Apologists for the newly-opened, but as yet unused, King Mswati III Airport in Swaziland are going to extraordinary lengths to talk up the value of the project, dubbed by critics the King’s ‘vanity project’.
Leading the charge is the Swazi Observer group of newspapers that is in effect owned by the King.
The Sunday Observer (25 May 2014) claimed the airport was a ‘heat’ (presumably it meant a ‘hit’) in Botswana. It then manufactured a story claiming that government ministers from all over Africa, who were in Botswana for the ANOCA games, ‘praised the standards of the airport’.
In fact, it only quoted one of them, Sudan’s Minister of Sports, who admitted he had never been to the airport and had never even visited Swaziland.
The Observer is one of the cheerleaders for the airport, formerly known as Sikhuphe, which was officially opened in March 2014. No commercial airline has flown in or out of the airport, and none have said they plan to do so in the future.
Even King Mswati himself does not use the airport, built at a cost of at least E3 billion (US$300 million) in a wilderness in southeast Swaziland. He prefers to fly his private jet from the Matsapha Airport, which is close to both the kingdom’s capital, Mbabane, and the main commercial city, Manzini.
This is not the only time recently that the Swazi Observer has misled its readers about the potential of the airport.
On13 May 2014 it quoted Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) Corporate Affairs Director Sabelo Dlamini saying was being discussed to fly passengers from Swaziland to Durban, South Africa, for onward flights to Germany and the United Kingdom. The newspaper ignored the fact that Swazi people wishing to fly to those European destinations can already do so via Johannesburg.
Dlamini has made extravagant claims about the potential of the airport in the past. In May 2011, the Weekend Observer reported him saying, ‘We have established possible routes which we want to market to the operators. Some of the proposed routes from Sikhuphe are Durban, Cape Town, Lanseria Airport in Sandton, Harare and Mozambique.’ But nothing has happened since.
Dlamini also claimed at the time that he met with ‘at least five big airline operators’. The newspaper only named three of them; Knysla Tour Operators, Timeless Ethiopia and Satoa Tours. None of them were ‘big airline operators’ and since 2011 nothing has been heard again about them.
In January 2014, SWACAA placed an advertisement in newspapers in Swaziland claiming, ‘Two airlines have confirmed operations at Sikhuphe.’ It did not name them, but did say there would be flights to Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town in South Africa and to Maputo in Mozambique. Nothing has been heard since.
As recently as October 2013, a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Sikhuphe International Airport was widely perceived as a ‘vanity project’ because of its scale and opulence compared with the size and nature of the market it seeks to serve.
In June 2013, an engineer’s report was published by to the Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa saying the structure of the airport was defected and large jet airlines would not be able to land,
No independent study on the need for Sikhuphe Airport was ever undertaken and the main impetus behind its construction has been King Mswati. He believes the airport will lend credibility to his dream to make Swaziland a ‘First World’ nation by 2022.
In 2003, the International Monetary Fund said Sikhuphe should not be built because it would divert funds away from much needed projects to fight poverty in Swaziland. About seven in ten of King Mswati’s 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty, with incomes of less than US$2 per day. Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. The King has 13 palaces and a personal fortune once estimated by Forbes Magazine to be US$200 million. Meanwhile, seven in ten of his subjects live in abject poverty with an income of less than US$2 a day.
Swaziland already has an airport at Matsapha, which carries an estimated 70,000 passengers a year.