This 27 September marks 75 years since the 1943 Belle Vue Harel shooting that claimed four lives. I often recounted the event during my sensitization campaigns on equality of opportunity, with youngsters around the island. It came as no sur- prise that most of the young people I interacted with had absolutely no clue as to what happened in 1943; they knew practically nothing about the struggle of the labor class in the 1930s; to them, our history comes down to vague notions of Dutch settlement and the achievements of Mahe de Labourdonnais and Pierre Poivre. Our society has produced a generation that has slipped into historical and political amnesia. We have chosen to move on, forgetting the trauma of the past, often in the name of nation building. Not knowing where we come from, we are all set to move forward, pretending we know where to go. Mean- time, we have reduced ourselves to a bunch of silent watchers, witnessing economic, social, and racial inequity invade our lives to such an extent that it has just become a normality. Questioning this normality seems abnormal, but a necessity.
In 2013, the Equal Opportunities Commission declared the 27th September Equal Opportunity Day – meant to turn a dark day of our history into a day of reflection, reconnection and reconciliation with the past, an inspiration for the future. Through dirty politics, even the celebration of this day has sunk into oblivion. Today, we have a Commission that is quasi inexistent, with people who seem to barely have a notion of equality of opportunity trying to solve the deep inequalities that have gripped this country; inequalities that are rooted in our colonial history and that are perpetuating across generations.
In 1943, four indentured laborers lost their lives to bullets, for voicing out their legitimate frustrations against the sugar barons, predominantly white, who across the years, had maintained a culture of low wages. That culture still defines our economic system even today. The same small economic elite that built their wealth on slavery and cheap indentured labor still has extensive control over the economy; land possession is still heavily skewed in their favor; they are still the owners of the biggest corporations on the island, and they still perpetuate the cycle of income and wealth inequality. Centuries of income went into that small elite’s composition of current wealth, including land, freely acquired, that today is being sold to foreigners under schemes such as IRS or is being turned into smart cities, widening the class divide that already underlies our society even more.
Our generation of youngsters is entangled into a “catch-up trap”. Though descendants of slaves and indentured labor, which constitute most of the population, are doing better than their grandparents, the income and wealth gaps between those who belong to the small economic elite and the rest of the population have not reduced. There has never been any level playing field in the first place, and over time, the gaps have widened, leading to a huge brain drain, with our best talents leaving the country in the quest of fairer and more equitable opportunities. Politicians are always blamed-rightly so-for encouraging a system that rips merit apart. But we forget that we are only seeing the symptoms of a deeper ill-systemic social, economic and racial discrimination, and incredibly low wages for graduates who work long hours in the private sector, coupled with job insecurity. If you raise your voice, you are free to go, since there are hundreds of young unemployed to take up the job. 75 years after the 1943 injustices, it is still hard for literate young people to negotiate a decent salary in this country. So, we should not be surprised to see our young, competent, and talented people leave.
When the Equal Opportunities Commission was created in 2012, we set the ball rolling to question discriminatory practices, and systemic inequality. The concept of equal opportunities is the foundation for a merit-based system, which is highly valuable for any society that seeks to duly recognize the talents and competencies of its citizens. But its principal limitation lies in the fact that it does not address head-on inequalities at birth. It is high time to think beyond simply providing equal opportunities for all if we want to rebalance power dynamics; we need to factor in social and economic equity.
Equity takes into consideration how the past has shaped the present, with the aim of promoting a fairer and more inclusive society. It is a process that starts with ac- knowledgement of privilege across generations, which we are yet to witness in the Mauritian context. It demands relooking at the way resources are managed across the diverse components of our society.It needs us to break from the colonial narrative of our history, and own our past to better engineer our future. Our young people should not be trained to be obedient employees, who turn a blind eye on injustices, but should rather be nurtured to become fearless leaders and game-changers; they should be able to find their way to C-Suites, whose composition is highly homogenous for the time being, and has been this way for more than 200 years, with the same few families on board. As of today, with the endless speculations in land prices created by unregulated sale to foreigners and erection of smart cities, this generation risks running into high debts if they want to own their house. Affordable decent housing should not be a faraway dream for the many young people starting their career. These are just few examples. Equity demands that we promote real inclusive development, that we embrace policies that impact life outcomes, and close opportunity as well as wealth gaps.
75 years ago, four people fell to bullets, among them, a pregnant woman, and a fourteen-year old adolescent. The magnitude of the violence perpetrated is often minimized due to a partial and veiled account of history. My late grandfather, often recounted the agonizing moment when he witnessed the brutal murder of his fourteen-year old brother, Marday. Heart and lungs perforated, with a gaping hole in the back, the young child was reduced to a mass of torn flesh. Barely was Marday cremated, that his grieving father was arrested and jailed. The police barged into their house at night and threatened the family to leave the sugar estate, which they did, never to go back.
They were not the only family to suffer. Our people had grit, and they survived the atrocities of the time. They were illiterate, had no right to vote, and most of them had no home to call their own. Through discriminatory and repressive laws and practices in place, they were doomed to be voiceless. But they chose to make their voices heard against all odds. Today, we are literate, but more often than not, we choose to be silent for fear of repression. If we want a more just and equitable society that allows our people to thrive, we need to break this cycle of silence.