The Iconic 1975 Students’ Strike and its aftermath: A reflection on decolonisation
[This paper was presented by Nirmal Betchoo at the LALIT Open Symposium on Decolonization held on 28 and 29 July, 2018 at GRNW. Anyone who wants to quote from it needs permission of the author. And as with all materials from the Symposium, LALIT requests that the author and our site be credited. The paper was illustrated with photographs and newspaper cuttings of the students’ strike.]
If one goes back some forty years in Mauritius, a broad picture of education was that a majority of children enrolling in primary schools ended their education at Primary School Leaving Certificate (Grade 12) after 6 years of school, or earlier. A few could be admitted secondary schools where a majority could end up to Form IV (Grade 16) and not even complete their School Certificate, which was a passport for white-collar jobs and a fairly bright future in Mauritius. Reaching Higher School Certificate Level (HSC) was limited just to a happy few, who were mainly students of state-funded colleges with some rare cases of HSC passes from private secondary colleges situated mostly in the urban areas. This was an outlook of education at that time. There was limited secondary schooling and there was a unique tertiary institution, the University of Mauritius that offered the classical “Diploma in Sugar Technology”.
Concerning colleges, there were just a few state-run ones that only took the brilliant students having passed the Junior Scholarship known as the ‘Petite Bourse’. This was a tough rat-race competition for selection after the Primary School Leaving Certificate where the best students competed for an examination prepared by Moray House (UK). Those topping the list, a mere 300 students, boys and girls combined, could have the golden chance of being students in government colleges like Royal College Port Louis, Royal College Curepipe, John Kennedy College for boys and the Queen Elizabeth College with the Droopnath Ramphul State College for girls. The star colleges were in urban areas and benefited from the best facilities regarding infrastructure, libraries, laboratories and amenities for physical activities. The majority of the students could only get in at paid colleges, which were mostly located in the urban areas with a few in central locations in villages like Central Flacq, Goodlands or Souillac. Private colleges were family-owned and had a linear structure with the manager and family members as administrators and staff who worked in the colleges would be mostly qualified School Certificate holders with a degree from India or a technical qualification obtained in Mauritius.
Call for an uprising
The 1970s formed the golden era of socialism in Mauritius with new politicians forming the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) formerly the Mouvement des Etudiants. There were important political upheavals like the 1971 strike paralysing the national economy followed by press censorship and the implementation of the Public Order Act (1973). The economy was in teething difficulties but benefited from an economic boom in 1973 after the petrol shock. Despite these favourable conditions that could partly address the needs of the lower classes, inequalities remained high in society.
Concerning the education system, there was a status-quo with a traditional rat-race system and private college students were always disadvantaged in facility terms compared to those happy few who could join the state colleges. Since political militancy gained momentum with socialist vibes pervading the nation; initially in urban areas followed by higher acclamation in the rural areas, the call for class equality and social justice grew higher. This was illustrated by the winning of the most political seats by the MMM in 1976 ensuing the election of legislative assembly members coming from a left-winged party, something not so easily imaginable at a time when Mauritian politics was framed on Westminster style politics with the traditional Labour Party and the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) living in a murky alliance, broken just to oppose each other at the elections.
Since political socialism was gaining higher acclaim in society, there was a clear indication that this would impact education particularly at the secondary level.
The May 1975 strike
Secondary education remained elitist in the 1970s with a low percentage of students that could read up to the HSC level and aim for white-collar jobs or choose to go abroad for undergraduate studies. Students who studied in private colleges were merely limited to a School Certificate where the possibility of passing the first time was low. This was characterised by inherent weaknesses in private secondary education where colleges had poor infrastructure in every nook and corner. Libraries were poorly equipped, classrooms resembled those of primary schools and worse, the opportunity to complete secondary education at the Ordinary level was weak. Worse, secondary education suffered from the most significant disparity where private colleges charged school fees for students and state-funded schools subsidised education with students having no need to pay for education while enjoying top-class amenities at all levels. In this case, just getting into a private college represented a bleak opportunity for success as the long-term prospect for reaching the coveted HSC level was barely attained.
Based from the inherent weaknesses in private secondary schools, it was expected that a wave of socialism could blow over secondary education. There were initial boosts for some change like press articles in ‘Place aux Jeunes’ in the ‘Week-End’ newspaper and certain reflections on education developed by Jeunesse Militante, a spin-off of the MMM. There were also political upheavals in various areas like transport, public utilities, etc. Education could not be spared because the 1975 Gervaise cyclone devastated most of the school infrastructure while exacerbating infrastructure problems in schools. Private secondary schools built on ‘brick and mortar’ infrastructure were also in deplorable conditions with greater difficulty in imparting education to students.
