SARUA’s aim is thus to strengthen the leadership and institutions of higher education in the southern African region
Originally uninhabited, Mauritius was first visited by Indian sailors about a thousand years ago. Then in the 16th century came the Europeans: first the Portuguese, then the Dutch who in 1638 established the first settlement. Then the French took charge in 1721, and after a slow start the island developed a successful economy based on sugar. By the beginning of the 19th century the British had grown tired of the attacks on their merchant fleet by island-based French pirates. So in 1810 they captured what the French had called Ile de France, renamed it Mauritius, and ruled the island for the next 150 years.
Around 65 percent of the population of Mauritius are either Creole or of French descent, with most of the remainder coming from India. Small European and Chinese communities make up the balance. Although the official language is English, Creole has become the lingua franca, and French is still widely used as well. The current population stands at just under 1,3-million, making Mauritius one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Even in the 1970s the rapidly increasing population – a phenomenon caused in no small measure by the eradication of malaria in the previous decade – was thought to be insoluble. Writing in a British newspaper in 1972, author V S Naipaul referred to Mauritius as The Overcrowded Barracoon, making obvious reference to the island’s slaving past when it used captive Madagascans and Africans to provide the labour for the sugar cane estates. Would this tiny slave enclosure finally sink back into the ocean under its own inexorably increasing weight? ‘Tranquillity recedes,’ Naipaul wrote. ‘The barracoon is overcrowded; the escape routes are closed. The people are disaffected and have no sense of danger.’
Yet these pessimistic forecasts have not been fulfilled. Certainly, in the years following the island’s independence from Britain in 1968 there were several years of hesitation, but in the end the people of Mauritius have proved more than capable of taking charge of their own destiny.
High levels of emigration and sustained birth control campaigns have helped to stabilise the population. Even more important to this end was the attention paid to the economy and to education.
On the economic front, Mauritius set about reducing its dependency on sugar by pursuing an agricultural diversification programme and by the development of tax-free industrial zones that encouraged foreign investment in manufacturing, especially from the East. Mauritius is now set to become a duty free island within the next five years; corporate tax has recently been reduced to encourage non-resident companies to trade or invest. Tourism has also been nurtured, and Mauritius is set to become the first country in the world to have blanket wireless Internet coverage. All these measures have transformed the island from a low-income agriculturally based economy at independence to a middleincome diversified economy based in a politically stable democratic structure.
Impressive, post-independence progress has been made on the educational front. Primary education was made free, universal and compulsory; and as early as 1976 secondary schooling was also made free, as were certain elements of post-secondary education in 1988. Plans are now being developed to turn Mauritius into an international centre of excellence in the tertiary education sector.