News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
16 Feb 2019
9:35 am

Jaundiced Eye – How Mauritius escaped the poverty trap

William Saunderson-Meyer

One of the reasons Mauritius did not go the way of the rest of Africa is that radical policies were never implemented, says veteran politician Paul Berenger.

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

It mirrors coastal KwaZulu-Natal with its sugar cane fields and sapping humidity. It shares, too, the Indian influences in cuisine, religion, and culture.

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 – so exciting for a politically curious kid – of a five-year state of emergency, which restricted the populist Mouvement Militant Mauricien and led to the detention of its firebrand leader, Paul Berenger.

So, something else that is instinctually accessible to South Africans is that poisoned chalice of a fractious past, of countries where poverty coincides with racial, ethnic and class cleavages. In Mauritius, too, are lingering resentments over land ownership and historical privilege.

But it’s the differences between these two AU countries, geographically just a skip-and-jump apart, that matter more than the sameness. No load shedding. Lightning-fast internet that is cheap and ubiquitous.

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 angry calls for a return of the death penalty.

To place it in context, all of 107 people were murdered in Mauritius in 2018, which is still five fewer in total than the number of people murdered in SA in just two days, a rate that is 11 times higher per 100 000 of population.

Economically, Mauritius has been faced with the challenge of dealing with globalisation pressures, especially – like SA – in the sugar and textile sectors. Unlike SA, Mauritius has eschewed doctrinal purism, radical experimentation and threats of expropriation.

Economic growth has been a steady 5% per annum since independence in 1968. Gross Domestic Product per capita is now $10 490 (about R147 000) – over 40% higher than SA – but more telling, while ours has basically flatlined for 30 years, the Mauritian one has increased by more than 150%.

On the 2019 World Bank’s index on ease of doing business, Mauritius occupied the 23rd position in 2006, while SA was 28th. Mauritius is now 20th, SA is 82nd.

Our unemployment rate is over 27%, Mauritius’ rate is 7%. Poverty has been reduced to 8% of the population and is decreasing. According to StatsSA, 55% of our people live in poverty and the number is increasing.

While it’s difficult for the ANC and its ideologically neanderthal allies to swallow the fact, there are better ways of governing a country than the failed model pursued for the past 25 years. Academic analyses show that key factors are democracy, political freedom and a legal code that is enforced.

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 of everyone in the nation.

Mills interviews Mauritius’ enfant terrible of the left, the once-jailed Berenger, who eventually became prime minister and is now in opposition. Berenger says that one of the reasons Mauritius did not go the way of the rest of Africa is that radical policies were never implemented.

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

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.

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