Monday, October 30, 2006

Swaziland rewards corruption and political incompetence

PUDEMO International Office

Date: October 30, 2006

Swaziland rewards corruption and political incompetence

In a space of one week, the Swaziland government offered handsome rewards to bad practices of governance. On October 19, 2006, parliament appointed Thandi Nxumalo, an allegedly corrupt businesswoman, to the Senate. According to the Times of Swaziland – Sunday (October 22, 2006) report, the new Senator admitted swindling money from the Women United business enterprise. The story appeared again in the October 29 edition of the Times of Swaziland – Sunday with information that a formal charge has been laid against the new Senator. According to the report, Senator Nxumalo has been charged for defrauding Women United a sum of E530 974.58 (approx. US$76,000).

A week after the “election” of Nxumalo, King Mswati III promoted Constance Simelane, to the position of Deputy Prime Minister. Constance Simelane is a minister with an irrefutable record of incompetence and was moved from the Ministry of Education after widespread criticisms about the failure of leadership within the ministry. Many commentators, including the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), have described the education system as being in crisis and in desperate need of fresh and innovative leadership. Recently, students from the University of Swaziland, William Pitcher Teacher’s College and Swaziland College of Technology abandoned classes to protest against the mismanagement of scholarship. In response to the crisis in education, particularly the mismanagement of the OVC (Orphaned and Vulnerable Children) funding scheme, SNAT called for the removal of the minister. Instead, she was promoted to the Deputy Prime Minster’s position.

It is disgraceful that King Mswati III and his Prime Minister chose to ignore public opinion. The royal family government is so drunk with power that it can’t even hear the increasingly loud voices of concerned citizens. It can’t see if it is going sideways, backwards or forwards. When the Australian Channel Nine Sixty Minutes TV crew asked King Mswati III if “the king gets too much criticism in Swaziland”, he said he didn’t know. Western audiences thought that he was avoiding the question but it is quite conceivable that he doesn’t know how much he is being criticised. Disturbingly, the King is completely insulated from criticism by the local media which refuses to publish criticisms against the monarch. In any case, he is drunk with power and has no interest in listening to the public. His absolute rule is now firmly protected by the Commonwealth-sponsored Constitution Act of 2005.

Media complacence, bias and self-censorship
Within the local media, it is established practice to apportion blame for bad governance to the cabinet in order to absolve the King from responsibility. The recent appointment of Constance Simelane has been viewed in the local media as a bad choice by the Prime Minister. Whilst it is public knowledge that the Prime Minister makes recommendations to the King about ministerial appointments, he does not have the authority to appoint or dismiss ministers. This authority rests with the King alone. The view that cabinet ministers are appointed and dismissed by the Prime Minister is misguided. It ignores the King’s absolute authority on such matters and the powerful influence of the royal inner circle which advises the King. In most cases, this advisory body is responsible for nominating and recommending individuals for cabinet positions. Simelane may have been nominated by the Prime Minister but this would have had no effect if the nomination was not blessed by the King and his advisory body. If Constance Simelane is a bad choice, she is King Mswati III’s bad choice.

It is time for the local media to be more honest and less biased in its coverage of matters relating to the governance of this country. Whilst it is understood that local journalists operate under extreme conditions of censorship, they contribute to this situation through self-censorship and political bias. There is a well-established policy in the local media to favour coverage of political views that absolve King Mswati III of responsibility for current problems. Consequently, journalists prefer to work with political organisations that have relationships with the royal family and those that pursue a reformist agenda. Voices which locate the current political malaise within the absolute monarchy system of government are denied access to the media. PUDEMO is one political organisation that calls for a broader political approach to the problems we face in this country. Like many of our public statements, it is highly likely that none of the local media will have the courage to publish this article because of its critical stance against the absolute monarchy.

As a result, Swaziland has been unable to publicly debate the extent to which the monarchy contributes to Swaziland’s problems. The monarchy is not only immune from adverse media coverage but also from public parliamentary discussion and government statements. On several occasions, the Speaker of Parliament, Charles S’gayoyo Magongo, reminded MPs not to mention the name of the King in parliamentary debates. It is not surprising that Magongo has been elevated to a cabinet post as a reward for loyalty. Where there is a God-like institution, democracy dies and blind loyalty to the ruling elite becomes an important means of political advancement. This has been the case in Swaziland since the King’s Proclamation in 1973 when the late King Sobhuza II declared himself an absolute monarch.

PUDEMO calls upon the media to engage in comprehensive debate about the political, social and economic crisis we face in this country. The freedom of the press enjoyed in other countries will not come easily without a bitter struggle and sacrifices. One of the main indicators of a free nation is the quality of media reporting including deeper analysis of social problems. As we have said in the past, any attempts to find long-term solutions to the myriad social, economic and political problems will prove inadequate unless these problems are understood in relationship to the current political system. PUDEMO regards the Absolute monarchy and its Tinkhundla system of government as a major problem. For the entire post-colonial period, the royal family has dominated the political decision-making process and is accountable to no one but itself. It is time for the local media to take this issue to the public arena. Instead of asking the Prime Minster why a minister known to be incompetent was promoted to a senior position, the media must direct this question to the appointing authority and head of state – King Mswati III.

