After a complex decolonisation process rife with challenges, Mauritius was left to face its own demons. Freed from the shackles of British rule in March 1968, the country sought to transcend decades of servitude to become a role model in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the post-colonial Mauritian success story is built on a flawed premise, fuelled by a school curriculum devoid of history classes.
This problematic understanding of history started in August 1967 in a general election that would serve as an independence referendum. The British agreed to grant Mauritius independence a few months earlier but the population would be given the final say in an ode to the democratic process. “There is a deliberate attempt to twist that part of our history to make us believe that the independence movement faced significant struggle against the British and many still believe it,” said Milan Meetarbhan, former Mauritian ambassador to the United Nations.
The reality is that the challenge came from within the island. The Independence Party had to contend with an alternative proposed by the main opposition party, the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD). The latter, which represented the ethnic minorities in the island, feared that the British would be replaced by overlords from the Hindu-majority. As a result, the PMSD’s platform for the 1967 general election was to advocate for an association with the United Kingdom rather than seeking independence. The country was torn across this ethnic divide.
The Independence Party won by landslide in all the Hindu-dominated rural constituencies, while the PMSD produced a clean sweep in the more diverse urban areas.When the polls closed, almost 44% of the population had voted against independence. The Independence Party’s close victory caused a violent racial struggle in the months following the election. Overwhelmed by the fear of Hindu rule, thousands of people from the ethnic minorities left the country, with Australia as the preferred destination. From the beginning of the 1960s during British rule to the beginning of the 1970s in independent Mauritius, emigration to Australia from the island increased by more than 400%.
The country was shaped by this great divide but this part of the country’s history remains a mystery to the younger generation. “I teach law at university now and I observe that the majority of students is oblivious of our history and they never knew that the opposition to independence was so significant,” said Meetarbhan. Coupled with the failures of the education system, the political considerations are at the core of this anomaly.
The flaws of post-colonial history
With a lack of natural resources to boost its economy after independence, the government focused its efforts on building human capital. The enrolment in secondary education increased from around 32% in 1971 to over 95% in 2018. There was a price to pay for increasing literacy rates in the country and providing a qualified labour force to the newly independent island. The school curriculum focused on a few subjects that would benefit the economy and there have been very few changes in the last five decades.
For the A-level exams, which come at the end of high school in Mauritius, the most popular subject for the 8975 students taking part in 2019 was Mathematics with 5184 entries while only four opted for History. “I’m not even sure what is in the syllabus for history but I know that it has nothing to do with Mauritian history and I know that it is not compulsory,” said Lucien Finette, former director of the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate (MES).
The lack of adequate resources necessary to add history to the curriculum makes change almost impossible for now. “The scanty history of the country we have been taught or recounted is of foreign origin, mostly colonial and therefore written with bias,” said Vijay Makhan, who spent his career as a diplomat with the African Union. However, there is also no independent body capable of providing an impartial textbook of history to be taught in schools. The risk of political interference would be inevitable, in a bid to safeguard the legacies of the few families ruling the country since independence.
There has been a prime minister from the Ramgoolam family or from the Jugnauth family for most of the post-independence history in Mauritius, with a brief exception from 2003 to 2005. “We have the Jugnauth family ruling for now so the history books could end up being biased in their favour and we might end up doing more harm than good to our education system,” said Meetarbhan, who was also briefly a senior policy adviser at the Prime Minister’s Office. More than just deconstructing the flaws of the country’s education system, the lack of political will to have history as a core component of the education system also stems from the weaponisation of ignorance.
The political power of ignorance
The best example of this political tool is the narrative surrounding the Mauritian “economic miracle”. In the early 1970s, the Mauritian government passed the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) Act to pursue export-led economic growth. It led to an increase in exports and employment by more than 30% but the positive impact was short-lived due to higher wages, unfavourable oil prices and stagnant investment towards the end of the decade. However, the economy improved substantially at the beginning of the 1980s. This “economic miracle” is still an important campaign weapon for the political leadership who was in power at the time and who claimed all the glory for this defining part in Mauritian history.
However, this was a lucky break. As a sea-locked country with low connectivity, the island’s success was mainly due to political uncertainty in Hong Kong and the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA), which imposed quotas on the amount of textile products that developing countries could export to developed countries. The cluster of factories focusing on fibres and textiles in Hong Kong was plagued by doubt over sovereignty, which would be transferred from the UK to China over the following decade.
With the quotas of the MFA still in play, the cluster of factories started moving to Mauritius in the early 1980s because the poor state of the local economy meant that the quotas on the island were still unclaimed. It changed the fortunes of Mauritius, which has thrived ever since as an export hub in the Indian Ocean. The Mauritian government played an insignificant role in the “economic miracle” but the political credibility gained from the ignorance of the proletariat has maintained the same politicians in power for years.
For a lot of Mauritians, the country is facing challenges that it never had to deal with in the past. The country is still dogged by its inability to move past sectarian politics. During the country’s last general election in November 2019, Hindu-led coalitions won all the seats in the rural constituencies. Even though the country’s population is wealthier, better educated and more diverse than in the 1960s, the ethnic consideration turns into a primal instinct when it is time to head to the polls. With only minor changes in leadership for the mainstream parties since independence, the much-criticised sectarian politics dividing Mauritius could well turn into the country’s identity.
The lack of understanding of the historical intricacies of the island, built on racial tensions, has allowed a monopoly of power for a small group of politicians. Finding a way to push for an unbiased teaching of Mauritian history in schools would be a decisive step in understanding the harm of the country’s ethnic divide. It might also open the debate on several lingering issues, including the limits of the First Past The Post system and the inadequacies of legislation on the financing of political parties. For Mauritius to lose its history would mean facing its future blind.