A page in revolutionary history: The 1979 general strike in Mauritius

By Lindsey Collen, in Port Louis

Thirty years ago this Indian Ocean island nation of 1 million people experienced the most massive upsurge of working-class struggle in its history. Today Mauritius is known as a “paradise”, especially for honeymooners. There are apparently no working people here other than those serving the needs of foreign tourists.

August 1979. Imagine Mauritius at this time. British novelist Surajprasad Naipaul had only recently described the country as a filthy hell-hole in his short story “The Over-Crowded Barracoon”, which was, for its effrontery, banned by the Mauritian authorities.

As a country with no indigenous population, colonisation invented Mauritius, moulded society into a capitalist form, maybe indeed Naipaul’s barracoon (a pen to hold slaves or convicts). All the better for getting cane planted on every bit of arable land. All the better for getting everything under the sun import-exported between East and West. In 1979, in the capital, Port Louis, Royal Road was one kilometre of hardware stores on both sides of the road, a ship’s chandler’s paradise, smelling of dried fish stacked in the doorways of shops by the docks.

There was no peasantry in Mauritius. The working class was scattered around 21 sugar estates and clustered around 21 mills. Even the industrial proletariat was, curiously, rural. The field work system had evolved out of indenture, which had been the legal framework for labour after slavery was outlawed in 1834 — a continuum as well as the hideous fractures that preceded it. Here was a working class with far-away memories of Africa, India, Madagascar, Europe, China; a working class with a reputation for rebellion.

Come 1979, the docks were about to be mechanised, to pump sugar directly into the holds of ships. Sugar was still the main industry. Textile mills were still new. Tourist hotels were few and far between. Some 2000 dockers still loaded 500,000 tonnes of sugar in 50-80 kilogram bags on their backs, onto trucks and then off again into huge warehouses, and then out again on to flat-boats, then on to cargo ships.

Dockers had been the strong arm of the trade union movement for the decade since independence from Britain in 1968. They assured victory in a 1971 national strike against a wage freeze. Since then, they had held a mass meeting every day before work.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, in government since independence, had started to distribute “bus lines” to various political agents to run as family “individual” buses, to compete with the private companies that had monopolies on different routes. One effect of this process was that bus company workers would no longer be in a strong position to take industrial action. The transport workers had been the second-strongest arm of the union movement.

The electricity and water corporation workers had won exceptional wage rises and, becoming a new labour aristocracy, were already in the process of leaving their dynamic union federation in order to gather around them only unions of parastatal bodies.

The two potentially strongest work sectors in the country — the 60,000 cane-field labourers and the 12,000 sugar mill workers — had their unions’ legal recognition blocked. The government and the bosses used the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) to deny recognition. The IRA and the Public Order Act (POA) had perpetuated a virtual state of emergency, after the real one that had been imposed following race riots stirred up by the anti-independence bosses in 1968.

Mill workers are difficult to organise, mainly because of a strict hierarchy at work. But at least they all work in one place. Field workers are more difficult. They work in gangs of 24 under one sirdar (“headman”), separate from the other gangs. The same structure had existed under slavery, then under indenture. The field workers’ daily wage depended on backbreaking, divisive piece rates.

The future thus looked bleak if everything stayed the same. And the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meanwhile imposed conditions for loans — like devaluation of the rupee, privatisation, making people pay for social services. It was at this moment in history when the build-up for the strike began.

In 1976, a monthly political magazine called Lalit de Klas (Class Struggle), came out. We had among us activists from many currents — two Trotskyists who as students had been active in the UK and USA; other members who had done support activism for the anti-colonial struggles in Portuguese Africa; workers from the left of the opposition Mouvement Militant Mauricien, from the left of the Labour Party, the old Independent Forward Block and the Communist League. I was from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Soon working-class leaders from all sectors joined. A “distributors’ assembly” met once a month to organise distribution of the magazine, hand in articles and money for copies of the last issue to the editorial board that it elected.

Lalit de Klas also began distributing leaflets on hot issues and became a de facto organised “tendency” within the MMM (called the Lalit de Klas tendency or “the working class in the vanguard tendency”). This rather long name was a direct quote from the one important phrase that became our point of dispute, a phrase in the manifesto of the MMM, a party with a strategy of an alliance of the working-class and the middle classes against the big bourgeoisie — but with “the working class in the vanguard”. This phrase had become the reference-point for our tendency in its differences with the leadership of the MMM.

By the time the strike came, it was Lalit de Klas members who contributed to imagining it, popularising it, developing its demands and slogans in the unions. The argumentation was that cane and sugar workers needed to be strong enough to get recognition for their unions and to stop mill closures, so that, in turn, they could share leadership of the working class. So, the first demand was trade-union recognition. The second to halt the two mill closures. The third for the right to strike. On the basis of these demands, the entire working class would mobilise.

Leading the strike movement

Our members organised hundreds of public outdoor meetings of labourers and artisans, in even the most remote villages in the country. We organised even more, smaller indoor meetings and work-site meetings. Soon, on 10 or 11 of the 21 big estates, there were workers who were Lalit de Klas distributors. Armed bosses would, in those days, chase trade unionists who were not “their workers” off the premises with guns.

Our members convinced the dockers’ and transport workers’ unions, before the labourers and sugar mill workers even began the strike, that if, after one week, the strike in the sugar sector held, they should come out in support. The General Workers’ Federation, at the time a militant union, gave its blessing, and its 30 or so other affiliates promised support, in the measure that they could give. Another smaller federation and an independent union of mill workers would also join the strike. One week before the strike was due, the bosses organised what was later called the “false strike” or the “supervisor-called strike”. So our first real nationwide mobilisation for the strike took the form of mobilising against a strike. This mobilisation against the false strike gave a strangely concrete form to the looming real strike.

