Interview with Tijo Salverda

By Madhukar Ramlallah, editor of the Mauritius Times [with permission from the Mauritius Times]

‘Franco-Mauritians have realised that their economic power is best served by staying away from politics’

 

* ‘I think that there is a certain awareness among Franco-Mauritians that their position can only flourish when other Mauritians also benefit economically’

Mauritius will make progress only if it asks free and frank questions about how well the different components which make society accommodate each other for sustained development and harmonious participation in national affairs. We asked Dr T Salverda, a Dutch anthropologist who has been researching Mauritian society for more than a decade, resulting in, among others, the recently published book ‘The Franco-Mauritian Elite: Power and Anxiety in the Face of Change’, how well has the Franco-Mauritian community kept adapting to the changing social, economic and political climate of Mauritius and how it will likely respond to events in the future. Dr Salverda works as research fellow at the University of Cologne’s Global South Studies Centre and was in Mauritius recently for the international conference held at the MGI to discuss about the Mauritian diaspora. Read on:

* ‘Home is where our Beach is’ – that’s the title of your talk at the Mauritian Diaspora international conference at the MGI, two weeks ago, that sought to look into the reasons for, to use your own words, “the Franco-Mauritians’ limited interest to emigrate”. There must however be more than the beach that have gone into their decision to stay back, isn’t it?

My intervention at the conference results from research on the Franco-Mauritians more generally, and I didn’t analyse the Franco-Mauritian Diaspora, or lack thereof, in all its details. At the same time as many wish to stay on the island, there are most certainly also Franco-Mauritians who migrate or stay abroad after their studies. But what I noticed was that many Franco-Mauritians I met expressed little desire to leave the island. Most of the students I interviewed in France and South Africa also expressed the wish to return – and from what I know, many have returned, indeed. This is in contrast to the argument that many Mauritians studying overseas don’t return after their studies because they would see more opportunities elsewhere – I don’t have the figures if this is the case, but I frequently heard this argument.

In the case of the Franco-Mauritians, it is certainly not only about the beach. Access to the island’s most powerful economic networks is central to their position. Most of the students seemed to worry little about finding employment once they would return. Why I referred to the beach, though, is that the attachment to the island is more than just economic privileges. Many of the students had fond memories of a relatively carefree upbringing and a youth often spent with their family and friends at the seaside. The alternative of a life elsewhere, without the Indian Ocean and the pampering of domestic service, is less appealing.

* Would there be some other “comparative advantage/s” for them to live more permanently in a place such as Mauritius? Their high social and economic positions in a small place like Mauritius? Mauritius has more to offer them and more readily so, than competitive places like France or South Africa, for example?

Yes, most certainly. An important aspect is that, for much of the island’s history, their high social status was symbolised by their white skin-colour. This legacy still lingers on and my feeling is that notwithstanding the criticism their skin-colour also attracts, it still gives them status. “More than” would probably be the case in South Africa and France. There, they would be one of the many whites. In these cases, most would not be part of the wealthiest section or enjoy the same privileges and pleasant lifestyle as in Mauritius. When you combine this with a life on a tropical and relatively well-organised island, it is understandable that they like to remain in Mauritius.

I think, however, that this would go for many Mauritians, as many stay on the island after all – and not against their will necessarily. The closest comparison would, of course, be other Mauritian elites, of which you have a number. Unfortunately I don’t have comparative data, but it would be interesting to find out whether they express the same wish to stay on the island or are more eager to leave.

* It could also be a case of independent Mauritius having made itself attractive enough for the Franco-Mauritians to stay back and for the diaspora who have left the country in the past to want to come back over here?

Yes, after the initial fears around independence, Franco-Mauritians have come to realise that independent Mauritius is rather attractive – and so have probably many other Mauritians, because not many envisioned the island’s success story at the time of independence in 1968.

In the case of South Africa, I did encounter Franco-Mauritians living there who expressed regret that they had left the island now that they realised that the Franco-Mauritians who had remained on the island were doing quite well. Some of them have even returned. Yet, there are also plenty who remain in South Africa. Either they were born and bred there or their children and grandchildren have become much more South African than Mauritian and feel little desire to move to Mauritius permanently.

* The settlers of European ethnicity who first went to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the late nineteenth century could well have said: ‘Home is where our Farm is’. But theirs is a different trajectory, which nevertheless provides substance for an interesting comparative study. Have you looked into that as well in your analyses of elites? Why did the Franco-Mauritians succeed in Mauritius what the white settlers in Zimbabwe could not achieve?

I have looked at some similarities and differences with white groups in Southern Africa, indeed – and the Caribbean, for that matter. One important difference is that in Mauritius white settlers did not appropriate land the way it happened in Rhodesia. Much can be said about the unequal advantage of a colonial period favouring whites and their access to land, but it would be more difficult to mobilise support to expropriate the land as has happened in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean case actually shows that a small white minority can do relatively little once the state uses violence. But it also seems a reminder to many in Southern Africa that violence can be rather detrimental to the national economy. If at all there would be a wish to take this route among Mauritian politicians, which I doubt there actually is, it would most likely severely harm the fabric and (economic) future of the island. Instead, I think that the relationships in Mauritius are more cordial. I often perceived it as a balancing act between the postcolonial governments and Franco-Mauritian economic power. Both sides disagree from time to time. But they are also drawn to each other. This collaboration has contributed substantially to the island’s economic development.

