The Republic of Seychelles gained independence from Britain in 1976. A year later, on 5 June 1977, Albert René at the head of the Seychelles Peoples United Party, seized power in what was proclaimed, and is still remembered by some activists here today, as a ‘socialist revolution’ in Africa. René quickly dismantled the opposition, and ran a one-party state from 1979 until 1993. He then opened things up for multi-party elections, which he won that year, 1993, and in 1998 and 2001.
René’s anointed successors held onto power after he stepped down in 2004, winning elections for what became the Seychelles People’s Progressive Front and then People’s Front in 2006, 2011 and 2015, apparent clear endorsement of the course of the ‘revolution’. This until 26 October 2020, when, in the midst of the Covid crisis, and disarray and defections from the ruling party, the current neoliberal coalition, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa, LDS, took power, with Anglican priest Wavel Ramkalawan as President.
What remains of the Seychelles People’s United Party, Seychelles People’s Progressive Front and People’s Front is still present in the 35-member National Assembly as United Seychelles, with 10 seats, but the apparatus of the old regime is under investigation for corruption, disappearances and murder. Over a hundred testimonies are now being heard by the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission.
The revolutionary events of 1977 are now officially and mostly popularly regarded as a coup followed by a dictatorship. It is difficult to disentangle what was progressive from what was reactionary about René’s regime, and to find spaces of genuine open resistance. A taxi driver told us that the new government is doing well, but that the opposition were always creating trouble, now objecting to the plan to raise the retirement age from 63 to 65.
Seychelles is, according to polls, still, for the third year running, the most romantic travel destination in the world. There are white powder beaches in which turtles lay eggs, azure clean seas, intense green vegetation that include mango trees around which the giant fruit bats swoop at dawn and dusk. There is even, away from the super-expensive island resorts, a network of bed and breakfast places surrounded by friendly helpful people who seem happy to see you.
But it is not all perfect, beneath the waves are often rocks, sometimes spiny sea urchins, and at 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the morning it is dog o’clock, with the noise of barking and yapping breaking through the windows that you must keep open if you are to avoid using the air conditioning. If you dig deeper, you will learn something about the deep political divisions. I travelled around for three weeks, barely enough to scratch the surface, not enough for the kind of analysis that needs to be developed by those who have lived through the last half a century here, but these notes are reflections on what I read and saw and heard.
Versions of the present I
There are two printed papers. The daily newspaper Seychelles Nation, the 16-page A5-size mouthpiece of the current LDS regime published on the main island of Mahé, carries under the title the words, in capitals, no accents, ‘LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE’. About 3,500 copies of the paper are distributed to government departments and state outlets and a few are sold in shops. The November 15 issue carries the main headline ‘Air Seychelles out of insolvency process’, the paper reporting the conclusion of a thirteen-month company reorganisation which will ensure ‘financial stability’; just below that, still on the front page, is good news about funding for ‘capital projects’ in the 2023 budget. There are reports inside the paper on agreement brokered at COP27 for a solar cooling cold storage project off the island of La Digue and a ‘national entrepreneurship strategy’.
There are also reports on a deal with Cable and Wireless, with the hook that live sports will be offered in English. The paper is almost entirely in English, with one small item in French about crowds gathering to watch masses of crabs and tuna on Eden island, another about a special mass held in one of the Catholic churches on Grand Anse in Mahé – the country is over 75% Catholic – to celebrate International Men’s Day.
There is a small item in Seychellois about finance debates in the National Assembly. Seychellois, the local form of Creole, is the official language of the National Assembly, and was promoted in schools – it is the language used by most of the population, more widespread than English or French – but there is now a backlash against this which some supporters of Linyon Demokratik Seselwa, despite its Creole name, is willing to pander to. The leisure page, with a crossword, wordsearch and cartoon, is in Seychellois, and the rest of the paper is pretty-well taken up with job and commercial tender advertisements.
