New Internationalist

Country Profile: Mauritius

April 2013

When Nobel Literature Prize winner VS Naipaul first wrote The Overcrowded Barracoon in 1972, portraying Mauritius as a stinky hell-hole, his whole anthology was promptly banned by the Labour government. There is an embattled Labour government back in power, still busy muzzling free expression. But VS Naipaul could not have foreseen advertising execs turning Mauritius into ‘paradise’, nor the IMF/World Bank branding it a ‘success story’, nor Mauritius conceivably becoming the ‘biggest investor in India’.

Lindsey Collen
Vacant billboards as a metaphor for economic downturn. Lindsey Collen

Strangely, all four portrayals contain both truth and lies. Mauritius is like that. Contradictions and extremes.

The dodo was notoriously driven to extinction in 1780, while the pink pigeon was saved from the very brink of extinction 200 years later. A woman in slave times led a rebellion against the Dutch colonizers, who abandoned the country not once, but twice. The French were later kicked out in 1810 by the British, who were in turn kicked out at Independence in 1968. And twice since then, in 1982 and 1995, the Mauritian electorate has voted the government parties out so entirely that they lost every single seat in the National Assembly. In-between times, everything is becalmed.

In colonial times, Mauritius was a one-crop sugar-cane economy but the Royal Road in the capital, Port Louis, was lined with a kilometre of hardware stores for ship’s chandlers worldwide, while the Port itself was a shop-counter for East-West trade. The Powers-that-Be actually brought in the entire population as a ‘workforce’ to make these three ventures profitable. So Mauritius did become something of an overcrowded barracoon – for 100 years under slavery, 100 years under the legal framework of indenture, and 100 years under still-draconian wage-slavery laws.

It is a country invented by colonization. Perhaps this fact makes for extremes, in that there is not the moderating influence of a millennial history. Or maybe it is ‘cyclones’, those visitations that build and build and then wreak havoc, from time to time.

Lindsey Collen
Pasting posters in a campaign for mother-tongue education, introduced for the first time in 2012 Lindsey Collen

The most recent havoc was wreaked by the World Trade Organization. It outlawed guaranteed markets for sugar and textiles. This contributed towards employment falling from 50,000 to 3,500 in sugar and from 100,000 to 55,000 in textiles. The European Union compensation was squandered by the government, which gave it to the sugar bosses using the money to destroy rather than create jobs. Precious capital designed to ‘restructure the economy’ was used to ‘restructure the sugar industry’. Cane is still grown – now for ethanol from molasses, electricity from straw, as well as for refined sugar.

Now, the largest work sector is tourism. When VS Naipaul wrote his piece, there were no hotels to speak of. Now they are all over the place, all ‘paradise’ – that place where vegetation is lush green but where it never rains, and where hotel workers smile all day. It’s a labile sector, sensitive to economic downturns in Europe and minor epidemics. It also ruins the very paradise environment it so needs.

When Mauritius came under IMF and World Bank scrutiny in the 1970s, loans poured in, but the conditions attached to them were never enforceable. It was a lively democracy, where opposition political parties, social associations and militant trade unions all fought to maintain universal benefits: free education all the way up, free high-quality healthcare, universal old age pensions, and free bus travel at all times for pensioners, disabled people and students. So the greatest ‘success’ was that IMF ‘medicine’ was actually not administered.

Another big sector is ‘offshore’. With a non-double-tax agreement with India, investors from the US place capital in Mauritius when investing in India, then choose to pay zero tax here. This produces the true lie that Mauritius is the biggest investor in India.
The republic consists of many islands, including main island Mauritius, outer islands Rodrigues, Agalega, St Brandon – as well as Chagos, including Diego Garcia (illegally occupied by the UK, which sublets part of it to the US for a military base) and Tromelin, which is jointly managed with France due to a territorial dispute.

Country Profile: Mauritius Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam.
Economy GNI per capita $7,740 (Madagascar $440, UK $38,540)
Monetary unit Mauritian Rupee.
Main exports Textiles, sugar, seafood
People 1.3 million. Population growth rate 1990-2010 1.0%. People per sq km 637 (UK 253)
Health Infant mortality 13 per 1,000 live births (Madagascar 43, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 1,600 (UK 1 in 4,700). HIV prevalence 1.0%.
Environment Over-use of nitrates has weakened the soil and destroyed some lagoons. Car exhaust pollution bad in the capital. Soil erosion in Rodrigues Island.
Culture Culturally eclectic, drawing from India, the West and Africa. Music often fusion – jazz, Western classical, Indian, traditional Mauritian around sega and Bhojpuri songs. Literature in Kreol, French, English, Hindi. Flourishing visual arts.
Religion Hindu (50%), Catholic (25%), Muslim (20%), plus Buddhist, atheist, other Christian.
Language Kreol (84%), Bhojpuri (5.3%), French 3.6%. The official language in the National Assembly and all administration is, however, English.
Human development index 0.729 – 77th out of 187 countries (Madagascar 0.490, UK 0.963).
Sources
Country Profile: Mauritius ratings in detail
Previously reviewed
2002
Income distribution
A rich man pays more for monthly car parking than a poor woman earns per month. And the GINI co-efficient is worsening.
Life expectancy
73 years (Madagascar 66, UK 80).
Position of women
Women are both oppressed and organized. The 2012 law ensures 30% women candidates for parties in municipal and village elections. The issue of women’s emancipation is, however, not necessarily addressed.
Literacy
Officially 88%, but government statistics are deduced from school attendance. Actual literacy is more like 65%, mainly due to the failure to use mother tongues in schools.
Freedom
Demonstrations are now illegal if the police are not informed eight days in advance. Recent use of repressive laws against political opponents. New anti-strike legislation is being prepared.
Sexual minorities
Rural society is easy on male homosexuality, but cities stigmatize all gays. Recent laws protect against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. An association called ‘Arc-en-ciel’ (‘rainbow’) unites gay people.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The Labour government’s platform is to ‘democratize the economy’, which is similar to South Africa’s ‘black business empowerment’. It means the State doing favours for firms that are not the established capitalists from colonial times. But it makes little difference what community your boss comes from when draconian new labour laws facilitate their sacking you. A new Equal Opportunities Act was passed in 2012 against discrimination. A new ‘social register’ to ‘target’ the poor has been instituted, in an attempt to undermine the universality of existing benefits.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 461 This column was published in the April 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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