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  • The Mauritius Enigma
  • William F.S. Miles (bio)

In a region of the world where poverty and undemocratic government seem to be the rule, why is Mauritius such an exception? Long cited as one of only two African nation-states enjoying a continuous spell of democracy since independence (the other being Botswana), and with an impressive record of economic growth over the last two decades, Mauritius has been the darling of the World Bank and of other development and governance specialists. This small and crowded island nation of over one million people off the coast of southeast Africa is forcing itself onto the mental map of all those searching for viable models of sustainable democracy in Africa and other developing regions. Yet Mauritius’s economic, historical, and demographic profile would seem to bode ill for sustainable development and democracy.

Current attempts to account for the “Mauritian miracle” have focused primarily on its market-oriented economic policies.1 Yet however important economic reform may be for democratic consolidation, it provides at best only a partial explanation for why democracy has thrived in Mauritius. A broader analysis must take into account the legacy of the country’s peculiar colonial history; its political geography and present demography; and its robust and longstanding civil society. In short, to understand the enigma of Mauritian democracy, one must plumb the depths of Mauritian political culture. [End Page 91]

Nearly a third of Mauritius’s population (the so-called Creoles) are descendants of slaves brought from the African mainland. Most Creoles have remained at or near the bottom of the country’s socioeconomic ladder, but following a typical colonial pattern, those who have attained a measure of prosperity are almost invariably of mixed descent and lighter skin color. Creoles are Christians, for the most part Roman Catholics.

One out of every six Mauritians is a Muslim whose ancestors hailed from prepartition India. Strong concentrations of Muslims are found in the southern part of the island, although no villages have Islamic majorities. As independence loomed in 1968, riots broke out between Muslims and Creoles. Most of this unrest was confined to Port Louis, the capital, and led to a permanent migration of Creoles into the countryside and to Curepipe, Mauritius’ second-largest city. Islamic fundamentalism, although it has taken a much gentler form in these latitudes, has begun in recent years to make inroads among the Mauritian Muslims.

Half of all Mauritians are the progeny of non-Muslim indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent who were recruited to work on Mauritius’s sugar plantations. Although ostensibly sharing a common religion (Hinduism), they still remain divided on the basis of caste, ancestral language, and region of descent. The major fault line that divides Indo-Mauritians separates “Hindus” (of northern Indian origin) from “Tamils” (from the Dravidian south). Color is also a factor here, in that people from the north of India are generally lighter-skinned than those from the south. Smaller numbers of other Indian communities of origin (for example, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu) dot the Mauritian ethnic landscape. And while the entire panoply of castes from the subcontinent is not replicated in Mauritius (mysteriously, untouchability seems to have disappeared during the passage across the Indian Ocean), the Vaish (a caste just below the Brahmins) have preserved virtual hegemony at the highest levels of governance.

Chinese and French islanders are few in number but hold disproportionate economic influence, the former as small shopkeepers and international entrepreneurs, and the latter as landowners and businesspeople. Sugar cane, tourism, and textile processing constitute the mainstays of the island’s economy. It would be a crude but not wholly inaccurate generalization to say that Hindus are politically dominant as a result of universal suffrage, while Franco-Mauritians, Sino-Mauritians, and upper-class (generally lighter-skinned) Creoles continue to hold the economic reins. Afro-Mauritians are on the bottom rungs.

Given such ethnic diversity and economic stratification, it is not surprising that observers have long remarked that inhabitants of the island nation seem to lack a sense of national identity. Only when they [End Page 92] are overseas, goes the adage, do they think of themselves as “Mauritian.” At home, they identify themselves primarily as...