In the polarised world that we live in today, it’s hard to find examples of countries not experiencing some kind of political, cultural or economic turbulence. But 2000km off the coast of mainland Africa there lies a tiny island nation 45km wide called Mauritius. A prosperous emblem of social, cultural and economic success that has paved the way for people to call this speck on a map a ‘miracle’.
A country that will demystify your preconceived notions about what Africa is today and a crystal ball of what it can become as a continent. This year it celebrates 50 years of independence from the claws of the British empire, and since that time in 1968, they have become one of the very few examples of countries that bid adieu to its slave owners managing to find its feet swiftly.
Most people for one reason or another in the west are unaware of Mauritian history let alone their successes. An excellent place to start is its colonial history, disrupted several times over by the French, British, Portuguese and Dutch it became a hub for the slave trade in the 18th and 19th Centuries, depositing Indians and Africans from all across the world. While most people would expect all of this colonial interference to leave Mauritius in a predictable mess, they would be proved wrong.
When the writer VS Naipaul went to visit the island nation in 1972 he wrote an explosive essay titled The Overcrowded Barracoon discussing the potentially explosive race relations between its ethnic mix of Indians, Africans, Chinese and French. He harped on it’s over obsessive sugarcane industry describing it as a one-dimensional wasteland. He was wrong as well.
Mauritius has narrowed the gap of poverty from 40% to 8% in just 45 years, improving life expectancy from 62 to 75 in only under 50 years and increased their GDP from USD 200 in 1968 to USD 10,000 where it stands today putting most of the country in an upper middle-class income bracket.
How? The government made a wise decision early on to diversify its economic interests hence its success in the financial services and tourism markets. It also helps that they have almost 100% literacy rates across the country.
Its economy continues to grow at 3-4% year on year, and while its mainland counterparts Nigeria and South Africa are light years ahead regarding the size of its economy, Mauritius has been voted the best country in Africa to do business. Not to mention for every person that lives there on the island they receive an equal amount of tourists that is 1.3 million, these are incredibly prosperous numbers.
Mauritius has stayed behind the curtains for most of its infancy, and it is still a country very much in transition, still trying to find its seat on the global stage, with most of its bilateral relations are taken up with South Africa and India. One thing you quickly realise is that there is an excellent opportunity to extend this relationship to Europe and beyond. And that looks set to change, its biggest success story is the financial services industry, with 20,000 companies establishing themselves here over the last few decades, it has become an epicentre for tax services, consultants and business managers.
Another emerging industry at the moment is film. It’s opened up a wealth of new opportunities mostly selling its incredible backdrop to the world. And while it usually attracts the Bollywood community, last year it lured its first primary US film production with stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathway for Serenity through tax incentives. The government introduced a 40% tax rebate on international productions; this has now brought a hive of excitement and activity to its shores.
What strikes most people who are outsiders is the religious and ethnic harmony that they witness. Muslims make up 17%, Hindus by far the most substantial majority of 49% and Christians 32%. Many of the denominations visit each other’s temples and each other on their high holidays. You could be cynical about this, but look at the cohesion history, it has never succumbed to sectarian violence or religious conflict.
With all of that being said, there are points of contention, their most significant sector, the financial services industry while achieving acclaim has attracted equal opportunity for more shadowy practices, rumours of its growing offshore tax market and suspect business practices has grown. There is also the issue of Chinese interference into the local economy, their recent invasion of Africa has made many across the continent feel unsettled. When you drive through here, you find Chinese property construction signs almost everywhere. Could it become a debtors paradise in the future? We’ll have to wait and see.
Lastly, much of the economic empowerment that the country has experienced still hasn’t trickled down to a large percentage of the population, mainly the black Creole population who still live in overcrowded conditions.
With that being said, this is a melting pot that has experienced a tumultuous history wrapped inside a positive story of emergence and growth. Mauritius has a lot to teach the rest of the world. Its 50-year history as an independent nation feels more like a social experiment in contrast to the rest of mainland Africa.
Over a century ago the writer Mark Twain said: “Mauritius was made first, then heaven.” He may have been right.