«Trumping the Ethnic Card: How Tourism Entrepreneurs on Rodrigues tackled the 2008 Financial Crisis Carsten Wergin Social Policy Research Centre The ...»
After the negotiations, André gave the following account of what had happened. When asked about his opinion towards subsidized tickets not only to but also from Rodrigues to the ‘mother(is)land’, Mansoor was to have said “Rodriguans? What do we want those on Mauritius for?” and furthermore that one had “dropped some bread” for the Rodriguans and it should be picked up. Based on these statements ATR reinvoked the sentiment of a neglected CreoleRodriguan people, oppressed by Mauritian politics and interests. After the news of the verbal assaults by Mansoor was spread to the other members of ATR, the group discussed what to do next. Marie Louise Roussety was particularly enraged (“en colère”) after she was told about the incident. Old wounds became visible, and they were articulated. James Begué mentioned to me how he was treated in school. Every time he would have an answer to a question from the teacher, he would be called up with a particular voice: “Ahhh... le Rodriguais”. Willy Auguste and Marie Louise could still hear this demeaning manner in which teachers would pronounce “Rodriguais” in their ears. Auguste even knew how to imitate the slur.
In a very short time, ATR generated a lot of support. Right after the negotiations, the group went to meet Father Jocelyn Grégoire, President of the Fédération Créole Mauritien (FCM), which he founded in 2007. In their meeting, he showed much understanding for the colère and promised to send a delegation to the press conference that was foreseen for the following day.
From Father Grégoire the group continued for a meeting with the former President of Mauritius Cassam Uteem (see Figure 1). He was now a consultant for and representative of various national and international institutions, including the UN. The meeting could be arranged because Maxy André was a good friend of his late son. On the way, we heard on the radio that the unsuccessful negotiations were breaking news. We sat in his residence in a softly rosé room and spoke. Aurele André made every effort to explain the situation quietly and respectfully, even though he was obviously outraged and at the same time very thankful to be heard. Uteem was curious to know what I, as the only étranger, was doing in the group. He then gave André the advice to go public with Mansoor’s behaviour.
The following day, ATR was invited to the headquarters of the opposition party Mouvement Militant Mauritien (MMM). A photo was taken of the ATR members sitting around a negotiation table that covered the front page of the 10 July 2009 edition of their party newspaper Le Militant. The situation had remained uncertain until that meeting. However, the Prime Minister had been heard on the radio saying with reference to the accusations made that a person who thought that the government has no consideration for Rodrigues “must be mad”.
They would be doing everything they could to help Rodrigues but they also needed to make sure that money was spent properly.
Figure 1: The ATR delegation in front of Cassam Uteem’s residence: (from left to right) Maxy André, Willy Auguste, James Begué, Aurele André, Cassam Uteem, Jean Pierre Lim Kin, Marie Louise Roussety, McGill Meunier, (the author), Rommel Farla. Photo: C. Wergin.
The same day, Rama Sithanen, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, personally called Aurele André, invited the Rodriguan delegation to continue negotiations, and promised that such an incident would not reoccur. In return, he demanded from ATR to publicly emphasize that their accusations were the result not of disrespect but of a simple misunderstanding. Within two days of Ramgoolam’s statement, ATR returned to the negotiation table and a solution was found that was satisfying to all parties involved.
Trouble in Paradise, Again
What appeared to be a simple request for subsidized airfares turned into a considerable social, political and economic threat. When negotiations with government representatives ran the risk of failure, ATR ‘trumped the ethnic card’. Threatening to go public with their accusations against Financial Secretary Mansoor, ATR created significant pressure on their opponents. On the one hand, there was a risk that these might provoke uprisings of the Creole population.
Memories of the violent civil unrest in 1999 after the mysterious death of the Creole Seggae singer Kaya remain fresh (Vellien, 1999). On the other hand, the negative publicity of ‘trouble in paradise’ could badly damage images of Mauritius as the ‘rainbow nation’ and a peaceful
‘multiethnic society’, both of which are important marketing devices for tourist promotion and foreign direct investment on Mauritius.
The immanence of this threat was supported by fast information flows via informal networks, local media and the Internet. Facebook postings spread the word about conflict within minutes all over both islands. How individuals put related publicity manoeuvres into play becomes even more transparent and visible in a small island society. It was easy for me as an outsider to be accepted by ATR members and have privy to some (but not all) dealings. I can only speculate about why I was allowed to join them on their journey. One aspect might have been that, as researcher and academic, I was used as an apparently impartial witness to the events and negotiations that took place. Why they were so generous was related to their eagerness to share their version of the story and to have it documented. For that, they had found a good listener in me. The importance of this role became visible, for example, in the meeting with Cassam Uteem, despite the fact that I had no direct involvement in the actual negotiation process.
Personally, I was grateful for the opportunity to travel with ATR. After all, to be accepted and trusted by members of a local community is what any anthropologist hopes for. In that respect, my version of the events is not impartial but influenced by my close relationship with the group. Despite this admittedly subjective approach, the resulting ethnography allows for further conclusions about the small island community of Mauritius and its political system.
Ethnicity is a hot button topic and a political divisive one not only in Mauritius. Personal experiences and memories of segregation and mistreatment continue to inform perceptions and decisions. It is not surprising then that for some members of the delegation to Mauritius, it was a special experience to be part of ATR. They were working together strategically, driven by their interests as entrepreneurs but also by the group spirit and the united cause ATR represented, namely to defend Creole rights. Farla could not stop repeating how important it had been for him that they were there as one block and one voice; a large group that made a large impact on the people they were arguing with; the Mauritian tourism authority, Air Mauritius and government representatives. To my knowledge, no attempts were made to break this alliance, for example by the Mauritian government buying off one or two of its supporters.