The sports page, in English, reports on hockey and on Everton and Manchester City as winners of the Seychelles Schools’ Premier League. ‘Everton’ and ‘Manchester City’ here are actually Pointe Larue and Belonie; La Digue island is ‘Norwich’, Praslin island is ‘Brighton and Hove Albion’, and Anse Boileau is ‘West Ham’. Among the classified advertisements is one for the Gerard Hoarau Foundation about the Annual Anniversary Memorial Service at St Joseph’s Church at Anse Royale, ‘an invitation to all Seychellois to participate in this moment of spiritual reflection and prayer in thanking God for a patriotic son of Seychelles’.
Reconciliation and National Unity
This is a work of reconstruction, something that one of our hosts describes as the return of capitalism to the island now that ‘the communists have gone, thank god!’, this last thanks is said while crossing himself. For this guy and other members of his family we met in different parts of the main island, the teaching of Seychellois was nonsense, and the communists were at the source of all that is now bad on the island. But then, as you listen more, contradictions open up, and we hear that while he was away from Seychelles the government ‘stole’ some of his land – he waved his arms across a mountainside to show us what had once belonged to him – and refused to mend the roads, ‘jealousy’ said his wife.
Anything and everything, ranging from noise and theft to drug abuse and benefit scroungers is laid at the door of the communists, and this guy, who was in the army when René seized power, and fled for some years to be part of the very large exile Seychellois community, is quick to remind us of the London 1985 assassination of Gerard Hoarau, who led the Mouvement Pour La Resistance, by the regime, ‘probably by Russian hitmen’, he says. It’s possible; it’s true that René had a security apparatus and financial support from the Soviet Union, East Germany and North Korea. Cuba provided ‘advisors’ embedded in the police force.
Again, as for the West, it seems like support for the ‘socialist’ regime from the Stalinist bloc was based on geopolitical calculation, with little care for what was actually going on inside the country. Nationalisations were carried out sometimes to settle scores rather than as part of a democratically-agreed plan of development, and disappearances were engineered to deal with individual troublemakers and, it is true, some sustained military attempts to depose the regime.
These attempts included the farcical ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare adventure in 1981 which was organised by the opposition in South Africa. Mercenaries arrived at the International Airport and almost succeeded in getting the hidden guns through security. Their bad luck was that the guy in front of them in the queue was caught smuggling fruit into the country and so customs police decided to search all the other customers; there was a shootout, and the mercenaries were confined to the airport. René then brokered a deal to release them and, after negotiations with the South African government, got agreement that the apartheid regime would crack down on the Seychellois opposition and pay financial compensation to the Seychelles.
Here is another indication of the paradoxes at the heart of the regime which give lie to claims that it really was ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’. Apart from some military and police support from ‘friendly’ states willing to make the most of a regime that appeared to be breaking from the West, most of the internal and external security – including surveillance of the opposition at home and abroad – was also run by mercenaries; a private security firm, Priority Investigations. This outfit was run by a mercenary, Ian Withers, who was appointed National Security advisor, and who then described himself as a member of the ’Seychelles Security Service’. Withers also ran the ‘overseas unit’, was hired by René to oversee these matters.
René made little reference to apartheid in South Africa after the 1981 coup attempt against him, and there was always a cautious shrewd balancing between different international and regional powers. For example, and it is a significant one, there was no support for the Chagossians after the US and Britain seized the islands – geographically and historically part of the Seychelles, though legally under Mauritius administration – and René did nothing to speak out for these people exiled from their own archipelago.
René did not significantly disturb the Brits, the old colonial power, even while he began using French terms to describe aspects of the new state administration – mere symbolic shows of defiance – nor the United States; the listening base that the United States maintained on Mahé was never put in question – it provided money and employment – and it was the United States that finally pulled the plugs on that after 1989, which was also a watershed moment for policy inside the Seychelles.
Now the new government has just brokered a deal with Thai Union which operates a massive tuna processing plant in Victoria, the capital. The factory runs 24/7 with clattering and rumbling echoing up and around the hills, and this operation will now increase, with an expansion of the plant over the next few years. The three main economic drivers of the Seychelles economy are tourism, then tuna and then offshore financial services, all three sectors of which René explicitly and deliberately kept in private hands while using some resources to fund education and welfare, which is still free, but which is under threat from privatisation.
