16 September 2011
By Leon Hartwell
Swaziland’s King Mswati III Has No Clothes On
Last week witnessed the ‘Global Week of Action for Swaziland’ where thousands of protestors demanded democratic reforms from Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Although the people of Swaziland love their king, scores of Swazis would add that the monarchy will have to change the way it operates if it wants to survive.
Swaziland’s problems are proportionally speaking a lot bigger than most countries in the region. Many of its problems are directly related to King Mswati III, who has been ruling the country since he was 18 years old in 1986. There are very few laws restricting his power and the king continues to dictate all three branches of government.
Swaziland’s real GDP per capita in 2010 was $1,640 or more than four times that of the average Sub-Saharan African country ($421) if one excludes South Africa and Nigeria. However, Swaziland’s economy is not more effective or efficient than most countries in the region; up to 70% of its government revenue is derived from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). Critics argue that SACU revenue sharing has disproportionally benefitted Swaziland’s inefficient economy. Despite the country’s middle-income status, almost 70% of Swazis live in chronic poverty.
Unlike the average Swazi, the monarchy is conspicuously rich. The royal family is said to control large sections of the economy to the point where it impedes economic activity. Royal companies are also reportedly exempted from paying taxes.
To contextualise the king’s wealth; Mswati’s net worth is $100 million (excluding a $10 billion trusteeship) which, according to Forbes, makes him the 15th richest royal in the world, one spot behind Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Beatrix is still twice as rich as Mswati, but here is the difference: Swaziland’s population (1,3 million) is almost 12,7 times smaller than that of the Netherlands (16,5 million). More importantly, using 2010 figures, the Dutch economy ($676,9 billion) is approximately 112 times larger than the Swazi economy ($6,067 billion). This amounts to classic kleptocracy.
According to the Human Development Index (HDI), Swaziland’s life expectancy at birth stood at 60,5 years in 1990 and today it is only 47. A lot of this has to do with the HIV/AIDS crisis, more than 1 out of 4 Swazis between the ages of 15-49 has contracted HIV.
Although Mswati is outspoken about HIV/AIDS, his priorities seems to be at odds with the realities on the ground. For example, while effective service delivery requires a merit-based civil service, many of Swaziland’s senior bureaucrats are appointed based on nepotism. Its ‘guns versus butter model’ is also somewhat skewed. The CIA World Factbook ranks Swaziland as the 18th largest military spender measured as a percentage of its GDP.
Yet, Mswati has reason to be paranoid as the authority of the monarchy has been challenges on all fronts while 100,000 depend on food aid. In September 2008 and in March 2011, approximately 10,000 Swazis took to the streets to demand democratic reforms.
Given Swaziland’s governance deficiencies, many South Africans are angered at talks of a ‘Swazi bailout’ of $355 million. Some economists argue that there is no need to worry about it as the loan represents only 0,1% of South Africa’s GDP.
Political economists would argue that loans tend to establish a power relationship between the debtor and creditor. The latter can demand that the debtor must take extraordinary measures. Assuming that the loan negotiations between the two countries will be finalised (Swaziland is looking for an alternative lender with fewer conditionalities), what can we expect from South Africa?
South Africa’s Deputy Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), Ebrahim Ebrahim, gave a public speech in 2009 describing relations between Swaziland and South Africa as ‘good’, which dates back to the ANC’s movements in exile during Apartheid. At the time, Ebrahim stated that South Africa is in a difficult position; Swaziland was a friend from the liberation days, but he also hinted that Pretoria has to break the silence on human rights abuses and that it should promote democracy.
By April this year, after major protests and Swaziland’s security forces’ disproportionate response to it, Pretoria became more firm, with DIRCO calling on Swaziland ‘to begin a political dialogue with a view to seek a speedy and peaceful solution to the current situation.’ The ANC, its youth league and alliance partners have also spoken in support of Swaziland’s pro-democracy movements.
In August, South Africa’s Finance Ministry said that financial assistance to Swaziland was based on a number of conditions; one of which specifically referred to a 2004 bilateral agreement on the establishment of a Joint Bilateral Commission for Cooperation (JBCC).
The JBCC aims to promote ‘democracy, human rights and good governance, credible and effective leadership, development of a strong civil society and respect for universal human rights and the rule of law.’ Pretoria specifically asked for ‘renewed impetus’ by the JBCC and called on stakeholders to agree on objectives and time-frames for governance reforms.
Given South Africa’s momentum in demanding governance reform in Swaziland, it will be difficult for Pretoria to backtrack. Swaziland has not experienced this type of political unrests in decades, and one could expect it to escalate as thousands more civil servants and those affected by a possible decline in service delivery join the protests. The reason being that another conditionality attached to the loan is that Mbabane should implement the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Adjustment Roadmap (FAR), which proposes a 20% cut in the civil service.
Swaziland’s monarchy can no longer hide behind the cloak of tradition while the Swazi nation is dying, things have to change. Monarchies around the world have survived, not because they continued to monopolise decision making, but because they have taken a back seat. If Mswati wants to keep his monarchy, he will have to adapt to the twenty-first century.
Viva to the people of Swaziland.
Leon Hartwell is an independent political analyst based in Harare