Republic of Mauritius:The Experience of Resistance to Neo-Liberalism

By Rajni Lallah, President of Muvman Liberasyon Fam

Original draft of " Ile Maurice: Les femmes à la pointe du combat " published in FMI, les peuples entrent en résistance, CETIM, Geneva, 2000.

The Republic of Mauritius is being paraded as one of the biggest IMF-WB "success stories" of structural adjustment programmes in Africa. The truth is that this relative economic prosperity is partly due to the quota and guaranteed price for Mauritian sugar (obtained under the Lomé Protocol attached to the Lomé Convention (now threatened with disappearance into thin air) and largely due to working peoples' resistance against IMF-WB-WTO policies and against Mauritian capitalists. Even though Mauritius was one of the first African countries where the IMF/WB have tried to impose Structural Adjustment Programmes, in fact, until today, healthcare (from local community health care centres to high-tech healthcare in State hospitals), and primary as well as secondary education are free of charge, universal in that they are a right for every citizen, and public-owned. Postal services, water, electricity, are all public-owned, subsidised and relatively cheap.

There have been three main phases in working peoples' struggle against IMF/WB conditionalities.

1) Political and working peoples' resistance in the 70's and early 80's

The post-colonial Labour Party government tried to impose IMF-WB Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1970's. Working people in the trade union movement, women in the women's movement, students and the unemployed all rose up against these policies. Even before the imposition of SAP's, working people had already started organising for nationalisation of key economic sectors as part of the struggle for more democratic ownership and control over society. What began as mere resistance gave birth to a counter-attack by working people: there was a wave of strikes in different sectors, the women's movement, student's movement, anti-imperialist movement were in full-swing and developed links with the labour movement.

The biggest event was a mass strike in 1979, spearheaded by sugar industry workers (the sugar industry was the backbone of the Mauritian economy). During this mass strike, strike committees grew up all over the country. Ownership and control of the economy was thrust on the agenda. This offensive took a political form: working people and oppressed sections of society were organised in the political movement lead by the Lalit de Klas (Class Struggle) tendency of the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien), an anti-capitalist party at the time.

The Mauritian government, faced with this strong and popular political movement, was not able to impose its programme of Structural Adjustment outright. Working people were able to stop sugar factory closures, to keep education and health services public, universal and free of charge, to keep electricity, water, basic food subsidised thus cheap, and to maintain direct taxation on companies, and on the rich and wealthy. However, the government imposed two devaluations of the Mauritian rupee.

In the general elections of 1982, the Labour Party government was swept out of office completely and the MMM won all of the seats in Parliament. However, by 1981, the MMM announced that it was embarking on a policy of "New Social Consensus" - a policy of collaboration with capital. The Lalit de Klas tendency who opposed this betrayal, left the MMM and formed a new political organisation, Lalit (Struggle).

2) Electoral resistance

Working people were to learn in the 1980's what exactly the MMM's "New Social Consensus" was all about. The MMM came up with the same neo-liberal policies as the last government, and declared that there was no other economic option other than that of the IMF-WB. Faced with growing resistance in the trade union movement that had constituted one of the MMM's strongest bases, with growing political opposition from Lalit, and faced with growing conflict over economic policies within the MMM itself, the MMM split after 9 months.

During the next ten years, the MMM's betrayal considerably weakened the labour movement. Working peoples' resistance expressed itself in a more passive form: through votes in elections. Working people rejected all governments that tried to impose IMF-WB and pro-capitalist policies. There were elections almost every year as from 1982: general elections, by-elections, or local elections. The MMM split, re-formed alliances with the Labour Party, came into office, tried imposing neo-liberal politics, and split again when faced with resistance. In this way, subsidies on rice and flour were abolished in 1992, then re-introduced after it became a major issue in a local by-election.

Whilst a government could be ousted out of office through elections, working people were unable to change the political programmes of the ever-changing alliances built around fragments of the MMM and Labour Party, let alone build a political alternative to the MMM. All that working people could do, was to defend some of the gains that had been made in the 1970's.

