Almost all readers will recognize their own family situation or that of a close relative or friend in this article. But, let’s start by going back a generation or so.
In, say, 1979 – the year of the biggest working class movement in Mauritian history – a father and mother in “Family W” had saved up and bought a small bit of land and gradually built a solid house, leaving land for some fruit trees and a herb garden (1). This was in the days of dire poverty. There was one bedroom for the parents, one for their three boys aged 17, 15 and 13, and one for their two girls aged 11 and 9. There was a salon, and lean-to kitchen and shower. It was cramped but adequate. Children had lots of place to play and the roads hadn’t become lethal yet. Although Mauritius was a “poor country”, home-ownership was quite common in the working class – after generations of affordable land and government policies of “villagisation”, and of people using their own labour power in little collectives to build their own and each other’s houses.
By the year 1992, when the Central Housing Authority had been run down and was finally closed by the MSM-MMM Government in a fit of neo-liberal destructivity and under IMF-World Bank dictates, the three boys in Family W were all married with kids – three, two and one, respectively – and still living in the house. Land had become unaffordable, and social housing had been phased out. One of the girls had got married and returned a year later with a baby. So, this modest abode is now populated, in the years following 1992 – with some extensions sideways and upwards – by the initial mother-father and unmarried daughter in two of the rooms (family unit 1), three new families (units 2, 3, and 4) and a fourth single-mother family (unit 5). No-one has a salon any longer. Stress runs high. None of the sons wants to move out for fear of losing his “inheritance rights”. (Mauritius is one of a few countries in the world with strict “forced heirs” – a left-over from the Napoleonic Code – by which you cannot make a will, except for a modest quotité disponible equivalent to the share that would have gone to one additional child-heir.) The daughter who has returned has no choice but to stay put. One of the sons is of an aggressive temperament, and other family members find their patience with him stretched. The cooped up children become very unhappy, over-active and even violent. One son plays music too loud in his rooms. One daughter-in-law cooks bomli in her kitchen. One daughter hangs her washing to dry in the corridor when it rains. And so on. All the normal conflicts become quite tense because of the unwanted proximity. And no-one wants to abandon their “part”, and often, in any case, going forward from 1992, they can’t afford even NHDC housing. There are 17 people now living in the space that was “modest” for 7. Hardly progress. Of the 17, ten are adults! In Government statistics, these 10 adults are all, if you can believe it, “home-owners”. This means they are not people the State has to count as “in need of housing”.
Today, 27 more years on, in 2019, we have a time-bomb ready to explode. Land prices are sky high. The Government has a trickle of houses it indebts people to buy. The two parents in Family W have passed away, but their children, except for the last daughter who married and left, are all still living in the original house. The seven grand-children are by now all, in turn, married and four of them have stayed on with their new families in the house. Each has a spouse and two children. 25 people now live in the house, 16 being adults. All are “home-owners” according to Statistics Mauritius by dint of not paying rent. Others still, have their inheritance rights in the tiny plot and now expanded set of flats that the house has been turned into. The girl-children, now armed with equality under the law, are understandably also reluctant to move out in case they lose their “part” in the inheritance stakes. Stress has turned into strife. Which nuclear family has a right to which bit? How does one of them get a building permit? Who withholds signature? By now, no-one can take out a loan using the house as collateral. There is no land without concrete on it, even the dingy corridor of the 3-foot legal minimum around the house. Not a pawpaw tree or murung tree is left. There is nowhere for water to be absorbed when it comes off the roof-slab. Pizwar from the kitchen sinks remain swampy. Recently, one of the grandsons was arrested for assaulting his uncle in a fight over where his “part” ends. So, nephew and uncle were in cell and hospital bed, respectively. They don’t return to a happy place afterwards.
This is the true situation for tens of thousands of Mauritian families.
We are only reminded of it, even if we live in such circumstances ourselves, when there is a murder. Near the end of the newspaper article about one family member killing another, it says, “sur le fond de conflit autour de terrain familial” or some such thing. And we shudder saying, “There but for the grace of god go I.”
And then, somewhere along the way, the Government accidentally went and expanded the scope of this problem. From the late 1980s, following Mrs Thatcher’s example, Government blithely sold CHA Cité houses to their occupants. This process was accelerated at one moment when the banks had too much liquidity and needed people to have the collateral to take out loans. Thus thousands more families were plunged into the same problem of Napoleonic compulsory heirs, the concomitant over-crowding, and the State’s pretence that they are all “happy home-owners”, “Mauritius has best practices in Africa on home ownership”, etc, simply because people do not pay rent. In fact, people living in what people wittily call “lakaz zeritye” have less rights than a tenant. In France, by contrast, the HLM working class housing units are not sold to private owners because the State knows of this problem.
Anyway, Mauritius is faced with a very grave time-bomb. This is true, despite the situation being attenuated by the VRS’s and Blueprints for sacked labourers and artisans. The Sugar Estates allotted tiny bits of land for redundant workers’ housing, as the private companies altogether closed down some 40,000 jobs in sugar and cane, and as they closed down the “dankan” or tied housing. The problem has obviously been continuously accentuated by the sore lack of state-provided housing. The NHDC flats and houses and the handful of NEF houses have acted as a shock-absorber on the outer rims of the problem but the problem, itself, has remained intact.
The only way the Government can defuse this time-bomb is to take draconian action: open a Government Register for people to come forward and say they are in housing difficulty, then take over the land necessary and build houses and, given the compulsory heirs laws and given that half of all families do not have a pay-slip because work is now so precarious, offer an option of rental instead of ownership. This way, the problem will not continue to worsen exponentially. Every new couple or new family unit must get housing, with an offer of long-lease rental. The time-bomb will have been defused. This way, hefty Government subsidies, instead of being squandered on villas that Sugar Estate companies sell to millionaires, can be used for houses for all working people to live in.
1 In parallel, at that time, Family X – like thousands of artisans and labourers – lived in “dankan tablisman”, a form of tied housing, with the advantage of no rent and all the dangers of becoming homeless at the very moment of being fired from work in the sugar estate. They also had, say, five children in the house. Artisans had bigger, more spacious separate houses that were often built of stone, while labourers often lived in lines of joined houses with straw or tin rooves. In parallel, too, Family Y was, like thousands of other families housed over the years since Cyclone Carol before Independence, in Central Housing Authority housing and paid a minimal rent. Their family with five children lived on quite a big bit of land with mango trees and little gardens in a house with four rooms. Their neighbours at the end of the street lived in euphemistically named “widow’s houses” that were smaller and had lower rent to pay. And in parallel, Family Z, lived as tenants in rented rooms – many particularly in Port Louis still living in what was called a “lakur” around a single tap and single toilet.