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The Truth and Justice Commission Debacle


The Truth and Justice Commission debacle has exposed an advanced degree of rot in the State. This exposure was triggered by the decision of LALIT's delegation to leave before deponing before the Commission - after four of us were, amongst other things, made to wait for over an hour without a word of apology. In LALIT, we were already uneasy about deponing before the "Shell Commission" in the absence of Prof. Shell, the sworn-in Chairperson. It seemed odd. A Commission like this without a Chair is very weak. But, we decided to go ahead and give evidence because our belief that the question of slavery and indenture is of key political importance over-rode what was then the one-off mystery of Prof. Robert Shell's "temporary" absence, and there were no other apparent problems.

LALIT's testimony was to be on the need for collective and structural reparations for slavery and indenture "and on who should pay whom" as well as on the continuity, as well as fracture, in the labour law legal framework from slavery through indenture into modern labour laws, and on land ownership in the absence of agrarian reform, on the non-recognition of the Kreol and Bhojpuri languages, on police brutality, on communal/race classification through the Best Loser system, all of which we argue, are direct legacies of the slavery and indenture systems. All of which need "repairing".

The treatment meted out to us by the Commission has caused us to lose confidence in it altogether. They wrote calling us in at 1:00 pm on Wednesday 28 October. Then the day before they asked us to vacate this slot for someone more important. We finally agreed to come at 2:00 instead of 1:00. No problem. They requested us to be there 15 minutes early so as not to keep the Commissioners waiting. No problem. They ushered us into a waiting room that was so unfurnished and lugubrious that it exposed the Commission as rather "baclée". The place was manned by a police officer, and this did not improve the atmosphere. We were then asked to produce our "passes", today called ID cards. Then we were left sitting there without a word of apology for an hour. Thus our walk-out.

Our walk-out had an unexpected side-effect: it sparked off a major debate about why Shell was absent from the "Shell Commission", and this in turn exposed the rot that seems to have set in to the State.

The State unmasked
Since then, hideous conflicts between individual Commission members, the Prime Minister's Office and Prof. Shell have been publicly exposed. People have called each other liars, insinuated corruption, and lavishly blamed the PMO. Ms. Vijaya Teelock and Mr. Lindsay Morvan have "explained" on radio that Shell was "kept informed" by e-mail of Commission work schedules, and that he had disappeared. They could not contact him, so the Commission proceeded without him. Later they said that he was trying to " telecommand" the Commission from South Africa, where he lives.

Prof Shell claims that there had been deliberate administrative hurdles put in his way, particularly by Ms. Teelock, to stop him from coming to Mauritius to chair the Commission. He says his airfare was not paid. He also says he wife had meanwhile had an accident.

The PMO has kept noticeably silent throughout.

Why did the "Shell Commission" proceed in the absence of Shell? Why did they not expose the problem? It was only two months ago that public attention was drawn to Shell's absence. Surprisingly, this was when Sylvio Michel did so. He publicly demanded that Navin Ramgoolam nominate Ms. Vijaya Teelock, who " peut parfaitement assumer cette responsabilité" as chairman instead.(1)

So, Robert Shell who had been sworn in as Chair of the Commission by the President of the Republic in full ceremony was unceremoniously "sworn out". This was done by the Navin Ramgoolam government through a letter from the President. (2) What the State accused him of would be interesting to know. The Law setting up the Commission gives very restricted list of reasons for kicking someone out (3).

Another Professor from South Africa, Alex Boraine, is now being contacted by the PMO to Chair this now rather infamous Commission. But we find out he had already been contacted long ago. Alex Boraine had been initially approached by the State to chair the Commission. While he was thinking about it, he heard Robert Shell had been nominated. Alex Boraine will have much more to think about this time round. How a new Chairman will face the challenge of leading a Commission that has already proceeded with its work and is getting ready to prepare the "interim report" that may be demanded is mind-boggling. The MMM Opposition is now calling for "a Mauritian" to Chair.

What are the real reasons for the debacle? To answer this question we need to go back to the time when the /i> Truth and Justice Commission was first announced by Alliance Social leaders. The first references to it were made during the Alliance Social's 2005 electoral campaign. Rama Valayden announced that the Alliance Social government would set up a "Truth Commission" to look into the causes of the deaths of Kaya and Rajen Sabapathee, a statement that he repeated when he became Attorney General (4). When the Commission was finally set up, there was no reference at all to Kaya or Sabapathee, or to police violence. So the Truth and Justice Commission was by then no longer to be about deaths in detention as Rama Valayden had announced. It was something else.

