Island in the sun

2008-05-19 00:00

Picture-perfect Mauritius, Africa’s rare equivalent of the East Asian economic tigers, with an admirable record of relative political stability, offers a glimmer of hope for the continent amid the gloom of all too frequent political and economic failure.

If ever African countries were in search of a model to emulate, they would do well to look at this Indian Ocean island. Few gave the country any chance of success when it became independent in 1968. It had the typical African recipe for failure: deep ethnic and political divisions, desperate poverty and little industry. It has no mineral resources and is on the fringes of major markets. Yet, the country celebrated 40 years of independence this year, having clocked an average economic growth rate of 5,4% for the last half of this period.

The International Monetary Fund says that Mauritius will lift the growth rate to seven percent in the coming year. In 2006 the un-employment level was 9,4%, which is low as opposed to the African standard average of around 20% and beyond.

Mauritius has determinedly changed itself from a country overly dependent on tourism, textile and sugar production, into a thriving manufacturing and service hub. This was achieved by visionary leadership single-mindedly pursuing development and a deeply held national consensus, spanning the political and racial divide, that unless the economy should grow equitably quickly, the tiny island would be doomed. The former premier Anerood Jugnauth and his Militant Socialist Movement, mostly credited for Mauritius’s turnaround, styled the island’s economy on that of Singapore, the dynamic East Asian tiger. Mauritius is also an African pioneer in implementing successful political and economic empowerment programmes.

Mauritius’s population is made up of Hindus, Muslims, Creoles, Africans, Chinese and Franco-Mauritians. Of them, the majority of the 1,2 million population on this 2 040 square kilometre tropical island are ethnic Indians. Half of the population are Hindu, about 16% Muslim and the Chinese make up three percent. The remaining 30% are Afro-Creole, the mixed descendants of former slaves, and white Anglos or Francos, whose forebears came from colonial settler communities.

Historically, economic power has remained with the predominantly wealthy white Franco minority. A rich business elite is still centred on a few dominant families who are mostly descendants of French settlers. Poverty still plagues the Afro-Creole communities and some Hindu communities. Although the next step for the country must be to develop more enterpreneurs from disadvantaged communities, em-powerment has been more broad- based in Mauritius than anywhere else in Africa.

Although not in your face, there is still racial tension. In 1999, Afro-Creoles took to the streets after a local reggae singer, Kaya, died in police custody. His death sparked allegations from the Afro-Creole community of official racial profiling of the community. But the one important element of the country’s politics is that the government has purposefully constructed a political system that encourages inclusivity.

The island’s electoral system gives the “best losers” seats in the legislatures. If after an election, any of the five ethnic groups is proportionally under-represented in parliament, they are allocated seats.

In Mauritius power is not concentrated in the presidency. In fact, the president’s role is largely ceremonial. The prime minister holds the executive power. Losing a government head causes no fuss. Moreover, power has often changed hands, debunking the commonly held view that independence and liberation leaders must stay in power for long, supposedly to guarantee stability and ensure development.

Mauritius has a strong tradition of coalition politics and consensus-building, a phenomenon not widely seen in Africa. All the leading parties have specific social justice platforms and agendas, which helps to pull the country’s politics towards redress. There has also been a clear ideological divide and distinct policy platforms between political parties, unlike in many African countries where opposition and ruling parties often share the same platform and differences centre mostly on personalities and ethnicity; the opposition parties’ only policy message is to unseat the sitting leader or to give more of the same policies when in government.

Lately the ideological and policy divisions between Mauritius’s political parties have become smaller. Nevertheless, voters largely vote on the record of the government. Of course, the political system is not perfect. Mauritius has its fair share of close political families dominating the scene. On occasion, political alliances have been more for the sake of convenience and opportunism aimed at consolidating political family dynasties. It is notable that most of Mauritius’s governments, since its independence, have been mostly on the left of the political spectrum.

Certainly, Mauritius, outside of South Africa, must be the only country where independent trade unions have played a key role in government and society, from the moment of independence, and not as a conveyer belt of the ruling party as has been mostly the case elsewhere on the continent. In fact, political parties have actually copied many of the trade union policy platforms.

Mauritius has an exemplary record of prudent financial management and macro-economic stability. It also introduced free education and health in the early eighties, even when outsiders said it wouldn’t be possible because the country does not have the money.

The country has marketed itself as a high-heel tourist destination attracting big money, rather than the backpacker variety. Yet, Mauritius is also facing tough economic challenges. Changes in world trade rules make it difficult for small island economies to compete effectively in global markets.

Since its independence Mauritius has used trade preferences in the sugar and textile sectors, from the European Union (EU), to build a prosperous economy. In 2005 the EU cut sugar subsidies to Mauritius. Now its sugar and textile industries, with tourism the mainstay of the economy, are under threat. Many people have lost their jobs in these industries. Furthermore, rising competition from China’s textile manufacturers has added to the woes. The country’s 2005 elections centred around the impact of global trade rules and the Mauritian government’s response or lack of response to it. The government has aggressively moved to diversify the economy more, unlike many other African countries. Because the country has invested in education, a new generation of skilled workers will be able to benefit from the country’s diversification of its economy to financial services and IT, which demands a highly- skilled workforce. A mainstay of its diversification campaign is to turn Mauritius into a “cyber” technology hub. The hard work done in the past has put Mauritius in a better position than any other African country in the move up the global value chain.

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