Dear Minister :To Former President, Cassam Uteem

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There’s recently been inspiring talk of republican values, although Admirables seem to find more to celebrate in the country’s independence than in its now being a republic. There are even recalcitrant individuals uncertain of whether either’s done much good – or resulted in more ethical rulers. It doesn’t help that there’s so much rewriting of history, of talk about the struggle for independence, when the only battle was an internal one, or latter-day attempts to link the date chosen to the Mahatma’s salt march. As for the republic, it was primarily the result, not of values, but of the splitting of political spoils – and it might have been rejected had there been a referendum. Still, what’s done cannot be undone and it might be better to forget the past and concentrate on the future. 

The word republic itself is often misunderstood. It goes back to the Greek concept of politeia, used by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle with a variety of meanings from how the state was organised to the rights of citizens. Roman writers translated it as res publica and then those in the Renaissance as republic. In fact, commonwealth is probably a more accurate term. Anyway, it means a form of government in which a country is considered as belonging to its people, not the property of rulers, initially implying a kind of direct democracy, all very well in small city states but a tad difficult to achieve nowadays. 

Currently, while the majority of countries use the word republic in their names, in many of them there is a rather limited concept of what human rights or democracy mean. The only common factor amongst republics is that they’ve got rid of monarchies. The irony is that today’s monarchies are some of the world’s best-functioning democracies, countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark. There are also those like Canada and Australia, where the Head of State remains the former Elizabeth I of Mauritius!

Often the overthrow of a monarchy has soon been followed by dictatorship, as in Russia, Persia and France. Perhaps the republican values that most come to mind are liberté,égalité and fraternité, although hopefully not accompanied by Madame la Guillotine and followed by Napoléon. There are also republics that act similarly to monarchies with absolute power vested in the leader and passed down from father to son, as in North Korea and Syria.

Where are such values as democracy and human rights most decried? Often in theistic republics, dismissing them as Western values. It’s little realised that many values, espoused by the West, also existed in oriental societies like India and China. What does all this tell us? There are no common values in republics so unfortunately the term republican values is a non-sequitor. That leaves to a need to define what is meant by the term. Mount Olympos strongly suspects the reference is to those universal values strongly promoted in Greek philosophy, with a little modification from its slightly male emphasis and attitudes to slaves. 

Might a wee spirit suggest that what is needed is a local definition of the country’s values, although they might end up very similar to the broad ideals of Classical Athens? While it might be devilishly difficult to achieve consensus, a set of Mauritian values, whether or not called republican, could be formulated – and then copyrighted and sold elsewhere to boost the country’s weakening exports. Local artists will undoubtedly concur that intellectual property rights are well-protected here. 

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