Non-civil servants may never fully understand that, but it remains a persistent reality to this date. Civil Service trade unions have a lot of merits to have acted as a bulwark against the rampant tendency of some political masters to run the Ministry under their responsibility as a family business with their lot of ‘protégés’ that provide the fair share of ‘black sheep’, unfortunately also part of the scenery.
After Independence, the Civil Service started to recruit, in different capacities, people with higher qualifications, university graduates and diploma holders, to buttress government’s vision to modernize the country, indeed contribute to charter the road map to improve the quality of life universally. In that respect the Civil Service has played a key role in whatever positive results achieved so far. But, paradoxically enough, recruitment, but in excess of requirements as a deliberate act of policy from the early 1970’s onwards, has continued to plague the proper functioning of the service down to the present time and further, since irreversible for obvious political considerations. (Here I still recall the fears expressed, in an informal conversation, by an ‘Establishment Secretary’ for that sort of wild recruitment). The recent announcement of an impending drive to fi ll more than 3,000 vacancies, to satisfy Union demands months ahead of the next general elections, reminds the same scenario is still on.
‘Profondément malade ?’
I left too long ago to be able to offer any comments on the creation of a Ministry for Civil Service Affairs and its impact on performance. But I well remember Alain Wong’s public remark shortly after assuming office in early 2015 to the effect that ‘La fonction publique est profondément malade’. Subsequently, never such a thing was heard, assuming the guy got the stick and ordered to keep it shut. But what prompted Wong to make such a declaration, we may never know. But it confirmed in no small measure things are not rosy in the public sector despite oft-repeated moves to modernize it, set up a Civil Service College… Throughout my nearly 39-year career, I constantly heard about that without ever seeing any concrete move in that direction. Wong’s statement tended to suggest things have not evolved. But far from being ‘profondément malade’, an overstatement, the Civil Service has its constraints, the major one being the behaviour and lack of vision of those at the helm.
To epitomize this I’ll share a personal experience of something I have eye-witnessed from a privileged position, indeed lived it. In 1987, the National Development Unit was created to take over from the anachronic Rural Development Unit that could no longer fi t in an independent Mauritius with lofty ambitions. Thirty-five Citizens Advice Bureaux were created, scattered all over the Island with at least one in every electoral constituency. I had the privilege to be one of the two first ever officers to be in charge of a CAB. The first months of existence of that new unit, which gathered momentum and quickly attained its cruising speed, showed it was a ‘major innovation’ in public service to cater for the constant needs of the people with a mission statement to improve the living environment and the quality of life and, above all, make the common man feel he was no longer left on the doormat. A service its creator placed under his wings as an arm of the Prime Minister’s office, that gave it ‘status’, and to blot away the hectic and disorderly scramble that had hitherto been a constant of electoral campaigns to win votes. Resurfacing/construction of roads, street lighting, construction of public utilities, to mention only these, were then undertaken in an orderly and professional manner. While the Citizens Advice Bureau became the ‘only’ public office where anybody could walk in to obtain information, assistance, intervention, advocacy on a variety of daily anxieties – rendered possible by a degree of liberty to foster initiatives, unlike the ‘strait-jackets’ for much of the rest of the public service. In 1995 that saw a new government elected in office, ‘coup de tonnerre’, the new one at the helm in one of his first actions detached the NDU from the Prime Minister’s Office which signalled the start of the constant decline of the Enterprise, a stupid action by any reckoning that could only be justified by a desire to blot out the laudable initiative of a predecessor. (A few years in that degraded service caused me to retire prematurely at the age of 57 ½ years). We know what eventually followed that caused the setting up of a Commission of Enquiry to look into abuses and sideslippings that could never have happened when it was attached to the PM office. Though it happened years after I had retired, I was pleased when in 2014 SAJ ‘recovered his abandoned child’, in one of his first actions.
Heaps of social injustices
The first decade or so, immediately on the heels of Independence, were the toughest years for Civil Service Unions. We were just emerging from more than a century of colonial rule and had to confront barricades, as it were, of deeply ingrained colonial mentalities and heaps of social injustices that were, back then, considered the norms. Indeed a span of time marked by some of the toughest battles Civil Service Unions ever waged, under the umbrella of the Federation of Civil Service Unions (FCSU), today, regretfully so, torn asunder irreversibly, so to speak. One such glaring injustice related to the manual workers, dubbed ‘Minor Grades’ by Sedgwick, the first post-Independence full-fl edged Salaries Commissioner, who were on a meagre three-point scale irrespective of length of service – the point of entry, a first increment (peanuts even back then) after five years of service and a second, and final one, after 10 years service(!) on the ill-famous Permanent and Pensionable Establishment (PPE). Sedgwick corrected that in 1973 when he placed the minor grades on an extended salary scale with yearly increments, that is on equal footing with their blue-collar counterparts, a ‘grande première’ in the public sector which Independence rendered possible. Also for the first time, manual workers enjoyed conditions of service related to length of service, and no longer status.
