From a Whisper to a Roar: When Citizens’ Voice Matter

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One cannot dispute the fact that the world is going through unprecedented change. Anger, despair, protest are regular features across numerous societies. From Hong Kong to Algeria to Lebanon to Belarus - the images are the same - people on the streets. In fact, this phenomenon is far from being novel as it has its origin in the Arab Spring of 2011. However, what is new is that the anger, protest and disgust is louder, persistent and spreading across more countries. No doubt accentuated by the presence of Covid 19 which in a number of countries has highlighted ineffectual leadership and poor governance systems. What about Mauritius? What are we to make of the 29 August protest march? Is it a beginning of a new dawn? 

Many of us who attended the protest march were surprised but more importantly heartened to see the sheer number of citizens who attended. A number of observers have reflected on the fact that the crowd had not been prompted by the usual incentives popularised by mainstream political parties - free transport, food or even money. They came by their own means fueled by the idea of being part of something bigger - something that might start to change how things are done in our small island nation. Often referred to as ‘lepep admirab’ because we essentially remained non confrontational and only believe that elections are the time to sanction or endorse those who represent us. Street protest is not really part of the Mauritian DNA. In fact, one has to go back to the Student March of May 1975 to witness the occupation of the street by Mauritians. This was preceded by strong tensions which saw a state of emergency declared in December 1971 and the censorship of the written media. It was during that time that the MMM cut its teeth as a challenger to those in power. 

People driven politics 

One of the most salient features of a working democracy is its citizens. In the case of Mauritius, we have often been celebrated as a model to be emulated across the African continent. However, when paying closer attention to the functioning of our democracy, we note that we essentially promote what is referred to as a supply side democracy. Supply side democracy privileges the setting up of institutions, the holding of elections, a functioning parliament and the presence of an Opposition in parliament amongst other things. All these features are present - albeit many of them are entering into the danger zone. What is to a large extent absent is the demand side aspect of democracy. As mentioned above, Mauritians go to the poll and for that matter in relatively high numbers as the average voter turnout for the past 11 post independent elections oscillates around 75 per cent. This is high when compared with a number of established democracies that rarely go above 50 percent. However, where matters stagnate is the citizen’s involvement between elections and this is the very essence behind demand side democracy. Once elections are over, it is essentially those who benefit from patronage politics who are rewarded whilst the rest of us go back to the humdrum of our daily life. In order, to break this cycle it is imperative that as citizens we are organised and structured in our demands and expectations. In the recent past, there have been a number of issue based causes that have mobilised a segment of the population - ‘Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz’, ‘No to CT Power’ or ‘Sauver Promenade Roland Armand’ just to name a few. Are we at a turning point following the 29 August protest march? Did those who attended and perhaps more importantly those who did not attend realise the impact of numbers and the capacity of coming together ‘as one people as one nation’? 

The social media battalion 

It is a well known fact that social media platforms act as an amplifier. However, its impact can cut both ways - for the better good or as a tool of harm and hatred. In a number of countries, social media has acted as the battlefield against oppression by allowing users to organise and structure their methods of riposte. These methods can range from online petitions, promoting theme based hashtags, call for action based interventions, etc. Today the ‘arsenal’ of social media tools is quite extensive - Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram or Telegram. In the case of Mauritius, Facebook is by far the most popular platform with above 700,000 users - representing around 55 percent of the population connected through the platform. Therefore, it is not surprising that Facebook is used as tool for awareness building and mobilisation. Post 29 August, one can note a real effervescence, be it ordinary citizens expressing their opinion through testimony videos, hashtags or public groups created such as ‘Sel Solution Revolution’. Traditional media such as radio and newspapers have echoed a fair amount of the content generated from social media. Even, the biased and propagandist MBC had to backpedal on its initial coverage of the 11th July protest march and provide a fair coverage of the crowd of the 29 August. 

One important outcome of social media content especially following the MVWakashio oil spill was the international media interest to cover the following: the oil spill, the efforts of the citizens to deal with the oil spill, the inaction of the government and the 29 August protest march. In fact, at the peak of the oil crisis most of the key international media outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, Deutsche Welle, The New York Times, Le Monde and even the FinancialTimes had run several stories, some of them even featured in their front pages. This international visibility no doubt gave buoyancy to the local movement that quickly roped members of the Mauritian diaspora.

The advent of a new political behaviour 

We are all conscious and the last general elections demonstrated this amply as to the role of money politics. This to a large extent has created an extremely transactional exchange between candidates and voters with the attitude - ‘what is in for me’. What is worth noting about the composition of the 29 August crowd is that it had a lot of young people in its midst. Often, when questioned about politics, many young people mention either their disinterest or disgust as they believe it is either a dirty game or solely about patronage. The crowd in addition to having a strong youth component was imbued with a unique sense of patriotism. What floated high and proudly was the Mauritian flag and what acted as cri de guerre was the national anthem. So, are we at the cusp of something new? Will citizens themselves bring about a change in the manner in which politics is conducted instead of waiting for politicians to do ‘politics differently’? 

As we stand on the eve of another protest march, there are a number of questions that are racing through our heads as citizens. Many of us want to stand up and be counted. Many of us are fed up of being taken for granted. Many of us are anxious about the future of our country. A few of us might be contended of the status quo as it allows to benefit from a system built on patronage and money politics. What is important is at this point in time not to allow what we started collectively to just fritter away. For that to happen we will need to further invest ourselves and ensure that the roar gets louder and louder.

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