What Mauritius got right

William Saunderson-Meyer says 50 years ago the country was dirt poor and enamoured with radical socialism


It’s hardly surprising that Mauritius has for so many years been a popular holiday destination for South Africans. There is an easy, immediate, familiarity. 

Not only are there many familial ties, stretching back generations, between the two countries. But Mauritius also mirrors coastal KwaZulu-Natal with its sugar cane fields and sapping humidity. It shares, too, the Indian influences in cuisine, religion, and culture. 

In Port Louis, there is an oddity from a joint colonial past that echoes Cape Town. The Mauritian capital’s Signal Mountain — which despite its aspirational name is actually 27 metres shorter than its Signal Hill counterpart in the Cape — has an almost identical topography and history as the city’s look-out point and site for the triggering of the noonday time signal.

When I first visited Mauritius as a teen almost 50 years ago, it was a dirt-poor country, enamoured with radical socialism. My brief stay coincided with the declaration of a five-year state of emergency, which restricted the populist Mouvement Militant Mauricien. It also triggered the detention of its firebrand leader, Paul Berenger, whose uncompromising politics was exciting to the ears of a politically curious and naive youngster.

That sense of a poisoned chalice from a fractious past, of both being challenging countries in which poverty coincides with racial, ethnic and class cleavages, there is yet another similarity instinctually accessible to South Africans. Mauritius, too, has lingering resentments over land ownership and historical privilege.

But it’s the differences between these two African Union countries, geographically just a skip-and-jump apart, that matter more than the sameness. Hallelujah, there’s no load shedding. Lightning-fast internet that is cheap and ubiquitous, available in every taxi and virtually every business premises.

Last year the president, an internationally highly regarded scientist, resigned. There was a dispute about whether she had made personal purchases to the value of US$27,000 on a credit card provided to her by an international NGO. That’s about what our previous president would spend on a round of drinks for his corrupt cronies at the Saxonwold shebeen. 

While on a run in Port Louis, I discovered another welcome difference. I had misjudged nightfall and foolishly found myself at the top of Signal Mountain at dusk. In SA, to be four kilometres from home, alone at dark in an isolated public space, is to be virtually assured of criminal mayhem.

So, as I nervously wended my way down Signal Mountain in the dim moonlight, I was astonished to pass at least a dozen locals heading in the opposite direction. Some were long in the tooth, some were young. A number of them were women alone.  

They were jogging or striding along heartily, happily and safely. It was just an ordinary pre-bedtime jaunt in a society where there is negligible violent crime.

Last year, the Mauritian media got itself all in a tizz when the number of homicides increased by a staggering 34% on 2017’s figures. There were strident public calls for a return of the death penalty.

To place it in context, all of 107 people were murdered in Mauritius in 2018. That’s barely 2 a week and adds up to 5 deaths fewer than the number of people murdered in SA every two days. 

Expressed as a ratio per 100,000 of population, the Mauritian murder rate is 3.2, SA’s is more than 11 times higher. When it comes to sexual offences, Mauritius’ rate is barely a third of SA’s.

Economically, Mauritius has had the challenge of dealing with globalisation pressures, especially — like SA —  on the sugar and textile sectors. Unlike SA, Mauritius has eschewed doctrinal purism, radical experimentation and threats of expropriation, in favour of moderate policies to encourage offshore financial services, tourism, property investment, and an efficient, low-tax gateway to business in Africa.

The numbers show graphically that a nation can lift itself up by the bootstraps, despite being geographically isolated and cyclone prone. This tiny country of 1.3m people gives SA a mauling on almost any statistic one cares to choose.

Our unemployment rate is over 27%, Mauritius’ rate is 7%.

Economic growth has been a steady 5% per annum since independence in 1968, meaning that the economy has more than tripled in size. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is now US$10,490 — more than 40% higher than SA — and tellingly, while SA’s per capita GDP has basically been flatlining for 30 years, the Mauritian one has increased by more than 150%.

This is hands-down the most competitive economy in Africa and consistently one of the top two dozen in the world. On the 2019 World Bank’s index on ease of doing business, Mauritius in 20016 occupied the 23rd position and SA the 28th. Mauritius is now 20th, while SA is 82nd.

Although income inequality in Mauritius has increased, the country is nevertheless 40% less unequal that SA. Poverty has been reduced to 8% of the population and is decreasing. According to StatsSA, 55% of our people live in poverty and that number is increasing.

The World Health Organisation’s combined male/female life expectancy for Mauritius is 74.8 years, in SA it is 63.6 years. HIV prevalence is almost one-in-five (19%) among South Africans but fewer than one-in-a-hundred Mauritians (0.9%). The infant mortality rate in SA is about 29 per 1,000 live births; in Mauritius it is about 8.

The numbers are glowing but It really isn’t rocket science. While it’s clearly difficult for the African National Congress and its ideologically neanderthal allies in the tripartite alliance to swallow the fact, Mauritius proves that there are better ways of governing an African nation than the failed model that the ANC has been pursuing for a quarter century. 

Academic analyses show that key factors for national success are robust democratic institutions, political freedom, and a legal code that is clear and enforced. One can add, regular changes of government and educational development. 

But as the Brenthurst Foundation’s Greg Mills points out in an excellent new book, it’s also critically about taking what one can from the past and “creating a civil polity” that is inclusive and reconciliatory.

Mills interviews Mauritius’s enfant terrible of the left, the once-jailed Berenger who eventually served as prime minister — the first white in that position in an African democracy — and is now in opposition. Berenger says that one of the reasons Mauritius escaped the destructive history of the most of Africa is that radical policies were never implemented. 

Although he saw it as a betrayal at the time, he admits now, “If we had [gone that route], we might have ended up another Zimbabwe.”

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage, by Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Tendai Biti. Picador Africa, Johannesburg, 2019.