Truth and Justice Commission: An Alliance Social electoral deal?
References by Sylvio Michel and Navin Ramgoolam to the Truth and Justice Commission, made it clear that this Commission was part of an electoral deal for the entry of Sylvio Michel's FTS-Les Verts into the Alliance Social. When Les Verts candidates did not get elected, they still had to get their "bout". Their "bout" appears to be this "Commission" (5). When the Truth and Justice Commission Bill was presented, the terms of reference included not only the question of slavery, but of indenture as well. So it was clear that one of the points that must have come up during negotiations between Michel and Ramgoolam was that "descendants of indentured labourers" get the possibility of compensation too.

The Sylvio Michel Les Verts' political existence has for years been based on a campaign to gather together individuals to whom he offers the hope of individual cash compensation as slave descendants, and individual restitution of land. Les Verts sees its role as political negotiator for this form of individual compensation. However, he may have changed tack. We will come back to this later.

Individual compensation v/s collective reparation
Once Sylvio Michel "got" the Commission, then came the next big question: who would chair it? Robert Shell was Sylvio Michel's choice. He even publicly paraded that he was the one who had selected Prof. Shell (L`Express 7 August, 2005). Michel believed that Shell was amenable to the demand for individual compensation. When the first interviews of Robert Shell appeared in 2007, it became clear that he was no longer. He was instead in favour of collective compensation through structural improvements particularly in the education system that would most benefit people who had suffered harm because of the social legacy of slavery and indenture. Sylvio Michel was livid. He had lost control over "his" commission that formed the basis for his being part of the Alliance Social. He publicly denounced Shell and in the same press conference applauded the PMSD for having left the Alliance Social government. The message was clear: either Navin Ramgoolam act, or Les Verts would leave the Alliance Social. (6). At some point, it seems that an administrative process was set in motion to "farouche" Prof. Shell.

Other communalists took a stand against Shell, too. But it was too late by then: Navin Ramgoolam had already announced that Prof. Shell would Chair the Commission in the National Assembly.

Shell v. Navin Ramgoolam
Sylvio Michel was not the only one stuck with Shell. Shell's email interview in Mauritius Times (March 2008) reveals an even more formidable area of conflict between Shell and Navin Ramgoolam. In this interview, Shell insists that "The Commission must be absolutely independent and that its mandate should be wide. Above all, the length of the commission should span at least the following elections. (...) it must span two electoral periods." In March 2009, in a meeting with the press, he was even more direct: "La Commission devra produire un rapport intérimaire vers la fin de la première année des travaux. Mais le Pr Shell ne souhaite pas rendre ce rapport public avant la tenue des prochaines élections générales à Maurice. "C`est un rapport scientifique et je ne voudrais pas qu`il soit mélangé a la chose politique", a-t-il soutenu." (Le Mauricien 30 Mars, 2009). Obviously Government wanted to use the Commission electorally.

In the March 2008 Mauritius Times e-mail interview Shell made another revelation: "My nominations on the task-force were not accepted and I have to live with that." Does he mean the nominations were not independent? The nomination of Lindsay Morvan, a leader of a party in Government, the PMXD and now PMSD, as Commission member could have been of concern. Shell clearly did not want Navin Ramgoolam-Xavier Duval-Sylvio Michel dangling the Commission's recommendations to attract communal support in the elections. So, it is not difficult to imagine how Shell had become a political embarrassment for them and needed to be gotten rid of. Shell has called his visit here "horrible" and "humiliating".

In LALIT, we believe that the questions of slavery and indenture and their legacies are serious questions that need to be analysed and confronted in a serious way. We have campaigned for many years now for a collective form of reparation for slavery. We have gained not only strong support in Mauritius, but internationally too. You can read our petition in the News section of our website.

It is unacceptable for the Alliance Social to use important issues like the legacy to the present-day working class of the previous legal frameworks for labour extraction (slavery and indenture) as a means of rallying communal support for a general election. It can be dangerous, too.

But to end on a positive note, when Sylvio Michel finally came to, in fact, testify before the Commission last week, he came round to the LALIT point of view and appears now to be demanding collective reparations for everyone affected by slavery and indenture, no longer individual payments.

Rajni Lallah

(1) "Commission Justice et Verite: Sylvio Michel veut le depart de Robert Shell" of L`Express 30 September, 2009.
(2) "Apres sa revocation, robert Shell: "La Commission justice et verite a ruine ma vie"" of L`Express online 6 November, 2009
(3) Section 6 (2) of The Truth and Justice Commission Act reads "A President may remove any member from office for inability to perform the functions of his office, whether arising from infirmity of body or mind, for incompetence or for misbehaviour."
(4) "Mort de Kaya et Sabapathee - La verite, rien que la verite..." of L`Express 3 November, 2005.
(5) "Conference de Presse - OF-Les Verts mi-figue, mi-raisin" of L`Express 7 August, 2005.
(6) "Les Verts jusgent incoherent les propos de Robert Shell" of L`Express 20 September, 2007.