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IMF should think hard before dictating changes to Swaziland

Manqoba Nxumalo is a senior investigative reporter for the Times of Swaziland, the country's only independent group of newspapers. He is also a Norway-based activist, with particular interest in issues of human rights and media freedom.

Something is rotten in the Kingdom of Swaziland and it is more and more difficult for King Mswati's regime to mask the stench. And on 12 April, the opposition groups promise to turn Africa's last absolute monarchy into another Tunisia. Not a good time for the IMF to come swinging.

History is being made in Swaziland and the past few weeks have proved this. Following several recent protest marches, we have been inundated with reports of Swazi parliamentarians trying to respond to – and circumvent –  growing anti-government sentiment, mostly from the youth and students.

On the day of the biggest protest marches so far, 18 March, Mswati III was passing out soldiers at army headquarters. He sternly warned soldiers against siding with opponents of his government. Perhaps he wants to ensure that the loyalty of the army. That night Swazi prime minister Barnabas Sibusiso hastily convened a press conference where he announced the reshuffle of the principal secretaries.

Two days later, in a parliamentary session, senators asked the prime minister to “deal” with one of the founders of the April 12 Uprising Facebook group. Senators asked the prime minister to arrest a man we have come to know as “Gangadza Masilela” because the information he was spreading on Facebook about Swaziland was dangerous. The senators rightly observed that many uprisings had been started by Facebook and called for the prime minister to do something.

The following day, the minister of labour and social security called for people behind the April 12 Uprising to come to the table to negotiate with the government. He then laid down a condition: That the government was only ready to negotiate with anyone who had proof that the people of Swaziland wanted multi-party democracy. This demand epitomises the attitude of the government of Swaziland towards change.

It is quite evident the present regime has lost legitimacy and the economic collapse has not made their case any easier. However, what is worrying is the silence of the International Monetary Fund on these developments. The IMF has been scrutinising the government’s account books recommending this and suggesting that, but has not once talked about the root cause of the economic problems in Swaziland. Instead of acknowledging the political problem that caused the economic collapse in the first place, the IMF is suggesting structural-adjustment programmes and privatisation.

The economy has collapsed mainly because of, among other things, the exorbitant cost of the upkeep of the royal family, as well as pervasive corruption. For example, in the wake of the calls from higher authorities for fiscal prudence as receipts from Southern African Customs Union dropped to an all-time low, adding pressure to sluggish economic growth, the royal family’s budget was increased. This increase is reflected in the latest budget estimates released by minister of finance Majozi Sithole.

The government has been warned about its escalating reckless expenditure, which sees priorities often taking a backseat and an excessive government wage bill. Last year alone it was reported that government had budgeted R170 million (up from R130 million) for the royal family. In terms of the Royal Emoluments and Civil List Act, signed into the law by King Mswati III on 23 September 1998, each year for a decade R15 million and budget estimates for last year showed that a staggering R503 million, which is 5% of the R10 billion national budget for 2010/2011, has gone to cover expenditure associated with the monarchy. Making matters worse, according to the 2005 constitution the King, his mother, the Indlovukazi,  and the senior prince who exercises the duties of the king when the position is vacant.

The R503 million comprises R170 million from Royal Emoluments and Civil List, despite the law stating the amount should be R15 million; R158 million recurrent budget for the Swazi national treasury under the King’s office; the usual R125 million for state houses and R50 million for link roads to royal residences. The last two projects for the royal household have featured in the national budget for the past two years. A sum of R25 million for the rehabilitation, maintenance and construction of state houses is, effective from last fiscal year, under the Swazi national treasury and the R5 million royal link roads is still under the ministry of public works and transport. Paid under royal emoluments are salaries for the monarch and related payments to such immediate members of the royal household as determined by the king.

Previously it was revealed by the Times of Swaziland that the king’s brothers and sisters draw R50,000 yearly allowances from the monarch’s budget. Expenditure under the civil list category is monitored and managed by the royal trustees – led by the minister of finance. Any savings or excess amounts from the royal emoluments and civil list “budget” is not remitted to the Consolidated Fund, but invested by the royal trustees as they deem fit. The Consolidated Fund is the purse which supports and funds the Civil List. The Consolidated Fund is financed by the shares that government owns in the big investors in the country such as the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation and MTN Swaziland. The Consolidated Fund receives money from profit shares, and it’s estimated to receive about R16 billion on an annual basis. The fund is also said to be responsible for the repayment of government loans to the African Development Bank  and World Bank, which would amount to R1 billion a year, at least according to Swaziland Times columnist Qalakaliboli Dlamini.

Salary reviews for personnel in the king’s office and other royal residences, palaces and state guest houses are directly linked to those of civil servants. The law states that whenever there is an adjustment or review of salaries for civil servants such adjustments shall be applied to the salaries of personnel in the king’s office and the yearly sum of R15 million adjusted accordingly. Coupled with that, Forbes Magazine revealed in 2009 that King Mswati III himself has a personal fortune estimated at $200 million. The king also owns 10% of every mining company in Swaziland.

But the IMF has not spoken about these issues. Instead it suggests that civil servants’ salaries must be cut. In this year’s budget speech, finance minister Majozi Sithole revealed the country was losing up to R80 million a year owing to corruption. Not that we are unaware of the IMF’s neo-liberal agenda, but we all thought the fund would be logical in its assessment of the situation in Swaziland. The IMF wants the Swazi capitalist state, already dominated by the neo-liberal agenda, the World Bank and World Trade Organisation to accelerate privatisation. This agenda advocates “a lean and mean state” as expressed in official policy documents such as Swaziland’s Public Sector Management Programme and Economic and Social Reform Agenda. PSMP is the key vehicle used by the Swaziland government to deliver the devastating blow of privatisation within the public service.

Vincent Dlamini, National Public Service and Allied Workers Union secretary-general, argues that the state should play an active role in the development process to transform the economy from low to high value-adding economic activities. “In Swaziland, the challenge is to transform from a largely agricultural to an industrial society. The panacea to Swaziland’s socioeconomic ills and efficient service delivery can be found answering the question: What kind of a state do we want to establish in our country?” Dlamini states in a report he submitted during a civil society consultative meeting on the response of workers to the government’s privatisation initiatives

He goes on: “The majority of workers who face retrenchment are low-skilled Swazis who will not easily find new jobs. It must be remembered that for every worker who loses a job between six and 10 people lose their livelihood. Outsourcing and ‘casualisation’ move workers outside their bargaining unit and thus expose them to reduced pay, reduced benefits, (and) job insecurity”. To Dlamini the problems facing Swaziland are structurally deep and can only be addressed by transforming the entire state. “The country’s current economic slowdown is exceptionally deep and broad, with no evidence that the downward spiral that began some years ago will see a recovery. The working class of Swaziland should struggle to establish a people-centred developmental state, which shall guarantee their rights and freedoms paying particular attention to the majority poor people,” he argues.

Without a doubt, establishing a people-centred developmental state would mean overhauling the entire structure of the Swazi system of governance, and making the state democratic, accountable, and transparent. Democracy would ensure that the government of the day has a mandate of the people which is tested periodically over a set period of time. As it is often said, democracy may not be the best way of governing people, but it is the other options that scare me.

And as for the IMF, my message to this institution is simple: Thanks, but no thanks. Swaziland needs a deep and profound change, but not what you suggest. DM


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