Versions of the present II
The weekly newspaper, the other printed paper, The Seychelles Independent operates as if it is the print voice of United Seychelles now, but is actually the weekly mouthpiece of Ralph Volcere, whose previous political activity was as a 2016 election candidate for the ‘Legalising Cannabis in Seychelles Movement’. Volcere was allied with the LDS but broke with them several years back, now occasionally carrying pro United Seychelles pieces. The United Seychelles paper The People is available online, and they have a Facebook page.
Below the main title of The Seychelles Independent is the legend ‘Sesel avan tou’, though all of the paper is in English. I picked up a 9November copy at a supermarket in Anse Boileau where there had been a recent United Seychelles rally, an event reported in the paper. It is impossible to know how many copies of the paper are printed and sold. The front page of the 12-page A4 paper carried three stories about LDS mismanagement and corruption, an important pitch now by United Seychelles in the face of the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission, TRNUC, testimonies and investigations that are basically targeting the party.
The LDS 2023 capital investment budget story is given a quite different twist from The Nation, claiming that there is lack of attention to the ‘ordinary citizens who carried the burden’ for the economic sacrifices that are being made. These stories run over the first four pages, and then there are two stories on page 5 that run in stark contrast to each other, stories that point to some contradiction in the paper’s attempt to wrongfoot the government. The main story on page 5 with a full-colour photo of a rally at Anse Boileau is topped by the headline ‘Red revival is a reality!’.
The United Seychelles local rally on the West coast of Mahé shows, the story claims, that United Seychelles is ‘still a force to be reckoned with and even that it is well on the road to recovery’. ‘Despite the revelations of the TRNUC’ it continues, and despite the accusations of corruption, ‘the 28,000 plus followers saw no reason to change their allegiance’. Impressive though the photo is, in no way are there 28,000 people there, and it is improbable, to say the least, that such a number out of a total Seychelles population of under 100,000 people gathered at the beachside that afternoon. That said, photos from The People show a good crown.
The story also complains that the Seychelles Public Transport Corporation had refused to hire out their buses to take supporters to the rally, so the numbers hinted at in Anse Boileau are even more questionable. Rare graffiti was around in Anse Boileau; an environmental ‘Save Our Seas’ slogan echoing an ecological youth movement developing in Mauritius, and one proclaiming that ‘there is no political solution’, which hints at political disaffection rather than engagement.
The same page sees the second story, and it is a surprise to read the headline for that which is ‘Health Ministry should consider outsourcing ambulance services’, basically a call for privatisation. The following pages complain about increased powers given to the police and string together some quibbles about proposals mooted at a teachers’ symposium; ‘Teachers feel inundated with paperwork’ says a little box highlight in the middle of the article.
Two pages are taken up with an interview with Ralph Volcere about shortcomings of the LDS proposed budget. This, the opening paragraph says, is the first instalment of a two-part series. The article is underpinned, again, by the argument that all real economic success that the government claims is down to the ‘poor working people of the country’. Ralph Volcere is the editor of the paper. There is a reprint of a rather neutral article about negotiations between Britain and Mauritius over the future of the Chagos Islands. Many articles are simply pasted in from different websites.
Later copies of The Seychelles Independent make it clearer where its editor Ralph Volcere is coming from politically. The 23 November issue has the headline ‘The LDS Government is corrupt like the SPPF/PL/US’; that’s a side swipe at United Seychelles. There is a glowing report of a United Seychelles protest in the 30 November issue which also, however, notes along the way that the party’s founders were ‘notoriously against the free press’. That last issue also includes an appeal, in English and in Seychellois, for readers to support the investigation into the murder of Gerard Hoareau, and, in line with the ‘International Men’s Day’ reports in Seychelles Nation, there is an article about domestic violence which is all about violence against men.
