Jean-Maurice Labour: “The AG preferred to hide the truth than face it and take measures to redress the situation”

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Jean-Maurice Labour, vicar general, about the plight of the Creole community in Mauritius.

Jean-Maurice Labour, vicar general, about the plight of the Creole community in Mauritius.

Following the attorney general’s appearance before the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Weekly speaks to Jean-Maurice Labour, vicar general, about the plight of the Creole community in Mauritius. He describes the discrimination in public sector recruitment and explains why he thinks the Creole community is “first in all the ills of society”.

Attorney General Maneesh Gobin stated at the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that there is no particular discrimination against the Creole population. How do you react to that?
I think it would be apt to add that when pressurised by questions from members the committee, Maneesh Gobin declared that he could not give the statistics of the Creoles in prison because he did not want to “endanger the social fabric.” And he added that he was “upset” because he knows the “social fabric”. So, he preferred to hide the truth than face it and take measures to redress the situation. This is what the Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) calls “a discourse of comfort zone and fair discrimination in promoting communalism... under the guise of protecting institutional cohesion.” (TJC volume one Page 288). Through this declaration, Mr. Gobin revealed the mindset behind the management of this social fabric of a pluralistic Mauritius by the different governments.

Wouldn’t looking into such statistics cause more harm than good?
No! Today, people versed in conflict management are prepared to risk conflict to prevent violence. Mr. Gobin and the authorities behind him may obtain the opposite result out of their ferm lizie (looking the other way) management, such as another outburst of violence as the one that took place in 1999. Our gospel says that the truth will make you a free man. A former ambassador to Mauritius once told me that when it comes to inter-community dialogue and peaceful cohabitation, most high dignitaries use political speak. It’s no wonder that Mr Gobin is reading from the same book.

 Tell us about the statistics…
When I deponed in front of the TJC, I gave the statistics about the recruitment in hospitals for two years. The percentage of Creoles, even at the low level is no higher than three per cent while they represent 23 per cent of the population! This is clear discrimination as far as employment in the public sector in Mauritius is concerned!

But recruitment is done by the Public Service Commission (PSC), isn’t it?                                    
Technically, yes but the mechanism often used to promote this organised communalism in recruitment in the public sector is having the PSC delegate its powers to ministers. So ministers and their advisers are thus allowed to bypass the PSC and choose who they recruit. So family members, members of one’s race, political agents etc. walk into nice jobs with no problem while the others are systematically kept out. If Mr. Gobin had read the report of the TCH volume 1, he would have found out that on page 288, the commission clearly says, “There appears to be a social cohesion in Mauritius, but this is at the surface-level only. At a deeper level, Mauritius is an openly racist, bigoted country.” Mr. Gobin should come closer and find out things that could really upset him.

What about his argument is that if you are competent you get the same chance as everyone else as Police Commissioner Mario Nobin did. Isn’t that convincing?
“The tree which hides the forest.” How many Creoles are there in the high level of the police department? I have in my possession an Establishment list of 2013 in the police departments of upper grades (chief commissioners, chief superintendents, chief inspectors, inspectors). There are 70 Creoles out of 568. In a recent recruitment of trainee technicians in the Central Electricity Board, there was only one Creole out of 25. I am told that in the Mauritius Port Authority, qualified creoles living in nearby Roche Bois are bypassed in favour of political agents coming from rural areas. 

When you talk about these statistics, you do not exactly give us the number of Creoles who fulfill the recruitment criteria. Do you have such statistics?
What are the criteria for selecting candidates in the police force? I see small men under 50 kilos and no taller than three feet six inches being recruited. Their best qualification is that their names end with Singh, Raj or Lal!

Since Nobin is the police commissioner, why do you think that’s still the case?
How much room for manoeuvre does Mr. Nobin have? We know who controls politics, the administration of police and other public bodies such as the MBC.

Coming back to the UN committee, does it worry you that apart from the government representative Maneesh Gobin, no representative of civil society or NGOs is involved in drawing up the report?
There is already racial discrimination in the fact that the Mauritian delegation to Geneva was not composed of representatives of the Creole community. The medium is the message! NGOs are not given the opportunity to voice their views on racial discrimination in the UN committee for racial discrimination. It’s amazing how the authorities, while presenting Mauritius in international forums, namely in the tourism sector, do not miss any opportunity to show off the different cultures and religion in colourful presentations of people living together in harmony and understanding. But never have the authorities thought of including different communities, different voices.

