Alex Boraine : «For many, Mauritius is still undemocratic and racist»

The issue of «transitional justice» is central to the work of truth commissions throughout the world. But it is oddly absent from the Mauritian Truth and Justice Commission. We have asked Professor Alex Boraine for clarifications. 

Professor Boraine, what motivated you to take up the chairmanship of the Truth and Justice Commission ?
A.B. – I was in New York when I received a message from the Prime Minister’s office, asking me whether I was interested in becoming the president of the Commission. I was completing a work at the International Centre for Transitional Justice. I got this letter and I was a bit puzzled about it, because it just seemed to come out of the blue. Anyway, I wrote back and said that I would certainly be interested, but I would like to know more of the proposal. I then wrote to my wife, who was in Cape Town. She replied one line: “Accept. Let’s go to Mauritius”.

Was it a challenge for you ?

A.B. – Sure it was a challenge, become I don’t like to come in half way. Someone else had been the president, and he had left, so I was a bit concerned about that. And I was also concerned because I knew so little about the history of Mauritius, particularly in reference to slavery and indentured labour. So, what I did, before I finally accepted, was to read about Mauritius as much as I possibly could. And I was fascinated by the history and the colonial impact of Holland, and France and Britain, and the all possible consequences of slavery on contemporary Mauritius.

Truth commissions investigate about contemporary violations of human rights. How can we justify the work of a commission which is investigating a remote period of time ?

A.B. – I think that’s the challenge, of course. The thing is, you can’t wash away the past. You have got to come to terms with the past. You can’t just say “well, we must focus on what’s happening now”, because what’s happening now may well have been influenced by what has happened in the past. That is why we have hearings, where people come and tell us their contemporary experience. They are not talking about history. They tell us what it is like for them to live in Mauritius today, which is extremely important.

How do you deal with these two elements, history and memory ?

A.B. – Every commission I have been involved in has always tried to understand memory, tried to understand the history of what brought us to where we are now. Because when you do that, then you begin to realise all the depth of the concerns of people. And I think one of the reasons why it is so important to focus on the past, not to the exclusion of the present or the future, but focus on the past, is that many, many people in this country don’t understand why they are in the situation they’re in.

And it could help sometimes to remind them where they had come from. And it is amazing when one talks to people and begins to tell them, well, you know that this hap-pened then, and then something seems to light up in their eyes, and they begin to realise that there is a connection… A lot of Creole people, for example, feel discriminated against. And many of them are mystified about this. They say, “Why, why are we always the last to be employed, why do we do so badly in the education system ?”

Do they get answers ?

A.B. – Of course! Because then, one relates the history, and understands where the Creole came from, and why people judge people on the colour of their skin rather than on the quality of their life. And one of the challenges to all of us is that we have to prepare a report which outlines this linkage between the past and the present. That is extremely important for us to do. And to do that, you really have to do some very accurate research.

There are different conclusions drawn on history, people rewrite history and rewrite it in their own idioms, and we could do it as well, so we have to be very careful that we are objective. Then, you have to go beyond that. Not only do you have to hold the past and the present in tension, and show the linkage, but you also have to do recommendations as to how the government, the public sector, the private sector can remedy the situation, how can we change where we are to where we want to be.

Truth commissions refer to transitional justice. Is Mauritius still in transition ?

A.B. – I think most countries are in a kind of transition, some quite major, like in 1968 would be major for Mauritius from forming part of the British hierarchy to your own President and Prime minister and so on. But I mean the reason why Parliament itself decided that this commission was necessary suggests that there is a great deal more that has to take place, so the transition is not complete. And, in fact, transitions are dynamic, they are never entirely complete.

They are like a graph, sometimes it’s up here, a major transition takes place, a new Constitution is formed, a new government is elected, these sort of things. If you take South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, etc., you can actually track the changes that take place at that level. And then there is a sort of end down, and suddenly there is a new impetus. I think this commission can give a new impetus as to what needs to happen in Mauritius to complete its commitment to a non-racial democracy. Because for many it still is undemocratic and racist.

Slavery and indentured labour were not the only dynamics creating this non-democratic society. Decolonization also contributed to shape he present day inequalities. Why doesn’t the commission investigate this ?
A.B. – No, no, no. There are further methods proposed to tackle any particular complaint from any person in Mauritius. If you read it, it’s in the Act. So we can take up any issue. And we can’t force ourselves upon people. There are people in Mauritius today who want to talk about what has been happening since 1968.

They are not interested in slavery or in indentured labour, that’s too far for them. What they are interested in is the contemporary situation and, what’s, in the word of some of them, “what it is gone wrong?” “Why are there very few extremely wealthy people, and some extremely poor people? Is it just because they are lazy, is it because they are uneducated?” Many would argue that there is no absolute tie between slavery and indentured labour and the situation today, but other say there is. So what we are doing is researching that.

You mean there is no methodological restriction for the investigation of mechanisms producing inequalities ?
A.B. – Absolutely not. Why do have hearings of the Chagos community people? There is nothing to do with slavery two hundred years ago, it’s a contemporary problem. The whole education system in this country is still badly unbalanced and we have to ask the question, “Why is that ?” What we want to do is to hold a mirror to the Mauritian society and to understand what is there and what is happening there.

Truth commissions usually want to spot the people responsible for human rights violations. But can we do that in Mauritius ?
A.B. – What makes the Mauritian Commission so different from any other commission is that there is this huge distance between slavery and its abolition and all the various activities that took place under different colonial powers. But it’s remote, whereas every other commission I have been involved in, it’s been in the last twenty five-thirty years, so here it’s much more difficult. It could be quite wrong for the commission to blame the descendants of the slave-owners, you can’t blame someone for something they are not responsible for.

But if there are people who come to us and say that in their view, their land was stolen or they have been dispossessed, then there has to be someone who dispossessed. We’ve got to ask for documents, we’ve got to ask for evidence… We have already had a major figure from the sugar industry before the commission. In his own words, “I wasn’t there when that happened”, and indeed his view was that the people being thrown off the land was done by government.

Now do you blame the present government for what happened 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago? Hardly you can’t do that, but you can question policy, that’s the thing. You are going to ask, “Does this policy favour the few at the expense of the many, or is the policy, which is becoming more equitable, more just ?” That’s why it is called Justice Commission. How do we promote social justice? That’s a question we have got to ask.

Propos recueillis par Catherine Boudet dans Impact n°17 du 2 juillet 2010

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