The Volcere ‘interview’ in the 9 November issue is followed by a downright weird unsigned piece that looks like it is designed as internal political education for party members. It is titled ‘Do we have the political will to tackle our problems?’, and includes ruminations on the nature of the human being as being ‘the focal point of all forms of motion of matter’. The piece, in a garbled version of good old Soviet ‘socialist man’ pegagogy, contrasts individual competitiveness in present society with the nature of the human being as ‘a subject of historical creativity’. The final paragraph speaks of ‘the spiritual nucleus of the structure of the personality’ and this puzzling article – some indication of the political heritage and line of the paper – concludes with the enigmatic sentence ‘What is it all about?’. Indeed.
It does seem that if René had not seized power in what was actually more of a coup than a revolution in 1977, the first elected President James Mancham would himself have shut down opposition parties and ruled through his Seychelles Democratic Party, SDP. René moved fast while Mancham was away in London at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to which he had been invited as a speaker, an invitation that was rescinded pretty well as soon as the Seychelles People’s United Party was installed.
That rapid recognition of the new regime was a sign that though Mancham was the preferred choice by the old colonial powers, Britain and the United States reckoned they could live with René. In fact, both Mancham and René, both trained as barristers in London, had been groomed as future leaders before independence, with paid visits to London and the US. In some respects, with the geopolitical location of Seychelles more important than internal administration, this hedging of bets in René’s favour, was the safe and rational option for the West.
René clearly had support in the country, and attempts to depose the new ‘socialist’ regime would, in the view of imperial and regional powers, cause more chaos and uncertainty than was worth it, but the problem was that in no ways was the Seychelles People’s United Party a mass party, even less so a democratically-structured organisation, and the coup was carried out by tens of people, most of whom had no idea about what they were involved in when it happened. That contradiction – a single individual attempting to construct a socialist alternative in a country of less than a 100,000 people in a 115-island archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean – haunted the regime from 1977 onwards.
It is easy to reduce what happened in 1977 and since to the personality of the single individual at the head of the regime. There is a thorough, and thoroughly partisan account of what happened in the just-published book by Ashton Robinson, René and Postcolonial Seychelles: An African Chameleon in the Indian Ocean, which does exactly that. Robinson writes for the neoliberal Lowy Institute, and it is clear where he stands in his reports on the island.
You will learn from Robinson’s hatchet job that Albert René was a thoroughly bad sort who treated his family badly, duped the Church into providing sponsorship to train as a priest, dropped out and trained as a barrister and then plotted a path to power with a ruthless determination to drive out the West and let in the reds. All of the errors of the regime are reduced to deliberate behind-the-scenes machinations by René, something which obscures the very constellation of social forces that made 1977 possible.
For example, the Catholic Church was and is a powerful cultural and potentially powerful political force in Seychelles, but one of the dominant orders – the one that René was initially sent to train with in Switzerland as a novitiate priest – was the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. The Capuchins were not at the forefront of liberation theology, but there were plenty of local priests in Seychelles in the order who were sympathetic to it, and this, according to Robinson, gave encouragement and licence for René to engage in the coup. The Church did not know the coup was going to happen, did not support it, but they did not, as they could have done in other circumstances, condemn it. In Robinson’s book, the reds in the Church effectively egged evil René on.
Also significant, and noted by Robinson, was the determination the British Callaghan government in the 1970s to implement its ‘East of Suez’ policy, to divest itself of the old colonies. Joan Lestor and Judith Hart, among others, are leftists blamed for lack of oversight for what was about to happen in the Seychelles after independence. This, for Robinson, was disastrous and so the British Foreign Office bears some responsibility for letting René in. There may well be some truth in this specific play of circumstances, but the political slant Robinson gives to it is quite reactionary.
A supporter of René’s regime said that the revolution in 1977 was, for all of the problems, and it was by no means perfect, ‘necessary’; it was only with the land reforms that were promised and then delivered that slavery in Seychelles was finally ended. Up to that point the ‘moitié’ system that effectively prolonged slavery after its formal abolition gave former slaves only the right to ‘half’ of their freedom and kept control of the land in Seychelles in the hands of 9% of the population. This was definitively ended by René, to the anger of many of the old landowners and their descendants who provided financial support to the different iterations of the ‘opposition’.
