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LALIT Forum on De-Colonization Re-Kindles Rich Tradition of Public Debate


In the beautiful setting of the Port Louis Municipal Chamber, LALIT on Thursday 19 April hosted a Forum-Debate on the theme: “De-Colonization: What it means to the Working Class”. The theme was chosen as Labour Day approaches and during celebrations for 50 Year’s Mauritian Independence. LALIT is, at the same time, consciously re-kindling the rich debating tradition that existed in Mauritius from before Independence, during the hey-day of Cercle Literaire in every village and working class urban area, through the Grand Forum of the 1970s and 1980s, petering out around 1990 – when no political party could any longer confront LALIT without losing during open debate.

 Guest speakers Reeaz Chuttoo and Pitch Venkatasamy are experienced leaders of the private sector unions and public sector unions, respectively, while Rajni Lallah has many kinds of experience of working class struggle: in construction workers mass movement and nation-wide strike, in All Workers’ Conference, an experience shared with Reeaz Chuttoo, in the housing movement as well as organizing fishermen. Rada Kistnasamy opened the debate from the chair, clearly outlining the unfinished work in the de-colonization process at a general level:  the territorial continued occupation by the UK-USA of Diego Garcia and the whole of Chagos, the oppression of the national language Mauritian Kreol alongside the promotion of colonial languages, and the lack of any land reform around Independence or in the 50 years since then. He also later in the program invited everyone present to pick up a leaflet, a call-for-papers for a LALIT Symposium on “Decolonization” to be held on 28 and 29 July.

 Reeaz argued that the trade union movement was strong until the time of the MMM’s treachery in 1982. And then demoralization, he said, set in. This was later compounded, he argued, by the Hire Purchase law that drew everyone in the working class into chronic debt for consumer items that were not essentials. He argued that from 1995, there was the State’s intervention to separate “poverty” from the rest of working class concerns, and take over the management of this “poverty”. This even ended up with NGOs super-exploiting workers for jobs that had been done by civil servants. The WTO coming into place meant that from 2000-05, mills closed and factories closed as protected markets became illegal. As the working class weakened, with more and more smaller enterprises replacing larger ones, the Government could finally, in its Employment Relations Act, permit the sacking of workers without any indemnity. He said that the most hopeful times were when the union movement was organized in All Workers’ Conference, and had systematically opposed neo-liberalism, privatization and the WTO. He said the struggle before the union movement right now is to stop the move to privatize water.

 Pitch Venkatasamy said that it was a little known fact that the working class movement called for Independence not just before the Labour Party called for Independence, but it called for Independence before the Labour Party was born. In mid-January 1936, at a march to Port Louis called by Maurice Curé, five resolutions were voted, Pitch Venkatasamy explained, and the fifth one was for Independence of Mauritius. [In the days following the march, Maurice Curé and his colleagues set about preparing the Manifesto for a Labour Party and the Party was born in February that year at Senn Mars. This is not a “small fact” that Pitch Venkatasamy drew attention to. It is of vital importance. This is so particularly in these times when all manner of “historians” claim that there was no independence struggle (!) and that Britain forced Independence upon Mauritius. One University in Mauritius even held a debate on the theme, “Should Mauritius have accepted Independence”. So Revisionism with a capital R is rife. This makes Pitch’s point a key, if symbolic, one. We say “symbolic” because the struggle went on – not only in Labour but also, and more determinedly in the Independent Forward Block, which was a powerful rural political force. And of course, it was part of the trade union platform, which in those days was wide.]

 Another key point that Pitch Venkatasamy brought up was the opposition in the union movement to the IMF-World Bank conditions. By 1981, when Ringadoo was Finance Minister, when Pitch and the other unions went to negotiate with him, he said off the record, “My hands are tied [by IMF-WB], so go make a noise in the streets.” Which the Front Syndicale Nationale did. This is also interesting because it shows how the middle classes cannot maintain a democratic program, or even an anti-imperialist one; the Labour Party has to get the working class into action!