The international context was changing in the late 1980's: capitalism on a world-scale was in euphoria as it clambered over the Berlin wall into previously barred areas. In Mauritius, as the world over, working people were on the defensive. The government and liberalist ideologues were busy propagating the illusion that there was a supposed "Mauritian economic miracle" that had eradicated poverty and had instituted full employment. In the real world, job security was fast disappearing to be replaced by seasonal, casual, contract, temporary work. A 55 hour working week and under-poverty-line basic wages prevailed in a fast-expanding Free Zone sector. Working peoples' incomes were constantly undermined by rising prices through constant national currency devaluation and price liberalisation.

3) All Workers resistance

As from 1992-93, the myth of the so-called "economic miracle" started exploding. Social housing was being eroded causing an acute housing crisis. Land speculation had made land prices soar out of reach of working people, and private housing was so expensive that poor people had no other option but to start living on State Land (public land). The government reacted by using repression - passing a law to make squatting of state land an offence with a prison sentence of up to 5 years, and sending police to hound out squatters and demolish their houses. The homeless, particularly women, and Lalit militants created a housing movement calling demonstrations, using direct action methods to fight to restore social housing. At the same time, workers who had been employed in the public social housing department (the Central Housing Authority was closed down altogether and some one thousand workers sacked in the process, as had some 800 construction workers of the Development Works Corporation, a public corporation. A new alliance was formed between sacked workers, their unions, and the housing movement. The totality of trade union federations supported demonstrations called by the two unions and the housing movement. This was a first key event.

The second key event was an Open Conference for Labour Day in 1995 called by militants of Lalit and by progressive and influential leaders in the labour movement where a platform against capitalist liberalism was first outlined.

These two events were central towards the founding of the All Workers Conference in 1996 uniting the quasi totality of trade union federations, the women's movement, the student's movement, consumer rights organisations and environment protection organisations against neo-liberalism. The All Workers Conference has worked through conferences where 1,000-1,500 union and association delegates meet together to discuss issues of national importance: globalisation, privatisation, public transport, defence of social services within the Welfare State, government budgets. All these conferences were held to find a common understanding of how economic change will impact on the masses, to work towards alternative policies, to build alliances between workers, the unemployed, the homeless, women, students and to organise unitary action based on common demands.

There have been big demonstrations called by the All Workers Conference against government budgets, and against privatisation. The All Workers Conference has also actively initiated unitary action between unions in the Telecom sector, and public transport.

Several All Workers Conference Commissions on specific issues have been set up from time to time: on privatisation, pension rights, taxation and fiscal policy, public transport, and on the sugar industry. These commissions formed by union federation and association delegates have prepared alternative "White papers" on privatisation, taxation, public transport, fiscal policy and pensions. The White Papers are democratically debated, amended and adopted by trade union and association delegates in the All Workers conferences.

Women's organisations such as the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (Women's Liberation Movement) started mobilising women and started working towards a strategic link between working women active in the labour movement, girl students and the women's movement. At the same time, the MLF, being part of a pan-African women's network called Women in Law and Development in Africa that has consultative status in the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Rights framework and the OAU, initiated within it a campaign for Economic and Social Rights .

The actions of the All Workers Conference curbed the Government's plans to liberalise the economy and transform it into a Mauritius Incorporated . This concept, invented by a government Finance Minister, includes widespread privatisation, introducing "means testing" so that only the very poor can qualify for free health, education and pension services, eradicating wage compensation and linking wage increase with "productivity" increase, and introducing even more repressive industrial relations laws making practically all strike action illegal and further bureaucratising unions.

Government attempts to break the All Workers Movement

The government's method of breaking up the All Workers Conference movement was to try and tame union federation leadership by creating a Trade Union Trust Fund, and nominating union federations on its Board without giving them enough representation to control the fund. When this did not work, the government used repressive methods such as sacking all executive members of the Nursing union when they started debating industrial action against health privatisation in their general assembly. All Workers Conference leaders were threatened with prosecution for supposed "illegal" demonstrations. In the private sector too, there were reprisals against union delegates, workers were sacked after demonstrations outside their work hours against their employer in the hotel sector, and more and more union delegates were being threatened with sacking or sacked outright.

The government told union representatives clearly that government policy is not the affair of unions: unions must restrict themselves with the protection of work conditions of their own members. In the labour movement, an important question was being posed: what exactly is a union or association? Is it simply for the defence of its members only just as the State through its maze of industrial relation laws and association regulations reduce unions and associations into being? Or are unions and associations tools for the defence of working people as a whole? Can union members interests be really defended without taking on national policies that impact on the lives of these very members?