The ‘Reclassification Committee’, which I am sure many present-day trade unions leaders in the public service have never heard of, on which Hamid Malleck-Amode, the General President, played a crucial role, further improved the lot of tradesmen. Few, if any, of them today know what they owe to him. But along with Malleck-Amode, not only the leader of the GSA, but also its ‘dealer’ who strolled the corridors of Government House and ministries capable to knock at the door of many ministers and supervising officers who mattered in his quest to defend the multifarious interests of those he represented – a situation that resulted in exacerbated jealously which caused him to become the object of constant nagging on the part of some officials of the FCSU coming from a particular sector who had, in a sense, hijacked the Federation under the cover of manipulated ‘democracy and transparency’, which inevitably caused the withdrawal of the GSA from the Federation, much to the dismay of its late ‘Père Fondateur’; there were also Rajen Sumputh, (a guy who stunningly ‘never’ lost his temper), General Secretary and principal ‘Administrator’ of the Union responsible for its proper running and compliance with the provisions of the laws governing trade unions, and a principal negotiator in the agricultural sector, Retnon Pyneeandee, who later became a member of the National Assembly and Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) who, as Organising Secretary, bore the responsibility to ensure the more than 100 branches, the skeleton of the GSA, were properly constituted and run in accordance with the Union’s regulations, a job he accomplished with “regimental sergeant major’ rigour, the ever-smiling Karouney Mauree, Deputy General Secretary, who played an important role in the protracted battle leading to the revocation referred to above, and a principal negotiator in the Health sector, and myself as …‘writer’ and troubleshooter, who nevertheless refused the fancy title of ‘strategist and legal adviser’ given to me by one of the comrades in arms. There were also those who held the strings of the purse during my tenure of office, one of them Yousouf Dauhoo, that other champion of the cause of ‘ti travayer’ with a compulsion to ‘manz ar zot’. ‘Unity House’, which today stands proudly on the main road in Beau Bassin, is a fair testimony that the finances of the Union were properly managed. Albeit this paper is intended to be succinct, it would carry major omissions in terms of reminiscences if certain major happenings in the post-Independence years were not mentioned especially for the intention of the younger generations of Civil Servants who may never imagine that things were not always as they are today and how others came to be. Indeed addressed to other workers who today benefit from trade union initiatives that started in the public service. (Yet I may be abusing the hospitality of these columns if I were to talk of the Pay Research Bureau, the Public Bodies Appeal Tribunal (recommendations of the Martin Commission, before which officials of the GSA deponed, I being one of them).
‘13e mois’ and COLA
One of them is the Additional Remuneration, commonly called ‘13e mois’, a privilege today extended to all workers through statutory provision. How it all started? In December 1975, Government stunningly and maladroitly, indeed provocatively, decided to grant a quarter-month salary as bonus to the Police Force. All Unions affiiated to the FCSU stood up ‘comme un seul homme’ and threatened industrial action. Government capitulated and extended the privilege to the entire public service. That new feature was born, a practice that continued in the ensuing years, suspended during the dark years that followed, ‘coup sur coup’, two devaluations, restored at the level of half a month when economic conditions improved in the late 1980’s, upgraded soon after to a full month when the ‘miracle économique’ yielded additional fruits. Today a standard feature enacted yearly by Parliament. How not to mention the payment of Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) recommended by Sedgwick, the object of yearly tussles between Government and Civil Service Unions, the forerunner of the ‘compensation salariale’ that also became a permanent feature approved by Parliament. To come back to the schisms experienced by the FCSU in the postIndependence years, they were less the results of clashes of personalities, than ‘incompatibility’, which surfaced when the service ‘expanded’. However paradoxical, Civil Service Unions gradually realized they pursued, at times, ‘conflicting interests’, notwithstanding some common objectives. From personal experience and with hindsight, I can say for sure this to be the case. One consequence of withdrawal was the creation of the ‘State Employees Federation’ (SEF) – initial letters our detractors inversed -, ‘my baby’* for which I wrote the Rules and Regulations, a move I thought I owed to the GSA for having been the main proponent of the split. Today we have a third Federation in the public sector. Will the haemorrhage stop here? Independence indeed opened broad avenues for overall upgrading and progress in which, notwithstanding the rife propaganda and some inherent weaknesses and a few dysfunctions that can gradually be eliminated, the Civil Service has played a key role and will continue to be part of the backbone to achieve the contemplated vision of a modern Mauritius. The Civil Service, I am sure, will take up the gauntlet!