Mauritius: A Rudderles Boat in Turbulent Oceans

The dereliction of duty on the part of our political leaders has led to a gradual abandonment of some of the vital strengths which had contributed to our past “success story” in spite of what seemed like insurmountable constraints

For decades now there has been a lot of talk about structural reforms, democratization of the economy, business facilitation, liberalization and de-regulation in this country. Unfortunately the reality is that most of the above have been mere fads and a lot of hype.

A country which used to boast of being a model welfare state for the rest of Africa, was praised in many quarters for its “economic miracle” of the 1980s, and enjoyed a high reputation for respect of the rule of law founded on the strengths of its democratic and legal institutions, has been gradually drifting away from its fundamentals and letting go of its erstwhile strengths. The acceleration of the decline in the quality and resilience of our institutions can probably be traced back to the turn of this century although for most observers the rot had already begun since the late 1990s. The end result is that over the past years the country has been lingering in a state of persistently low growth of less than 3.5% which is largely below the benchmark 5-6% needed for a noteworthy improvement in national social welfare.

When Mauritius was first declassified from the list of countries which were eligible to receive certain forms of financial support or “aid” from developed countries and international financial institutions because of the strengths of its economic performance, there were frequent comments about how we were being unfairly punished for our successes. Then came the start of what were dubbed as “negotiations” between the European Union and ACP countries but which would eventually lead to the predetermined abolition of preferential access to our traditional markets and the end of the Sugar Protocol. Finally, the Great Economic Crisis of 2008 has had devastating effects on our traditional markets for exports of goods and services. Undeniably all these events have seriously impacted our economic performance and tested our resilience.

Blaming these external shocks for our poor economic performance and the deteriorating social climate, while justified, does not however tell the whole story. It is imperative to acknowledge that at a time when the country was crying for strong and visionary leadership our political and economic elites have singularly failed to rise to the occasion. All through these troubled times politicians have been more concerned with trying to play to short-term public opinion when not simply acting to please the most obscure lobbies which threatened them with future political retributions.

In so doing these politicians engaged in what political author Henning Meyer describes in the following terms: “They are stuck in what I like to call transactional politics and don’t dare to move towards more transformational politics. The difference is simple: a transactional politician tries to supply the policies that are demanded by the population at any given time. A transformational politician’s first aim is to move things on and implement a medium to long term strategy that changes society for the better.”

Such ineptitude from the political leadership when turbulence in our external environment is deeply challenging the basic parameters of our existing socio-economic model tends to work in favour of the existing economic elites. With the vast amount of resources, expertise and experience at their disposal, they can always cater to their best interests, and even more so in a highly volatile environment. Thus the partially deliberate and partially reckless abandon of the State’s power of intervention and regulation favours the dominant trend for structural socio-economic inequality and erodes the fundamental principle of political equality.

In concrete terms, this dereliction of duty on the part of our political leaders has led to, as we have said above, a gradual abandonment of some of the vital strengths which had contributed to our past “success story” in spite of what seemed like insurmountable constraints at the time of Independence. Among these we shall here comment on four of what could be construed to be the most obvious and illustrative of our plight.

Economic Model

The divide between political power holders (sometimes referred to as the State bourgeoisie) and those who control the “commanding heights of the economy” has been well documented. It is a feature that has defined the economic history of the country ever since the working classes emerged as a political force to reckon with. The tripartite model of governance and the famous Public-Private partnership which resulted from the confrontations among these forces have provided a platform which, even though far from perfect, allowed some form of participation from different stakeholders.

Progressive forces, when well organized, could astutely manoeuvre to leverage their strengths in such tripartite negotiations to advance the interest of the working classes and the most vulnerable sections of society.

In the era of dominant liberal ideology such tripartism has been relegated at best to mere motions and the voice of the working classes and even of the state bourgeoisies subordinated to the “primacy of the market”.

A progressive government and an active State would revive the Pubic-Private sector partnership and deepen the tripartite mechanisms for consultations and effective participation from all parties in the formulation of the economic strategy for a fairer and more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

Social Mobility

The single most important instrument of economic development and social progress in Mauritius all through the 20th century has been access to education and the resulting social mobility. In spite of “free education” the latest trend points to a migration of middle class students to private/paying education (from pre-primary to university) and the resulting “ghettoisation” of public/free government education. Governments of all hues since more than three decades have contributed to this trend by failing to stop the rot.

A progressive government and an active State would urgently take measures to reverse this trend and re-instate public education as the single most important instrument for reduction of inequality of opportunity.

Institutions

The up-gradation of our economy from a constrained developing economy into a relatively prosperous middle-income economy has been achieved in a historically short span of time, following a spurt of high economic growth. One of the immediate consequences has been that most of our institutions, which form the basis of trust in processes, and people have been left on the back foot and are struggling to adapt to the rapid changes in the immediate environment. The scourge of corruption, which is regularly identified as the most serious social ill eating at the fabric of society, is a direct outcome of such dysfunctional institutions leading to all the trappings of a shift from a democracy to a kleptocracy. The lack of trust among stakeholders has become one of the critical stumbling blocks on the execution of projects by government and private sector alike.

A progressive government and an active State would urgently introduce measures for increased transparency in processes and ensure greater accountability for those who are vested with executive powers of decision. A Public Service Reform Commission would need to be set up to revamp the structures of the Civil Service and bring it in line with the exigencies of its mission.

The End Word: Political Transition

Newly anointed Cardinal Maurice Piat in a recent interview has clearly stated that it is time for our erstwhile political leaders to “laisser la place à d’autres”. The position of this column has been that it is morally questionable that the same handful of leaders has been at the head of our major political parties for most of our political history as a nation of nearly half a century. Added to this the whole literature on change management would point to the fact that it is extremely doubtful whether the same people who have been responsible for creating such a mess over so long a time, could actually be either inclined or possess the will and ability to introduce the radical changes needed to overhaul the situation.

Rajiv Servansingh

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