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Re-opening of access to Mozambique set to revive Lubombo

[Swaziland] Trucking industry is set to increase the price of food and all other goods that move by road.
Trucking industry hit hard by AIDS pandemic (IRIN)

The reopening this week of the Mhlumeni border post, linking Swaziland with Mozambique, is expected to improve the lives of residents in the drought and poverty-stricken eastern Lubombo area.

"This entire region has suffered because of our isolation, which was caused when the border post closed 20 years ago," Amos Nhlabatsi, a longtime resident of the regional capital, Siteki, told IRIN.

Mhlumeni was once Swaziland's principal outlet to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique and a major port, giving landlocked Swazis access to the Indian Ocean and opening the Lubombo region to tourism.

"Siteki was a beautiful and thriving town - you could not travel between Maputo and Mbabane [the Swazi capital] without stopping here. The border closure resulted in a regional depression," Nhlabatsi said.

The Mhlumeni border post closed in the late 1970s, during the early years of Mozambique's civil war. Siteki Inn, a thatched roof tourist stop that was the town's principal hotel, shut down shortly after, and is now a ruin.

When the tourist trade ended, most people earned a marginal living as subsistence farmers on communal Swazi Nation Land. According to the Central Bank of Swaziland, Lubombo is the poorest of Swaziland's four regions, with a high prevalence of AIDS: nearly 40 percent of its adult population is HIV positive.

The area has not had normal rainfall in five years and the combination of drought and AIDS has made most residents dependant on food assistance. The World Food Programme (WFP) supplies maize meal and cooking oil to a network of community food distribution points, while the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) supports primary school food feeding schemes.

"Trucking and not tourism is likely to bring the first big improvement to the local economy," said Thandi Fakudze, a Siteki businesswoman who owns a hair styling salon and a general dealership. Despite the financial assistance she provides to her family members across Lubombo, most of her relatives depend on WFP food aid.

The Mhlumeni border post will re-establish the shortest route from Mbabane to the Matsapha Industrial Estate outside Manzini, the country's largest urban centre, and to Maputo, giving industrial exporters and commercial shippers the option of using the nearer Mozambican port instead of relying on the more distant Durban in South Africa.

Only one other border post, further north at Lomahasha, is currently open between Swaziland and Mozambique.

Reopening the border post was a provision of the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative (LSDI), a 1999 economic revival plan for the shared Lubombo mountain range, signed between Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa.

"Tourism and transport, and making the area more accessible with the construction of new highways, were two main features of the LSDI," said Principal Secretary for Public Works Evart Madlopa.

However, Mozambique was slow to construct customs and immigration facilities on its side of the border and new Swazi facilities sat idle at Mhlumeni for four years until a companion building and gate were recently finished by Mozambique.

Swazis have complained that they were largely left out of the LSDI, which some parliamentarians felt concentrated on South Africa and Mozambique. While Mhlumeni remained closed, a major highway connecting Johannesburg with Maputo was built, bypassing Swaziland by 50 kilometres.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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