Slavery, and the legacy of particular forms of patriarchal oppression that issued from it, structured Seychelles as a newly independent country in 1976 and set particular kinds of tasks for a progressive regime. This history set in place specific kinds of intersection between class, ‘race’ and gender. This was a revolution in Africa – the bulk of the Seychelles population are black, descendants of slaves – with René and his close circle of supporters intent, in the early years, on reorienting the country away from Europe to Africa. Seychelles is still a member of the African Union.
René had close links with Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, who ran his own ‘socialist’ one-party state, before the revolution, and Tanzanian troops were present at key points in the island during the coup. Relations with Tanzania cooled later on. A leader of the then-radical Mouvement Militant Mauricien, Paul Bérenger, was photographed with René on the island very soon after the coup – he was apparently there at that time by chance, it was claimed – though links with the MMM were not maintained for long after the revolution. It was, however, independence as an African nation that was crucial to René, and one supporter said that it was only with the 1977 revolution that the Seychellois were able to begin constituting themselves as an independent nation.
Even the most hostile accounts of the René regime, with Ashton Robinson’s book a prime example, had to acknowledge that there was a legacy of racism from slavery, this in a country that was governed by a self-proclaimed African liberation movement headed by Albert René, a white man who combated racism. It was difficult to instrumentalise racism by opponents of the regime, even if that was a sub-text of some hostile comments against the old regime. One older man we spoke to claimed that the country under the ‘communists’ was taken over by Whites, Russians and, more latterly, Indians who run the supermarkets.
The government did, and still does, take efforts to represent Seychelles as an inclusive family; the faith of the President, Anglican, and the Vice-President, Muslim, is of little interest in an overwhelmingly Catholic country where it is the political history that counts. That said, there is a legacy of racial divisions, and of racism. One guy we spoke to who was obsessing about the ‘communists’ switched tack at one point to say that it was the ‘blacks’ who supported United Seychelles, and things were messed up under that regime because of the kind of ‘mindset’ that you see in other corrupt African countries. A taxi driver who was, he proudly told us, one of the first group of rebels imprisoned by René, referred disparagingly to the ‘black communist’ regime.
Women, we were told, formed the active support base of the movement, insofar as it could be said to be a movement, and United Seychelles is in the process of recomposing itself following the 2020 election defeat, including a women’s wing and youth wing. There are very good detailed accounts of the position of women here by Penda Choppy who is Director of the Creole Culture and Research Institute in the University of Seychelles at Anse Royale of the forms of family that gave women certain forms of autonomy and power in Seychelles. United Seychelles beat the LDS in Anse Royale, as it did in La Digue and the very small nearby ‘Inner Islands’ (and it is location of one of the best beaches we found in Mahé, by the way).
The 1994 Termination of Pregnancy Act which loosened control of reproductive rights was a blow to the Catholic Church, probably René’s revenge against the Church that had, with the rest of the opposition, effectively blocked his referendum over the ratification of his new constitution two years earlier. Nevertheless, abortion is still illegal in the Seychelles, and there is no publicly visible women’s reproductive rights movement or, for that matter, visible feminist movement.
Most of the population are descendants of slaves, many of whom had been freed from bondage by anti-slavery activists who impregnated many of the women they left on the island. No European hands were clean during the history of slavery and its aftermath. Women were then forced to take charge of family finances and the care of children, independent and, in some sense, powerful in relation to men, men who were, as a function of slavery and racism, emasculated. That history of women’s power carried through in the allegiance they showed to radical movements, even movements like René’s that were run by men.
A youth wing of United Seychelles is a difficult, touchy, subject, for some of the first public mobilisations against René in 1979 were actually by school and college students protesting against the formation of a National Youth Service and, a disastrous mistake in hindsight, the closing down of football clubs and the incorporation of sport into the same administrative apparatus as that which was responsible for imposing a two-year spell of national service. The Rovers FC was politicised as a side-effect of it being disbanded by the government, and the opposition later on included many past Rovers FC players or officials. The National Youth Service was a typically top-down initiative, designed to bring the nation together, and, predictably, it failed.
