Friday, February 22, 2013


Access to information and studying journalism in Swaziland – both difficult

By The Swaziland Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, 21 February 2013

The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland heard that His Majesty’s government recently labeled journalism a ‘non-priority area’. Journalism and mass communication students at the University of Swaziland, it follows, would no longer receive any financial assistance from the government. 

In the past journalism students might be eligible for a government scholarship, helping them shoulder the economic burden. It is understood that one year’s tuition for the university’s journalism degree is about E13,000 ($US1,440). In addition to paying tuition fees, students require at least E8,000 a year for rent ($US880), and then money for living on top of that, say E15,000 ($US1,660). In total, therefore, the bare minimum needed per year for one Swazi journalism student is about E36,000 ($US4,000).  

The Institute, a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech, also heard an unfortunate story about a journalism student struggling to pay her tuition fees. A talented and enthusiastic student who has fought tooth and nail to get herself this far (2nd semester of 2nd year journalism studies) was about to drop out owing to poverty and official indifference. 

She needed E6,000 ($US660) to pay the balance of this year’s tuition fees. After exhausting all other avenues to raise the funds – including offering to work for free at a local newspaper where she’d already volunteered during school holidays if they loaned her the money; and writing pleading letters to various government departments – the 20-year-old student tells of approaching the king’s office, where big money and real power reside. 

Swaziland, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique, is often described as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy. King Mswati III has ruled since 1986. A constitution was introduced in 2005 but the king (and, it is said, the king’s mother – known as the ‘Queen Mother’) hold ultimate authority in a land devastated by poverty and AIDS. 

Médecins Sans Frontières, an international health organisation, reported that life expectancy had halved in Swaziland from 60 years-of-age in the 1990s to 31 in 2007. The twin epidemics of AIDS and tuberculosis are the main killers, said MSF. 

The journalism student says the local newspaper went quiet on her offer loan offer, and she heard nothing back from government. At the king’s office (where she left a light-brown A4 envelope containing academic transcripts, a letter urging for help and her parents’ death certificates) she explained her story to a front desk secretary.  The student says she never heard back from the king’s office. 

Before knowing all this it might be easy to simply tell students to get a part time job and ‘suck it up’. It might also be easy for well-meaning international aid agencies and big ‘multilateral’ donor organisations to hijack the student’s poverty, incorporate said poverty into foreign-drafted agendas, drown her in pity and ‘training workshops’, then present her a meaningless certificate and pretend all is okay. The workshop has been held – tick the box. The project has been completed. Another tick. Has the donor organisation got its logo and photo in the paper? Indeed. Has the student been helped? Agh… hmm. 

In a kingdom where youth unemployment is said to be over 50 percent, and in a labour market where it is near impossible to fire anyone – or offer ‘voluntary retirement packages’ to bloated civil servants – that easy refrain, ‘get a job’, or ‘let’s run a workshop’, doesn’t sound so informed, realistic, or, ultimately, compassionate.

When the Swazi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) tried to verify the young student’s story, and also to verify if journalism students are currently without any government assistance, all that was found was bureaucratic confusion, unanswered calls and messages, and fax lines masquerading as phone lines. 

One source in the ministry of education said as far as she knew journalism students are “not covered”. She then suggested contacting the scholarships director, located in the Ministry of Labour. The scholarships director’s phone was lonely; the call kept bouncing to an annoyed receptionist, who passed on the number of the Department of Labour principal secretary. The principal secretary failed to answer several calls. The scholarship’s director never returned the call, after several messages were left. Messages were also left for the Minister of Education and Minister of Labour to return calls, to no avail. 

MISA-Swaziland calls on the government to clearly state whether journalism students at the University of Swaziland receive any financial assistance. Or, as has been reported, journalism is a ‘non-priority area’? And, if it is a non-priority area, MISA-Swaziland asks the government why it has been labeled such. If the answer is because help for journalism studies – as well as several other university courses – is not affordable, MISA asks the Minister of Education and Labour: Not affordable when compared against what? Compared, perhaps, to a country of hungry, illiterate students? Or, perhaps, when weighed against the ruling elite’s unearned royalties? MISA-Swaziland asks what the money is being spent on (or lost on due to corruption) instead of helping university students? 

Swaziland, according to the World Bank, is a ‘lower middle income country’ – this means that there is money in the nation. Swaziland has a GNI per capita of E30,000 ($US3,330). Gross National Income (GNI) per capita is total income of a nation divided by the total number of people in the nation. 

Therefore, as a lower middle income nation, if current Swazi wealth was more equitably created and spread, a regular citizen each year might take home a sum closer to E30,000 – about E2,500 each month. 

One wonders how much, in reality, each Swazi takes home each month? And this is before the economy has, one day, shifted from the grasp of a kleptocratic elite to the open pastures lying in wait. 
But. If the economy is already back on track, as was said by the minister of finance and dutifully reported by the local media, why is money not flowing into ‘productive areas’ like helping university students to finish their studies?

The short answer is negligence, incompetence and corruption. The Swazi Weekend Observer, a weekly newspaper, on 16 February 2013 reported the following headlines: ‘King rallies nation to work even harder to resuscitate economy’ on the front page; ‘Scholarship official arrested for corruption’ on page 7; ‘Joblessness: youths scramble to sell sand’ on page 14. 

The Times of Swaziland, a privately owned daily, in an editorial on 20 February 2013 says: “The revelation by Labour Minister Lufto Dlamini that around 270 students at [the University of Swaziland] have not yet received their scholarship allowances due to corruption has penetrated the very bedrock of this society… For almost fifty years, Swazis have struggled to go to school, cold, hungry, barefoot, walking kilometres in the dark to get to school on time. Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini was one such pupil and has spoken before of how he strained his eyes studying by candlelight before electricity…” 

That same young student who strained his eyes in the hope of a better future is now the unelected prime minister, appointed by His Majesty King Mswati. He is at the centre of several alleged corruption scandals and last year ignored the parliament’s constitutional decision that should have seen him sacked. 

The young journalism student, who was a breath away from falling into the cracks, has since been loaned the money she needs to finish university. A privately owned magazine, The Nation, lent her the money and in return the student will write stories for the magazine until the loan is paid off: gaining journalism experience from seasoned reporters while finishing her studies. The deal was made possible because the director of MISA-Swaziland is a founding member of The Nation magazine. Now, when the student has finished university she stands a fighting chance of landing a journalism job. 

The Swaziland chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa is a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech. 

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