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Eswatini hires South African PR firm to make it look better for investors

Eswatini hires South African PR firm to make it look better for investors
Mandulo Ambrose Dlamini, Prime Minister of Eswatini. (Photo: Flickr / World Economic Forum / Greg Beadle)

Eswatini wants to position itself as a stable, peaceful investment destination – and one that could be home to businesses leaving South Africa – and it’s roped in Vuma Reputation Management to help shake its image of a despotic monarchy.

It was a rare event from a government that has not been in the habit of communicating much with international media in the past. 

Swaziland Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini, Finance Minister Neal Rijkenberg and Minister of Commerce, Industry and Trade Mangqoba Khumalo on Thursday morning addressed a Zoom briefing for foreign journalists. It was facilitated by South African-based Vuma Reputation Management, which was hired to help improve the image of the kingdom, which is known to stifle political dissent and other freedoms, and where the king has absolute power.

Eswatini’s new approach of being a private sector-led economy and an export-driven one means it has to look good to investors, especially to help economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic. Eswatini has had a severe lockdown, and a two-month booze ban that started on 1 July is now running into a third month, despite new infections being on the decline – not entirely the kind of certainty businesspeople like.

Khumalo, in his concluding remarks, pointed to the fact that all three men addressing the briefing are from private sector backgrounds, which could imply that they are more competent in creating an environment conducive for business than, say, career politicians. Khumalo was previously managing director of Coca-Cola in the country, while Rijkenberg “is a successful businessperson running businesses for many years”.  Dlamini was CEO of MTN in the country when King Mswati III appointed him.

The bad ratings for personal freedoms and democracy Eswatini regularly gets from the likes of Freedom House “don’t really augur well with us because we come from environments where we were extremely competitive and we wanted to be rated the best,” Khumalo said. 

“I believe his majesty decided to put us in these roles to transform government and the country and to ensure that Eswatini is portrayed correctly at global level, and that we do the right things, so we are very committed to making the changes,” he said. 

At the end of July the country had a major PR setback when outgoing US ambassador to Eswatini, Lisa Peterson, in a press briefing streamed on social media (she must have known that the local media would not report much of it) slammed the millions King Mswati III had spent on 11 customised Rolls-Royce limousines in 2019, and on overseas trips for the royal family. She asked why Americans were pouring millions of dollars of their tax money into aid for the king’s impoverished subjects while he and his family lived lavish lives. 

The king must have been livid. When asked about it in the briefing, Rijkenberg said he welcomed the opportunity to set things straight. Although he said there was freedom of speech in Eswatini and the ambassador was entitled to her opinion, he didn’t dispute her facts, only the perception that the timing of her remarks created that the spending happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rijkenberg said Eswatini’s budgeting and finances were transparent, and it would be easy to check that the king didn’t use tax money to finance his spending spree. 

“I think we need to be clear and transparent to say the Eswatini king, long before even colonialists came to Africa, has owned thousands of cattle, and obviously he has got wealth in his own right as a person and as a monarch, and if he decided to buy Rolls-Royces with that, obviously it is his own decision.”

Freedom House scores Eswatini badly in terms of press freedom and note that it has laws such as the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and defamation laws that can be used to restrict media coverage, including publishing articles that “may excite disaffection” against the king. 

King Mswati III hasn’t been great for the country’s image internationally, but his appointees don’t speak ill of him. 

“The people of the Kingdom of Eswatini love their monarchy and are proud of that,” Khumalo said, adding that the country is peaceful and has had 400 years of peace and stability as a kingdom. 

He blames the bad publicity of Eswatini thus far on the fact that the country hasn’t been telling its own story loudly enough. 

“We want the world to know Eswatini is open for business. We really want the world to understand the Eswatini story from us because we have for a long while left that space unattended and what has happened is because nature doesn’t allow a vacuum, [other] people have defined us, but that definition is wrong. It is not who we are, it is not how we do business, it is not what is at the core and the centre of our culture.”

Just because Eswatini is different, doesn’t mean it is deficient, he said. 

Khumalo is also set to preside over the tabling of a bill – the Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill – that would make posting fake news that is damaging to the country a crime with fines up to R10-million or 10 years in prison. 

Strictly speaking, this isn’t part of Khumalo’s portfolio, but he’s standing in for King Mswati’s eldest daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, who is the minister of ICT and who has been on maternity leave since the beginning of the year.

Khumalo was quick to point out that this bill is actually intended to bring Eswatini online with the rest of the world, and it speaks to explicitly criminalising things like child pornography, cyber terrorism, identity-related crimes, cyberbullying and cyberstalking, extortion, website defacement, posting racist and xenophobic material, including inciting genocide and crimes against humanity, spamming, disclosure of confidential details during investigations, harassment, and violation of intellectual property rights.

He said it offered “a bouquet of protections because we are now fully digitalising – as a country we want to make sure that the platform is also correct in terms of protections for end users.”

Khumalo was adamant that the bill was “not aimed at curtailing media freedoms but more on how do we use globally benchmarked controls around the digital space in the country”.

Freedom House scores Eswatini badly in terms of press freedom and note that it has laws such as the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and defamation laws that can be used to restrict media coverage, including publishing articles that “may excite disaffection” against the king. 

“Journalists often face harassment, assault and intimidation, and self-censorship is reportedly common,” it notes in its Freedom of the World 2020 report. Eswatini’s overall score has, however, improved from 16 last year to 19 this year, with Dlamini saying his visit to Freedom House last year was the first by someone from Eswatini. He added that the country wanted to improve its scores, especially on press freedom.

The reform of Eswatini’s electoral system wasn’t discussed in the briefing, but even the African Union is of the opinion that it should be changed. After the country’s 2013 vote, its elections observer mission remarked that the disallowing of political parties in the electoral process meant the rights of association and assembly guaranteed in Eswatini’s constitution, were not “fully enjoyed”. Changes have, however, not been effected to date.

It’s still not clear whether the country is committed to making the actual changes to attract investors or whether it’s only focused on changing the image. “For us to change, it won’t happen overnight, but we are committed to changing the picture,” Khumalo said. DM

A few amendments were made to this article at 12.10pm on 4 September, 2020.

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