These factors teamed up with the need for equality and social justice in education. The impetus was already on and demonstrations started in April 1975 to last for nearly a month. This was a catapult effect with secondary educators going on strike with students namely in colleges like Bhujoharry, Trinity, Eden, New Eton, etc. to gradually rally with the already well-established state colleges which started to see the inequalities in education and show greater empathy for the colleagues living and teaching in tougher conditions. The student unrest was powerful, showing resistance and resilience despite police threats, and even tear gas and batons. Such a condition attained its paroxysm and became untenable. That could be a precursor to more electoral threats from the government in power.
Although the clamour was diminished after negotiations between the private college unions and the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, disparities still existed but the creation of the Private Secondary Schools Authority (PSSA) allowed for better wage treatment for private secondary teachers as well as an alignment in wages between public and private educators.
In January 1977, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the then Prime Minister, surely tired of hearing of student dissatisfaction and claiming some foothold in the 1976 national elections, came forward with a bold decision that could be both political and social. Secondary education was declared free for all and state colleges would be built all over Mauritius to accommodate a larger number of students. These new colleges would be Junior Secondary Schools (JSS) with students reading to Form III (Grade 15) and eventually reading for an SC either in extension classes or in the existing state colleges. There was at least a sigh of relief for the thousands of parents who had to pay for secondary education if their wards qualified for private colleges.
Towards a start of decolonisation
The 1975 strike spoke on the inequalities of secondary education particularly at the private secondary education level. Although the effects were not immediate certain factors might be isolated as a causal factor of the strike. They took place over the years with more pledges from private colleges to be heard and accepted in the Legislative Assembly. Certain steps were: the end of the Junior Scholarship, new curricula developed by the Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE), the case of introducing Kreol as a medium of instruction, the democratisation of secondary education. These are briefly developed below:
The end of the Junior Scholarship
Moray House (UK) continued with the system of ‘Petite Bourse’ or elitist education but was gradually phased out. The tough and competitive secondary schools entry examination were replaced by the Certificate of Primary Education developed by the Mauritius Institute of Education and the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate. Though the new examinations still remained competitive, not only 300 students could enter State colleges but rather a four-fold number in the initial years. This measure somewhat affected entry numbers in private colleges that were forced to review their recruitment strategy as well as their facilities which were better addressed by more financial grants from the government.
New curricula developed by the Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE)
Earlier curricula were focused on Mauritius particularly at the Primary level. With the setting up of the MIE in 1973, more educational material was developed locally, at first in primary schools, but later in secondary schools, both public and private. Learning materials like ‘Mots et Merveilles’, ‘Password’, etc. were developed for lower secondary classes but used all over the island. This partly addressed the need to harmonise learning curricula between the schools. Further, being Mauritianised, these texts ensued some decolonisation from prescribed British-based curricula that was not too easily adaptable to Mauritian standards.
The case of introducing Kreol as a medium of instruction
Kreol has been taught as an instructional language more specifically in rural areas where the exposure to international languages like English and French was limited. Kreol could be used for any subject especially as the level grew higher and became less explicit in upper secondary classes. Teachers expressed themselves in Kreol although a few elite schools maintained teaching in English. It is also worthwhile noting the introduction of Asian languages like Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and later Arabic in secondary schools, once again from curricula jointly developed by the MIE and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. This aspect should not be overlooked since Oriental languages were also looked down upon the bourgeois that favoured western to such languages.
The democratisation of secondary education
The democratisation of secondary education must also be emphasised here. With a larger number of Junior Secondary Schools being built over the island, better infrastructure could be made available on a decentralised basis. This favour much higher enrolment of students in secondary education, lifting the bar for access to School Certificate and gradually promoting more students to attain the final level, HSC. Girls’ enrolment in education progressed significantly and their pass rates were spectacular. Getting out of the confined role of the housemaid became a reality and this was also triggered by industrialisation since the mid-1980s.
Decolonisation seen from the 1975 kaleidoscope
In 2018, it will be quite difficult to associate the decolonisation process juts from the 1975 student strike. Apparently, such an uprising was a trigger of decolonisation because the process ensued ‘mauritianising’ the education system, democratising education by reducing disparities between the rich and the poor and also enabling more girls to have access to secondary education. To some extent, the student unrest did portray the existing weaknesses of the system and paved the way for free education at the secondary level.
Considering decolonisation from the curriculum perspective, certain efforts were brought in with a few textbooks written by Mauritian authors like ‘Tales of Mauritius’ by Ramdoyal, ‘History of Mauritius’ by Varma, some French texts by the David couple, etc. Further, Mauritian literature was also studied and examined at the School Certificate and HSC levels with works from Masson, Unnuth, etc. These explained that there was a real effort in bringing ‘mauritianisation’ to the national curricula.