What had started happening with the All Workers Conference movement, was that the trade union movement was beginning to debate national government policy, and were proposing alternatives to government policy. This, the government and private sector could not accept.

One or two union bureaucrats started selling-out. A pro-regime confederation was set up and started wooing union federations that were in the All Workers camp. Faced with State repression, challenges within unions from pro-regime members backed by the State and the offer of more token privileges from the State, a few union-federation leaders started shifting out of the All Workers movement. The All Workers Conference, even though it was powerful at middle-level layer of union delegates, had not developed enough clout at workers' site level to be able to stand up to this counter-attack from the State.

The main problem was that the gains made by the All Workers movement were invisible: privatisation plans were sometimes halted, sometimes braked; wage compensation was not dismantled, more repressive industrial relation laws destroying the right to strike and to unionise were introduced, but not voted. All these were gains that came out of a defensive struggle. For the mass of workers, youth, women - there were no real progressive changes, no visible victories. The All Workers movement had not had the time and space to move from the defensive to the offensive.

A New Period is starting to unfold

In February this year, in all the urban areas, youth took over the streets. The mass riot was triggered by the death in police custody of a famous Mauritian singer, Kaya. He had sang in a concert for the decriminalisation of ganja and had been charged with smoking ganja in the concert. In the last ten years, there has been considerable hysteria about drugs in Mauritius. All traditional parties, except for Lalit and lately, a populist party, have clamoured for more repressive laws. As a result, police had been given more powers of arrest and detainment, which they brutally abuse. The demand for the decriminalisation of ganja is a popular demand, especially amongst youth, because ganja is used as a pretext by police for violent arrests and detainment. Police cells and prisons are filled with youth arrested and detained for ganja consumption.

As the riots transformed into a mass riot, youths started erecting barricades every 30 metres or so, to stop cars and lorries, especially the abhorred high-speed luxury symbol cars that are such a danger for people in working class neighbourhoods from passing through. 13 police stations, the local symbols of the State repression, were broken up. youth opened up a prison full of people on remand: mostly people who cannot afford a lawyer and are inside for taking drugs, mostly ganja. Youths stoned banks, and all other symbols of opulent luxury. They broke into warehouses and shops. Goods that are too expensive for the poor to buy were taken away for free. This was a revolt against class inequality as well as against State repression.

The police, hurled tear gas into neighbourhoods turning women, men, children and the elderly of the area against them. Whole neighbourhoods joined the youth revolt, and police had to concede defeat, and retreated out of urban and rural areas where the revolt had evolved into mass rioting.

In the absence of clear and accepted political leadership, leaders of communalist organisations (communalism being a form of racism/fundamentalism) began to give a communalist interpretation to the riot. Shop owners fearing that their shops would be destroyed in the riot, a section of the police force and the State, and communalist organisations used this opening to organise people in two or three rural areas, and in localised urban areas to defend shop-owners and police and help police regain control.

An engineered attempt was made to convert the mass riots into communal dissension. In two areas, two housing estates were ravaged. The ugly threat of communal warfare loomed nearer. As people started recognising this as a mortal threat for all people, the crowds retreated. Police now had space enough to regain control over urban areas. This turn of events has unfortunately tainted the meaning of the mass riots.

In April this year, there was rioting on the island of Rodrigues which forms part of the Republic of Mauritius. The riots were triggered off by the death of a woman by a military police van that hurtled into her yard. This coincided with demonstrations of the unemployed and the unions in Rodrigues demanding that employment be created for youth by the State (something contrary to government liberalist policy). So in Rodrigues too, the rioting became two-pronged challenging class inequality and the State.

A new period is unfolding. The challenge for all progressive militants, for those struggling against capitalist liberalism is to how to build a movement that corresponds to the aspirations of youth, of workers without jobs, or with insecure jobs, of working people, of women. We have learnt that resistance, defensive struggle is not enough. We need to move on to the offensive.

Rajni Lallah, For Lalit,

Mauritius, 2nd of September, 1999.

Rajni Lallah is the president of Muvman Liberasyon Fam and a member of the All Workers Conference.

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