(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

A tale of two countries

Swazis queue for healthcare.
James Hall/IRIN

The irony is not lost on Swazis: the population is among the world's poorest, and yet the kingdom is classified as a "middle-income country". How come?

According to Musinga Timothy Bandora, resident coordinator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), "A nation's wealth is measured by several factors; this includes gross national product." In the case of Swaziland, ruled by sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, if the nation's wealth were equally distributed, each Swazi would receive US$100,000, he said.

In per capita income terms, Swaziland ranks somewhere between Armenia and Paraguay, with export earnings based on agriculture and textiles; but, in terms of the share of the national wealth, the richest 10 percent of Swazis control over 50 percent of the country's income, a level of inequality worse than in Brazil or South Africa, and beaten only by Namibia.

"Swaziland isn't a poor nation when you measure its gross domestic product; the problem is that the wealth is being siphoned off by a few people, with the king and the royal family top of the tree. What's left, and it isn't much, goes to the people," said Richard Rooney, associate professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Swaziland.

UNDP figures show that about 70 percent of Swaziland's one million people live in chronic poverty. A record 60 percent of the population relied on food assistance from the World Food Programme and other aid groups in the past year due to drought, and the country has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate.

The Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO), an umbrella organisation of local NGOs, has expressed concern that Swaziland's classification as a middle-income country - despite the desperate need of its people - hinders fund raising for development projects.

"It is not fair that poor people be denied aid because Swaziland is so small that a handful of super-rich skew the income demographics to make the country look richer than it is. The truth is, most Swazis live in a misery of AIDS, poverty and food shortages from drought and other factors," said Lindiwe Mabusa, a food aid coordinator in the central Manzini region.

The royal conglomerate, Tibiho TakaNgwane (wealth of the nation), owns shares in most of the significant business enterprises in Swaziland, and the king controls all mineral rights in the country.

''If King Mswati III does not seize the opening he still has to initiate reform – albeit at the cost of some of his own power – the alternative is likely to be a gradual crumbling of the country''

The thrust of pro-democracy groups has been to thwart further income erosion by objecting to the planned privatisation of public parastatals, while labour groups fear the privatisation championed by the government will lead to job losses.
Getting angry

Some of the largest demonstrations in Swaziland's history, against growing poverty, took the shine off twin celebrations to mark King Mswati's 40th birthday and 40 years of the kingdom's independence last month.

At least 10,000 pro-democracy activists took to the streets of Manzini on 3 September, before reassembling in the capital, Mbabane, the following day. The march in Mbabane was marred by the detonation of two small explosive devices.

Those protests followed on from a demonstration in August by people living with HIV calling on the government to focus on the country's humanitarian crises. The activists had been spurred by reports that eight of King Mswati's 13 wives had taken a trip to the Middle East and Asia.

"This is the first time commoners have risen up to say, 'Enough! The country's resources must not just be used by royalty. What about the masses?' said Amanda Dlamini, one of the marchers.

Terence Corrigan, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, commented: "Swaziland's low international profile means its problems receive little exposure, and its opposition little support."

Writing in the latest edition of the independent weekly newspaper, Swazi News, he noted: "Right now, Swaziland's royal order faces no imminent threat, internal or external. If King Mswati III does not seize the opening he still has to initiate reform – albeit at the cost of some of his own power – the alternative is likely to be a gradual crumbling of the country."


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