The Franco-Mauritians have certainly benefited from realising that they better collaborate, but so have many other Mauritians. I think credit is also due to the successive governments. Had they not worked towards distributing the benefits of the island’s economic development relatively widely, such as they have failed to do in post-Apartheid South Africa, the position of the Franco-Mauritians would probably have been much more precarious.

* Fairer sharing of economic gains and the practical stance not to impose anybody’s views of social well-being on anyone else has helped Mauritius strike the balance. There may be lessons for others in this model of development?

To a certain extent, yes. The relatively good working relations between the private sector and the government has not only led to economic development but also to some form of redistribution. It shows that working together and sharing ideas about the prosperity of society at large instead of only lining one’s own pockets may result in long-term and stable development, from which elites and others alike benefit. But it should also be noted that some of the inequalities are not addressed because of dominant beliefs about ethnicity in Mauritian society.

As a result there rests a taboo on addressing the complex interaction between inequalities and ethnicity. On the one end of the spectrum politicians and Franco-Mauritians benefit from this politically and economically, while on the other end parts of the Creole population face the downside. Moving away from the strong focus on ethnicity would not necessarily solve some of the existing inequalities, since in a small society like Mauritius you are probably bound to have certain large family businesses and political dynasties. But when we want to understand some of the perpetuations of inequalities in Mauritian society it should be realised that common ideas about ethnicity shape these disparities.

* To come back to the issue of elites, what does the anthropology of elites teach us about why some of these fail or flounder?

I argue that to understand the position of a specific elite we have to look at the interaction between various aspects. Why one fails and another succeeds depends probably on the elites’ reaction to change and whether the combination of aspects works in their favour or to their disadvantage. But there is no manual that explains why one fails and another succeeds. There are certainly similarities between elites, yet at the same time the position of an elite – and whether they flounder or remain – is often very contextually specific.

In case elites do not apply force to suppress the majority, however, their small size leaves them often with few other options than to give in to some of the demands of the majority. In other words, some distribution of power and/or wealth seems to provide elites with a relatively good chance to maintain their position. That said, the South African case illustrates that ramping inequality may be perpetuated much longer than can be deemed sustainable. It may become rather ugly, however, once the majority no longer accepts it.

* The trajectory of the Franco-Mauritian elite tells a different story: it has managed rather skilfully the transition from colonial to independent Mauritius and succeeded to maintain its high social and economic positions in Mauritian society. To which factors would you attribute its success?

In my recently published book The Franco-Mauritian Elite: Power and Anxiety in the Face of Change, I argue that to understand the Franco-Mauritian position we have to take into consideration numerous aspects, such as the colonial legacy, common beliefs about ethnicity in postcolonial Mauritius, their kinship networks and sense of belonging, and a gradual adaptation to the new reality.

By redistributing some of their power, in particular their political power, they have been able to maintain their economic power. This has certainly been a gradual learning process, with opposing change and giving in to some of the demands from other Mauritians. This has resulted in a relative decline of the Franco-Mauritian elite position though not necessarily an absolute decline of their wealth.

Of course, they were not the only player in this process. Successive governments have equally realised that, for the economic development of the island, a certain form of collaboration was needed. At the same time as this has done no harm to the Franco-Mauritian position, many Mauritians and the island’s economy have benefited from this collaboration. Though, as I have argued earlier, there is also a group that benefits little from that the power balance that has taken form in postcolonial society.

* There must have been some form of “strategic alliance” or “social contract” negotiated with the different political establishments down the years that have provided them with the space and freedom to stay back and prosper. What does your analysis inform you about the thinking that went into the new alliances they forged and the earlier allies (the erstwhile ‘King Creole’ Gaetan Duval, for example) – and symbols – they ditched or gave up to strengthen their PR, post Independence?

I am not sure if a ‘social contract’ has been negotiated. It has often been argued that a deal was struck at the time of independence between, on the one hand, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his Labour Party, and, on the other hand, Franco-Mauritian business. Political and economic power was divided, so to say.

My reading is a bit different and I argue that the Franco-Mauritian position has been one of gradual adaptation. Prior to 1968, Franco-Mauritians were politically active and opposed independence with all their means. After independence still a number of them remained politically active – I am talking about the ones who defended the interest of the community, not a politician like Bérenger – but it gradually became evident that they would obtain little support. Eventually they withdrew from the public debate altogether, in the sense that they refrained from defending their ethnic interest publically. This being symbolised by the fact that, after political pressure, Franco-Mauritian businesses ended their financial support to Le Cernéen, this leading to the newspaper’s closure in 1982.

Instead Franco-Mauritians have adapted to keeping a low-profile in the public sphere. Notwithstanding that there are most certainly discussions between the island’s powers – and potentially also the illegal exchange of money, though this has proven to be difficult to research for me – it seems that the most powerful Franco-Mauritian businessmen take a neutral stance towards the different political parties. They have come to realise that it is best to support the actual government and avoid unnecessary tensions resulting from favouring one party over the other.