One thing is for sure, that ‘socialist’ rule in Seychelles from 1977 to 1993, and for some time after that even while there were multi-party elections, was a form of dictatorship. It was René who called the shots, perhaps, according to Robinson’s book, also present during some of the police and army interrogations of arrested opponents, and it was René who saw which way the wind was blowing after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Just as he had been able to balance between East and West up to then, playing Soviet against US support while developing an offshore banking system that had links with organised crime, after 1989 and the effective end of the Soviet bloc, he put all his bets on the West again, and that required shifts in policy and significant shifts in forms of rule; now there needed to be elections in order to secure legitimacy from his primary investors. These shifts saw a more explicit emphasis on external capital investment, something he had always anyway courted.
From then on, it was a downward slope towards neoliberalism, first under René and his successors, and now under the LDS. The regime came to an end during the Covid pandemic after some missteps, but that situation of intermittent lockdown and closure of the islands – something that badly impacted tourism, of course – cannot be blamed for the final election defeat for Danny Faure, educated at the University of Havana and from 2016 President as appointed heir of René’s chosen favourite James Michel, who ruled from 2004 to 2016, and successfully fought elections until he stepped down mid-term.
Faure’s gambit was to call for a government of national unity to tackle the crisis, but by that time the opposition was well-organised and the ruling party was in tatters. Other contenders for a ‘national unity’ coalition were better placed, more credible. When the left plays this tune of ‘national unity’, it is usually the right who benefit. One member of United Seychelles we spoke to even admitted that perhaps it was right that the party lost power in 2020 and maybe it was not yet in a good enough condition to be able to govern after the next election. Covid or not, Faure was going to lose.
Nonetheless, they reminded us, Wavel Ramkalawan, current President at the head of the coalition, is not suited for power either, with a history of personal and public violence, and in his past and broken promises, which include opposition to the army when in opposition and support for increased army presence on the streets now he is in power.
One could say, in fact, that the ‘socialist’ revolution of 1977 was, with added progressive land reform, education provision and welfare benefits, not so much a proletarian revolution of the kind that Marxists looked to in order to bring an end to capitalism as a very radical bourgeois revolution. To say this is not to subscribe to a crude linear ‘stage’ account of political-economic systems, but to situate Seychelles history in the twentieth century in the context of a process of globalisation, of combined and uneven development, in which as an isolated island state it could not build socialism. Socialism is necessarily international; Seychelles had to settle for national development, capitalist.
That is exactly what the Stalinist states René traded with would also prefer. Now, in December 2022, United Seychelles calls for a ‘general strike’ against the LDS and, in the same issue of The People, praises China’s Belt and Road project. Despite the claims by some of the old United Seychelles cadre – a very small group of people at the head of an apparatus and then electoral machine – there was very limited collectivisation of production and, instead, the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a new elite at the helm of the state.
From that kind of bourgeois revolution, one would expect, if there was no active democratic socialist movement, a degeneration, bureaucratisation and then exactly the kind of abuse and corruption that the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission – a commission that was referred to as a ‘circus’ by one United Seychelles member – is homing in on. A woman described her sense of fear when she heard reports of the Commission and remembered being watched by men she now thinks could have been from internal security. This circus, if that what it is, has material effects on the memory of those who lived through the last half century here.
This was, at first sight, a ‘socialism’ betrayed, mislaid and unmade, this time almost all at once, unravelled by the concentration of power in a few hands right from the start, impossible to carry through without a mass movement and without any democratic accountability. That pattern seems to be replicated now in the ‘United Seychelles’ movement, even if there are claims that many local branches are led by women, and it is an open question as to whether a new opposition that is not trapped in the false choice of having to decide between or balance between different international blocs – East or West – can develop inside United Seychelles or must begin from scratch outside it.
This is a corrected version of an article published on the Anti-Capitalist Resistance site.