Why, according to you, are the Creoles stuck in this vicious circle?
Unfortunately, in spite of opportunities offered to people in our welfare state, the poverty phenomenon is transcultural. I am not sure whether the Creoles rank first in prison cells and in drug and alcohol consumption. But reports say they are first in all the ills of society.

Two main reasons: First, as the TJC puts it, “the impact of emotional and psychological burden of racism cannot, in our view be underestimated. To many people of slave descent and also those of indentured descent, racism imposes continuous experiences of inadequacy, inferiority, and marginality on the least privileged on our society...” Secondly, the Creoles are not given enough opportunities. We should have an adapted positive discrimination for the underprivileged of all communities and especially those of slave descent, taking into account the observations of the TJC. We know that the Creoles often do not seize the opportunities offered to them precisely because of these experiences of inadequacy and inferiority.

But everyone else comes from indentured descent. Why should the Creoles be the only ones stuck in this rut?
The difference is that those of indentured descent get more opportunities than the Creoles to climb the social ladder. And this is because of the preferential treatment they benefit from due to the discrimination I have told you about.

Doesn’t the Catholic Church have something to answer for here?
I must confess that the Catholic Church has to accept that her educational institutions founded for the poor have, over the years, turned out to be for the rich although this is no longer the case today. The church in our colonial days of the white/black power game was paternalistic rather that empowerment minded to gear people to stand on their own two feet. However, in our modern society, it is the responsibility of the state to provide good and sustainable conditions of living for all. All we can do is help. Our organisations which are geared towards helping the poor are today very professional in their approach. We have rehousing programmes, capacity building programmes, centres for drug addicts, night shelters for the homeless, homes for the elderly, homes for orphans, homes for single mothers etc.

However, the scientific communalism, typical of the Mauritian society, dictates that Catholics should work for Catholics, Hindus for Hindus, Muslims for Muslims etc. Are we in a republic where all citizens are equal in rights?

Members of other communities claim that the Creoles have in fact more rights as they get housing and other allowances free. How do you react to that?
That opinion is part of many racist slogans which stigmatise the Creole community and if discrimination against the Creoles is so tenacious, it is because it is being fed by such slogans. It has become a culture deeply anchored in the public sector and in the population of Indian origin. Another slogan is that the Creoles voted against independence. “It is us the Indians who built Mauritius so you have no place here.” Another slogan is that the Creoles are a lazy bunch of alcoholics, drug addicts, pleasure seekers and wasters. These slogans were taken up by the former minister of housing and lands [Showkutally Soodhun – ed] which shows the deeply-rooted racism in the state. Let’s not forget however that the lower castes in the Hindu community are suffering from the same fate as the Creoles.  The Vaish and Baboojee Maraz manage to maintain themselves at the top of the ladder while leaving the others to their karma.

So it’s just racism, is it?
Well, without glossing over the flaws of the Creoles – which by the way they share with other communities – the problem comes primarily from a lack of opportunities. You know, in Mauritius, when church ministers or political ministers protect the Creoles, they are communalists. When Hindu and Muslim ministers protect members of their community, they are promoting Mauritianism.  Our Christian actions towards the poor are based on our faith rooted in Jesus who identifies himself with the poor. The focus of our social work is the poor, not the Creoles. But the majority of the poor are Creoles. Our organisations are open to all because we first see the deprived, the homeless, the hungry person.

But you haven’t been able to make a dent in poverty, have you?
Poverty is a complex issue and nobody can pretend he has in his pocket a magic wand. Poverty must be fought through a long-term plan, putting together various actors in political, civil society, taking into account the psychological, religious and family aspects. We can’t do it alone. First, we need to empower their culture by providing an education adapted to their culture. Creoles are good at sports, at music and arts, they love life; love them for what they are good at.  

Secondly, give them opportunities. Equal opportunities for all, positive discrimination for some. That would be a good start in dealing with poverty.

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