Even if such attempts were made, they did not succeed.
Other members of the group were less emotionally attached to the platform but acted more strategically. It was thanks to the many contacts of people like Maxy André that, after the initial unsuccessful negotiations, a large platform could be united, a platform of other Creole minorities, including Chagossians and FCM, of Syndicalists, and political parties. While in parts clumsy and even condescending, this platform showed that their ethnicity could provide leverage. It guaranteed significant pressure on the Mauritian authorities, who consequently needed to demonstrate more willingness to help the Rodriguan tourism sector. The government noted the possible danger of a nationwide outcry for Creole rights. After the failure of the first negotiations became public, numerous people began to proclaim the possibility of larger demonstrations. A country like Mauritius, that has an international reputation to lose in front of the eyes of UN, EU, industrial investors, and tourists, including attendants of the FIFA 2010
World Cup in South Africa, who had become an important marketing target, could simply not allow this to happen.
The impact of the agreement between ATR and the Mauritian authorities on the Rodriguan tourism sector is outlined in Table 1. Visitor numbers had been rising until 2007, a time when tourism was thought to become an even stronger economic player, and saw the opening of a new hotel on the island. Then, arrivals dropped significantly in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis. The program launched by ATR and the government helped stabilize arrival figures in 2009 (and 2010); a promotional offer that ran between August 2009 and December 2010 saw a reduction on airfares from 8,000 MUR (US$320) to 5,430 MUR (US$217), plus a 30% discount on accommodation for a minimum stay of four nights on the island.
Official data to support the claims made by interviewees is limited to a few Mauritian newspaper articles. On 9 July 2009, L’Express printed a statement by Ramgoolam in which he emphasized that anyone who would think the Mauritian government would neglect Rodrigues would have “a serious problem”. In an editorial of the same issue, the discussions between the Mauritian authorities, represented by Mansoor, and ATR were reviewed, suggesting that the problem was that “one does not understand the other”. The government wanted to support the Rodriguan tourism sector while ATR aimed to bring the populations of the two islands closer together. While the former presented an economic problem, the latter’s position was a largely political one. The above was a response to another article, printed in L’Express the day before, whose headline quoted Aurele André saying, “Financial Secretary Ali Mansoor has no heart.” It outlined the negotiations that took place, reasons for their failure, and concluded with the announcement of a press conference held by ATR the following day, emphasizing that the issue might be taken to the streets of Port Louis where it would result in larger demonstrations.
Apart from the Mauritian papers, there are three local newspapers on Rodrigues. All of them covered the developments before and during the negotiation process. However, members of the MR own two of these papers and Serge Clair, leader of the OPR, founded the other. While all three claim journalistic integrity, their style of writing and argumentation (apart from the sports news) is often, if not always, aimed at discrediting the other party.
In relation to this, the main reason for me to keep the partly anecdotal character of the ethnographic description intact has been that it is the particular form of talking, of making claims, of gossiping and pretending to know more than the other about someone, their interests and whereabouts that strongly influences everyday action and political debate on Rodrigues.
This la di la fé that is also common on Mauritius and Réunion Island (Wergin, 2010) – and I would argue in many other small island territories around the world – can bring about the fall of a regional politician and the rise of another. It is therefore not so much a question of whether claims are true or false, fact or fiction, but whether enough people believe in them.
While it has not been possible to ‘solve’ the financial crisis of the Rodriguan tourism sector by pressuring the Mauritian government, this case study of island-mainland politics in federated systems demonstrates how sensitive a small island state can be to an image of itself that serves
130 Trumping the Ethnic Card in Rodrigues
as the basis for a whole industry and economy. One cannot advertise Mauritius if its government is said to undermine the rights of significant sections of its population. This and possible riots would cause tremendous damage to the aforementioned tourism imaginary of a peaceful, multiethnic ‘rainbow nation’ so carefully crafted in over 40 years of promotion activity. The case of Rodrigues shows how such tourism imaginaries, like the ‘island paradise’ that Mauritius is thought and marketed to be, need to be understood as complex sites of negotiation and contestation that demand careful diplomacy. Parallel examples are efforts made to redraft the imaginaries of Bali or Thailand as beautiful and apparently safe havens for tourism after what has become known as the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
While ethnicity has been identified as a central commodity within tourist promotion (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2009), imaginaries about ethnicity and peaceful ‘multiethnic’ togetherness are often far from the political and social realities of a place. Since members of ATR to a large extent represent the local business elite, their claims have great relevance; they are more widely heard and recognized than those of many other members of Rodriguan society. Their different enterprises are heavily dependent on tourism and as such they account for some of the main beneficiaries of their initiative themselves. The intervention of this local entrepreneurial elite in the decision-making process, and in regional politics in general, presents a new layer of accessibility to authorities, to power and political decision making beyond democratic means.
At the same time, the economic value that such imaginaries have for a tourist destination might stop a government from running certain risks, such as those associated with a public display of ethnic conflict, or whatever else might endanger the good standing and thus the open economy of the country. It appears that a growing Creole elite in Mauritius is well aware of its latent powers in this regard, and of the threats it can induce if it is to act as a unified opposition to its government. The 2008 UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Mauritian mountain Le Morne indicates further steps in the mainstreaming of Creole history in Mauritius: slaves throughout the 18th and early 19th century used this space as a hideout (UNESCO, 2012). It remains however to be seen if and how this largely ‘negative heritage’ of a neglected minority can be included in a more encompassing tourism imaginary for Mauritius.