After all, one never knows who will form the new government or what new political alliances will be formed.

* As regards the “illegal exchange of money” it could indeed be that “money talks” and can prove more convincing in most countries to help get things done or get one’s own way insofar public policy decisions are concerned. What do your studies of the power equations here tell you?

Following up on my previous answer, my analysis is that there is too much risk involved in publicly interfering in politics. Franco-Mauritians have realised that their economic power is best served by staying away from politics.

There is most certainly a truth to ‘money talks’, yet I am not too sure if the moneyed men always get their way. The fact that they shy away from the political limelight actually shows that elites, or money for that matter, are more vulnerable to political challenges than is often acknowledged (in the study of elites and power).

Most Franco-Mauritians probably have a political opinion, but they are of the opinion that expressing this publicly may not be beneficial to maintaining their privileges. Working behind the scenes is the best option they have, yet not one with unlimited guarantees.

* But do they nevertheless influence the decisions which matter and keep out potential competitors from the international private sector which could put them at competitive risk?

They certainly influence decisions that matter to them, like the private sector more generally. This is part of the game. In defence of their interests, there are examples of the large conglomerates keeping out potential competitors. Also in an indirect way, because I remember encountering a Franco-Mauritian businessman who had refrained from teaming up with a foreign partner because he didn’t want to jeopardise his relationship with the family group having a monopoly in that particular field.

There might also be other examples in which they succeeded in keeping out competitors and which I am not aware of. There is however the example of the Indian Universal Breweries who managed to enter the local market but who have closed shop since. This last example shows that next to working actively against competitors, the Mauritian economy is also very small for large foreign companies. The latter companies are not necessarily interested in entering the Mauritian economy, which is to the benefit of local businesses of Franco-Mauritians and other Mauritians alike. And maybe also to other Mauritians, because local businesses are probably more likely to reinvest in the economy than foreign companies that have their main interests overseas.

* There is also many Franco-Mauritians who are deeply committed to the economic advancement of Mauritius and, in fact, are some sort of a nucleus around which the Mauritian economy evolves. Would this kind of commitment continue even if others – non-Franco-Mauritians – gradually deprived them of their “commanding heights” in many spheres of our social and economic life?

This is a difficult question to answer. I think I have convincingly illustrated in my book how they have remained the most dominant factor up till today. Some of the Franco-Mauritian conglomerates will probably remain very important in the foreseeable future.

Yet, many of these conglomerates as well as other companies have also come to realise that they better employ the best and the brightest instead of the historical pattern of only appointing Franco-Mauritians at the management level. At least to a certain extent, because trust facilitated by a shared background and upbringing continues to play a role.

The answer to your question depends, I would assume, on whether Franco-Mauritians at one point really start to believe that they are losing out and that their future on the island is in jeopardy. I am not too sure if they really have a long-term strategy to the possibility that this might happen. Apart from individual thoughts, I doubt whether there is any thinking about where they could replicate the life they have in Mauritius.

* Did you gather from your interactions with members of the Franco-Mauritian community a feeling of discomfort with or threat from the ‘democratisation of the economy’ agenda canvassed by the previous Labour Party government?

Yes, there was certainly a sense of anxiety around that time. Which also related to the 2005 electoral campaign, in which Bérenger was frequently attacked for his white skin-colour, and the increase of the campement leasehold.

Many Franco-Mauritians felt it was targeted at them. It may have been to a certain extent, yet with Franco-Mauritians still being the most powerful economic force, it is sometimes hard to avoid associating certain privileges with ethnic background. But somehow the whole ‘democratisation of the economy’ campaign died down after a while. And once these challenges disappear, most Franco-Mauritians have a quite comfortable life on the island – and feel little need to migrate.

* There may also be a case here for a renewal of some form of “social contract” which ensured sharing, harmony – and prosperity in the early post-Independence days. What do you think?

I think that there is a certain awareness among Franco-Mauritians that their position can only flourish when other Mauritians also benefit economically. Maybe not all Mauritians will benefit and neither will they benefit equally compared to the elites (Franco-Mauritians and other elites alike), but most Mauritians should at least have the feeling that they are not left behind.

Once this spirit of co-participation in the gains starts to decline, and there seems to be a gradual increase in inequality at the moment, it may be worthwhile for the whole private sector, including the Franco-Mauritian companies, to rethink how the gains can be more fairly distributed. I would think that you want to avoid at all costs a highly unequal society like the South African one.

* Do you also have a sentiment that those among the Franco-Mauritian community who have singled themselves out in terms of wealth and social attainments would finally integrate fully the “melting pot” that Mauritius might become eventually?

This is very much an open question. At the same time as there seems to be an increasing sense of Mauritianness, Mauritius is a far cry from a melting pot.

It would be interesting to see whether Franco-Mauritians would be open to depart from their focus on skin-colour. Mixed marriages are certainly more accepted in the community compared to the past, though the fact that Franco-Mauritians remain defined, both by themselves and by others, as blancs, will probably hamper a full embracing of the melting pot idea for the foreseeable future.

 

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