 Rajni Lallah, in her speech in LALIT’s name, put emphasis on the fact that “de-colonization” is not a point in time: 12 March 1968. It is a process that started as early as the 1930’s and that continues until today. It was a kind of reign, against which people protested and which, although this reign backed off on 12 March 1968, there is much unfinished business.

She said the working class was the key class in the struggle for Independence. They organized in associations and unions, and set up their party, the Labour Party. And the demands around Independence were clear: access to land, better work conditions, social services including pensions and free education. These demands were even admitted to by the much-changed Labour Party in its Mauritius on the March publication in 1976, when it outlined the progress made since Independence on the basis of this three-pronged program.

 She said the Labour Party, in a close alliance with the MLC, won Independence, just as in South Africa, the ANC and SACP in a close alliance with the trade union federation COSATU, won freedom from Apartheid. And in both cases, an alliance that was robust and useful in the struggle towards Independence, once the alliance takes power and takes over the existing State tel-kel, what was an advantage turns into a disadvantage for the working class. Its unions are too close to power now, and tend to follow the bourgeois State in its work to maintain the bourgeoisie in power.  [This explains how the MLC will weaken so drastically after Independence.]

 When the Labour Party came to power, it inherited an economy which would continue exactly the same as before Independence: sugar plantations and mills run by the sugar barons in order to supply Britain, later Europe with sugar. The total control of the main arable land by a handful of sugar estates continued the same. And later the IMF-World Bank team would come and exercise further control, “forcing” neo-liberalism on the State. A reign based essentially on repression continued after Independence, just as it had done during Colonial times. There was a State of Emergency from the word go.

 So, what with Labour going into an almost immediate alliance with the anti-Independence party, the PMSD, it is not surprising that the MMM and the new federation, the GWF should be born by 1969-70. And that a State of Emergency should continue. And that trade unionists and MMM militants should be in jail by the dozen.

 It is interesting to note that the MMM was born not just as a working class party, but as an anti-colonial one. The first demonstration the MMM organized was against Princess Alexandra on one of her visits. And the MMM took up the Chagos struggle, too. The MMM brought about many changes for the working class in the time from its birth until 1982. The biggest challenge of all to capitalist rule was the August 1979 general strike movement, in which the entire working class took on the State and the bourgeoisie. The MMM did not so much lead the strike, as follow it.

 And once the MMM came to power, with the GWF close to it, the same phenomenon recurred: what had been a useful alliance for the MMM to oust Labour and the PMSD, became a problem for the working class the minute there was success – if not a year before. The MMM first abandoned class struggle altogether, and adopted a program for “social consensus”, and then took up the IMF-World Bank line as its own.

 The only major working class challenge since then, she said agreeing with Reeaz Chuttoo, was the All Workers’ Conference from 1996-99.

 Looking to the future, she said the program is still much the same, and must include:

* Jobs for everyone, by controlling the land democratically.

* Production, instead of speculation on land.

* Food Security, and food for exports

* Social Housing, not villas for the rich.

* Getting Chagos re-united with the rest of Mauritius, and free of military occupation.

 And it is the working class that will be the driving force for this program, and this program is part of the program for socialism.

 After the speakers, there were questions and comments for a good while. For the Le Defi newspaper, journalist Pradeep Daby asked what other formula was possible other than the alliance between a party and a trade union federation, and there were a number of responses to this. Ragini Kistnasamy put the question to Reeaz Chuttoo as to whether the trade union movement as a whole could not take a stand right now for the Government to immediately stop granting permits for selling off land for villas, and for the Government to give permits to production-oriented enterprises that use the land for job creation, food security and housing. He said they were moving in that direction.

 Outside people took the chance to get LALIT publications like the most recent Revi LALIT Magazine, the recent book on the August 79 Strike by Ram Seegobin, the collection on Klas edited by Alain Ah-Vee, and the Labour Laws from Slavery to Globalization by Ram Seegobin.

 The next LALIT forum is due to be held in Rose-Belle.