The Mauritian identity : the result of a long journey

As part of the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations of Mauritius,  Luxury Mauritius raised the question of the Mauritian identity. To tackle this complex topic, we called upon Malenn Oodiah, sociologist and observer of our society since 1985 as well as communication and sociology advisor for the Beachcomber group.

Malenn Oodiah, you are regarded as one of those who have spent the most time observing Mauritian society. How did you get to this point?

My teenage years in the seventies were marked by the intellectual revolution which emerged with the birth of the ‘Mouvement Militant Mauritian’ and its slogan ‘class struggle should replace race struggle’ and of which, one of the main focuses was the claim of a Mauritian culture geared towards the promotion of Creole language and Sega. I am from the “May-1975 generation”, that is to say, the Mauritian version of the student’s revolt. I opted for sociology for my higher education and later on, history. My two hobbies were and still are developmental sociology and political sociology. Upon my return to the country, I spent one whole year in public records, performing research on the history of Mauritius. Thereafter, I continued this research, analysis and observation work which I have shared for over 30 years with my fellow citizens through the media.

Over the past 50 years, since Mauritius gained independence, how has the Mauritian society evolved? What is the current state of affairs today?

At the time Mauritius attained independence, the country was suffering from underdevelopment, and the society was divided after two decades of political struggle marked by communalism. The Mauritian society has experienced a deep socio-economic and cultural shift over these 50 years. As a whole, we can be proud of what has been accomplished from an economic perspective as well as ‘living and building together’ perspective. However, dangerous and deadly dynamics have spread in our society since the emergence of the ethno-populism in the 1990s. The riots of February 1999 – the uprising of the outcasts – which skidded into communal brawls revealed that in spite of our strength, we are still a fragile society. Unfortunately, we have not learned all that had to be learned from it. Today, the Mauritian society has ventured down a very dangerous road because it suffers from several deficits – of which: the heart, intelligence, reason and common sense. Living and building together is faced with a social blockage. Our society has a great need for a recasting of politics as much as a cultural revolution, we need to make sure that we are sustaining the Mauritian DNA which is the living and building together.

Can we really talk about a Mauritian identity?

Identity is a complex concept. It is diverse, a person has various identities. When we talk about the Mauritian identity, it is to be opposed to ethnic identity. The question would rather be: do we consider ourselves as Mauritians? The answer is ‘Yes’ for a very substantial majority. In 1998, a survey revealed that 93% of our fellow-citizens felt initially Mauritian; ten years afterwards, the result is not as flattering. The Mauritian identity is the result of a long journey that started a long time ago; it nourishes itself from our diversity, which is an advantage. A Mauritian immersed into diversity since childhood is tolerant and respects others. He is infatuated with justice and is supportive.

What brings Mauritians together? What topics create division?

Nation-building moments are rare. However, our recent history shows strong moments of national pride: The Indian Ocean Games and prowess of our sportsmen on an international level, or music with the example of Jane Constance, peace ambassadress for UNESCO. In difficult moments such as the floods, Mauritians showed great solidarity and national unity. Politics is a divisive factor: promoting ethno-populism while practicing ethnic clientelism. A model of development which generates increasing inequalities and which does not manage to fight against violation of human dignity, for instance poverty, is also a divisive factor.

Can we say that there is a strong sense of citizenship in the development of the country?

The socio-economic development cannot be done without the citizens, and there is definitely a citizenship in many fields such as the fight against poverty, environment or even the promotion of art. In Mauritius we tend to focus on our failures and to ignore the initiatives and positive (concrete) steps of many citizens. One of the challenges of Mauritius consists of creating an environment in which a participative democratic citizenship could evolve.

When observing other countries, one can note that people from different origins, cultures, or religions often have trouble understanding and respecting each other and coexisting in peace. Many people see Mauritius as a successful example for the whole world. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, Mauritius is definitely an example. Better, it can become a model for success. For that, we need more than just tolerance; we need to open up to others to get a chance to learn more about their culture. To free ourselves from the stereotypes and the prejudice related to our history marked by cultural domination, and which are passed down from one generation to another, this is the work to be undertaken. Our multiculturalism has the potential of evolving to cosmopolitanism.

Finally, instead of being stubborn and seeking for a single identity, wouldn’t we benefit from betting on our diversity, the respect and the tolerance towards the unique yet different individual? Isn’t this what best defines us as the ‘rainbow nation’?

Our cultural and religious differences constitute our wealth. Looking for a single identity is impoverishing. Our history testifies our fight to preserve all differences while working along with them to build a national project. The reflection on the national identity must also take into account the impact of the cultural dimension of globalisation. With a historical background extending over three centuries, the Mauritian society has many strong points to find its place and even better, to be a model; preceding a cosmopolitan future.

As a sociologist, what projects are you working on these days?

I am currently focusing on a reflective and analytical process which should lead to a social project. Launched on the 1st of May for the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations (on the 12th of March 2018), it is presented as a series of articles on the 25 challenges of Mauritius for today and tomorrow, with an emphasis on perspective and foresight. These challenges range from ‘living and building together’ to digital as well as eco-development and advocacy to rethink politics. The blog ‘Projet de société’ and its millennial version ‘Looking for tomorrow’ are addressed in these articles. It is an enthralling project.