On the first day of the real strike, August 7 — everyone still remembers that date — we knew at once it was a success. Nineteen of the 21 mills blew no smoke from their chimneys, showing that it was workers who boiled and crystallised the sugar the rest of the time. Labourers met in village halls and baitkas (community centres) to give reports from each section of the estate. “Old Uncle Marion went to work, in the Chebel section”, a Medine Estate labourer reported, disgusted. Everyone laughed. One of his workmates, also near retirement, smiled: “He went to work in ’71, during the strike. He went to work in ’43. He even went to work in ’37. Let him be. The estate took him as a chokra [boy], same as me. We were nine years old. He never missed a day’s work, you know.”  

Once reports from all sections had come in, it was clear. The mill and garage workers were 100% out. On the labourers’ side, one driver took his transport truck to pick up workers, and drove it around empty before going to the mill to announce that he, sir, had come to work. Other than Uncle Marion, no labourers had gone to work on any field.

Then there was the question of tomorrow. “Yes, of course, we’ll continue the strike, if the other estates can!” “It’s indefinite, isn’t it?” “We have to decide, though!” And so on. So, we chose four delegates to go to the federation headquarters in Port Louis with the report, paying their bus fares from the strike kitty. Later, as night fell, we met under a street light, listened to the report from the national-level assembly, took cognisance of the decision, got copies of the day’s leaflet, a page of foolscap cyclostyled on both sides, with little reports from all over and a main article arguing the decision. We planned the early morning pickets.

The third day was difficult. Three days’ absence meant a breach of contract. Every worker knew this. So the third day of the strike was providential. But really it was only psychological, because an hour’s strike was enough to get you fired. In fact, it was enough to get you jailed for three months. So Lalit de Klas leading members checked that their own areas were holding, then moved to another sugar estate where the decision might be difficult. At every meeting all the political currents were represented — the rip-away populists and ultra-leftists, the conservative workers who feared action, those who feared their first defiance and were now giving others courage and those visionaries who thought ahead to “Will the other sections of the working class come in, when the time comes?” and “What will happen when payday comes and there are no fortnightly wages?” Advanced workers, after two days, wondered, “Shouldn’t we be thinking of overthrowing the government?”

The meeting in Port Louis after the second day of the strike was crucial. Representatives came in, four by four, two labourers and two mill workers from each estate. Leaders of the other sectors participated too. And as the reports came in, two Lalit de Klas members typed them up on a stencil in the back of the hall. By the time reports were in, estate by estate, that stencil was whisked off by another Lalit de Klas member and taken to a secret place, which changed every few days, where the duplicating was done. Stocks of paper and ink had been built up beforehand, in case the supplies were bought up or retailers were closed during the strike. And as the decision started to take form, the other side of the pamphlet was being typed. By the time that all the details — and details are vital — were planned for the next day, the first 500 of the 10,000 leaflets started to arrive.

And so the strike held. After payday, delegates and Lalit de Klas members organised for the local shops to give credit. Which they did. Friendships made were so deep, so loving, they will last forever.

General strike

After a week, the dockers and transport workers joined the strike. The daily meetings, now expanded, continued every afternoon in Port Louis, despite the fact that there was no public transport. Taxi drivers gave their services for just the cost of the petrol. Other sectors came in — workers who produced bottled minerals, matches, shoes, textiles, jute; workers on chicken farms, in tea plantations, in mechanical workshops; you name it.

At the end of another week, the strike weakened, especially in the rural areas, where it’d been two weeks. So, the strike leaders, including Lalit de Klas member Ram Seegobin, started a hunger strike to hold the mobilisation. But the mobilisation wouldn’t hold long, so they decided on a hunger strike without water. No liquid intake. That meant they had only six days. They set up a tent in the open air in the middle of the Company Gardens in the middle of Port Louis. Huge demonstrations began to come in from every town, every village, every work sector. Pilgrimages. And just as the strike was illegal under the IRA, the protests were illegal under the POA. The government declared the Company Gardens a “prohibited area”. The riot police moved in to clear the visitors, using baton charges. Then, under the cover of night, the Special Mobile Force, the nearest to an army that the Mauritian state has, moved in to replace the riot police.

Near insurrection

Demonstrations got bigger and braver. After each baton charge by the police, the demonstrators turned cars upside down by the dozen as they retreated. Organised workers began to prepare an insurrection. At this point the government agreed to negotiate. The first offer was not accepted by the hunger strikers and union leaders. The strike movement and protests continued. The second round of negotiations the next day won the “23 August Agreement”, still known by that name. All 2000 workers sacked during the strike were to get their jobs back. If the bosses refused, the government would take them. Two sugar mills’ closures were not to go ahead. Amendments to be made to the IRA that would allow union recognition and the right to strike would come before parliament in the next session.  

That night, after signing the agreement, delegates met. Two lines emerged around a lockout by transport bosses: the Lalit de Klas line was for workers to defy the lockout. Get their buses started at dawn, collect passengers and their fares, and use the money to buy diesel for the buses. The other line, which won a majority, was to “sleep on it” and rely on the agreement to get workers their jobs back. Maybe, had the other line been the majority one, history would have been very different.

In fact what happened was that the government did not respect the whole agreement. Mill closures did stop, but sacked workers were not given work. A new law did not replace the IRA. And this led, one year later, in September 1980, to a second wave of mass mobilisations. So the August ’79 strike really ended only in September 1980 — with a victory.

[Lindsey Collen is a leading member of Lalit, the party formed by supporters of Lalit de Klas.]