But has there been genuine decolonisation since 1975? It would be a utopia to say that such a process could occur and reshape the educational system in the country. For instance, Kreol has and is being constantly used in the teaching process since educators understand the context and the teaching complexities in tough courses in Science and Economics. Kreol has been used as a facilitator for learning and remains appropriate in developing quick understanding of subject matter. However, written and expressive form of such a language is still in its infancy in secondary schools today. This has surely been a long fought battle undertaken by Lalit, the Michel brothers and the government through ‘grafi larmoni’. But using Kreol as a medium of instruction has not been accepted at any level in all the different sectors of education but the national language has been limited as a teaching medium for a sole curriculum ‘Kreol’. Recognition has not even been sought in the National Assembly while English is the official language and the use of French is also accepted.
Another key argument could come from the mind-set of the population with regards to education. Although many experts have advocated the elimination of the ‘rat-race’ system at the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) level, there remains a majority that is still stuck with the concept of learning through an intense competitive atmosphere. The proclamation of laureates continued after 1975 and remains a folkloric event with the media exposure of laureates emphasising the importance of elitist education. Laureates become the ‘talk of the town’ and are cast in the limelight all of a sudden. Does the system consider the number of drop-outs and the need to find alternative educational pathways for those not capable of coping with such an elitist system? Mauritius remains along with Singapore and Jamaica, the few rare countries that still adopt the competitive Cambridge examinations. To this end, the roots of competitive examination offered by an external body might not clearly illustrate decolonisation in the educational process. Even changing the existing system might be costly and even take quite a significant amount of time to become a reality.
Thirdly, this young generation known as ‘digital natives’ loves being in a community of its own. Through constant contacts online and in a virtual manner, it might look like the concept of sharing has shifted from community-based interaction to peer-group interaction where face-to-face contacts are sacrificed to virtual ones. There was a little naïve perception recently from certain journalists claiming a revival of May 1975 when it concerned secondary school students who protested on conditions regarding the payment of examination fees in case of repeated absences. In comparison with the genuine 1975 uprising for a demand for equality, democracy and even decolonisation, the current short-lived demonstration was more of an antithesis with students from star colleges soliciting favour to avoid paying for examination fees.
Why May 1975 cannot be revived?
May 1975 remains a symbol of student revolt and demonstration at a time when socialist ideologies were strong especially in the developing world. It was a ‘remake’ of the truly iconic ‘Mai 68’ in France where students questioned the education system in France and that was followed by mass student movements throughout France obliging the French government to initiate a reform in education. A similar effect took place in Mauritius when students were unhappy with the existing educational system and fought for justice and equality. Assisted by left-winged political movements, the student movement gained momentum and national acclaim. Sometime later, after certain reforms were implemented, the movement died and gave way to political affiliations of certain student movement leaders.
Ideologies live and die. This adage cannot be challenged. As the economy of Mauritius was set back to track since the mid-1980s, capitalism stepped in naturally with the local community willing to benefit from tax rebates on electronic goods mainly TV sets and video cassette recorders, refrigerators, electric showers, etc. All these were considered as luxuries earlier. Through better accrual of personal wealth, common interests started to vanish and just got weaker and weaker in the course of time. Today, in a digitalised world, the level of materialism and personal gain reaches a peak whereby common calls for a certain cause roughly draws a handful of participants despite thousands of likes on the social platform ‘Facebook’.
Further, there looks to be a dearth of newcomers on the political arena. Traditional parties predominate after Independence gained in 1968 with the same leaders or dynasties ruling the country. The absence of young people in the socio-political environment might illustrate the low interest of the present generation in politics and could also be a causal factor explaining the low involvement of the young ones. Coupled with materialistic values and the need for comfortable individualised living, the hearth for student uprising will not be possible.
This paper concludes that May 1975, an iconic symbol of student unrest in Mauritius, remains to-date, an important stepping stone for decolonisation seen from the educational perspective. The initial processes to decolonise secondary education were manifold namely increasing access to students into better colleges, providing free secondary education to all students entering colleges, bringing Mauritian texts for study in secondary schools and also encouraging a larger percentage of girls to join colleges. Decolonisation of education cannot be fulfilled even some 43 years after the unrest. Today the world is globalised with exchange of knowledge, greater sharing of information and the need to standardise learning. Cambridge, the examining body, adjusts itself to the learning curricula of each country while setting a British standard for the examinations. In a nutshell, partial decolonisation exists as there might be an evaluation of Kreol in final examinations, wider inclusion of locally-developed texts and learning material. Officially teaching in Kreol as a medium has still a long way to go. Additionally, new agendas like global warming and sustainable development easily override decolonisation issues. Nevertheless, the iconic 1975 strike remains a lesson to be learnt in history as it definitely ushered decolonisation into education and substantially ‘Mauritianised’ our system that still is, and for a long-time will be, governed by final examinations developed abroad, which remain elitist and highly rote-learning focused, despite having their credibility nationally.