Tinkhundla electoral system delivers corrupt senator
When the late Deputy Prime Minister, Albert Shabangu died, he left his seat in parliament and his cabinet position vacant. Under normal democratic procedures guided by the doctrine of representative parliamentary democracy, a by-election should have been held to fill the parliament seat left by the late Deputy Prime Minister. However, the electoral system in Swaziland has a conveyor belt which determines who goes into parliament and cabinet. Shabangu was also a product of this bizarre electoral system in which people are appointed rather than elected to parliament. For more than twenty years, Shabangu served as a cabinet minister but has never contested any elections. His political career depended entirely on royal appointment and favour, not the people’s vote.

One of the flaws of the current political order which PUDEMO seeks to change is the electoral system which has delivered an apparently corrupt businesswoman to parliament. The system is characterised by practices antagonistic to democratic principles. Prominent among these practices is the King’s right to appoint a certain quota of members of parliament. Similarly, the electoral system gives parliament the right to “elect” another quota from the general population. This so-called election occurs behind closed doors under strict conditions of secrecy. The social status and conservative political views of previous and serving MPs “elected” by parliament indicate heavy royal influence. The rest of the parliamentary seats are elected by popular vote on a non-party basis. Again, royal influence is actively visible here through the nomination process in which candidates are graced by chiefs who are traditional representatives of royal authority. In Swaziland, a candidate deemed a preferred choice of labadzala or royalty, has unmatched advantage to succeed in elections.

Under the current electoral system, there is no inbuilt framework of checks and balances to allow adequate investigation into the character, ability and suitability of people nominated for public office. Political campaigns, an important measure of political leadership potential, have a very limited role in Swaziland elections. Thus under the current electoral system, where only independent individuals can contest parliamentary seats, elections are policy-free zones. The system is antithetical to principles of political transparency, accountability and responsible governance and is constructed as to prevent the development of representative parliamentary democracy. As illustrated by the “election” of Thandi Nxumalo, people unfit to be law-makers and political administrators can easily pass through the enormous holes in Swaziland’s electoral system. It is no wonder that the government and the law-making body in Swaziland provide a good home for corrupt and incompetent politicians.

Entrenched culture of bad governance and deceit
These recent developments may have shocked some political observers but to the majority of Swazis they represent a familiar and deeply entrenched culture of rewarding bad behaviour. Recently, the Minister of Public Service and Information, Themba Msibi, interfered in the administration of the state television station by overturning a decision to dismiss an employee, Qhawe Mamba. Qhawe, a close friend of King Mswati III, was dismissed after allegations of theft of equipment, failure to execute his duties with diligence and insubordination. The Minister’s reason for overturning the decision was that Mamba is employed by labadzala or the royalty. This is normally an industrial issue but in Swaziland it seems that a minister can do anything as long as it is in the interests of the ruling family. The employee in question also owns a public-funded television station which is solely responsible for documenting royal events. The service provided by Mamba’s station is one of the biggest publicly-funded propaganda projects and is designed to salvage the discredited image of the monarch government.

Prime Minister, Themba Dlamini seems determined to expand the propaganda project. Recently, he announced a plan to recruit former heads of states to act as travelling agents for Swaziland (see The Swazi Observer, October 27, 2006). This plan was revealed at the same press conference in which the promotion of Constance Simelane was announced. These two announcements represent a double jeopardy scenario for the people of Swaziland. The promotion of an incompetent minister to a senior cabinet position is a severe blow to effective governance. Having been dealt a severe blow, the tax payer will now have to pay the expense of employing international spin doctors. The project is misconceived and morally repugnant. It will dig deeper into the public purse and exacerbate the country’s financial difficulties.

This money could be better spent on urgent needs such as health instead of flying out and paying exorbitant living expenses for former heads of states to spread false propaganda. It is almost certain that the recruitment will target former heads of state with outstanding records of bad governance in their own countries. Themba Dlamini wants his travelling agents to rebuild the image of the country by refuting what he calls “…negative and misleading information that is constantly being published about the kingdom” (The Swazi Observer 27, 2006). However, the Prime Minister was unable to say what information he deems misleading and negative. Is exposing social injustice and bad practices such as corruption, irresponsible spending and absence of democratic forms of governance misleading?

The government has been in bad shape for a long time now and Swaziland is a failing state. Some of the main indicators of a failing state are high levels of corruption and poverty, economic decline and financial bankruptcy, incompetent political leadership and collapsed essential services such as health. These indicators are very prominent in Swaziland with about two-thirds of the population of 1.2 million living in abject poverty whilst the royal family and a few politicians immerse themselves in wealth. There is growing consensus among political observers in Swaziland that the government is now bankrupt and is unable to fund basic public services. Public hospitals are overcrowded and have run out of basic medical supplies such as pain relief drugs and oxygen. HIV infection continues to devastate the impoverished population and there is no reprieve in sight from AIDS-related illness and death.

In his first attempt to respond to growing concerns about Swaziland’s slide into the failed state category, the Prime Minister, Themba Dlamini, “…said it was astonishing to note allegations relating to the HIV and AIDS pandemic in Swaziland. He said Swaziland had been ranked as one of the best models in the fight against HIV/AIDS” by international organisations such as UNAIDS (Swazi Times, October 24, 2006). It is important that the Prime Minister wakes up to the reality about HIV infection in Swaziland. The high rate of infection is not an allegation but has been derived from research data. According to the report published by National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA – Swaziland) in 2006, “…the HIV problem in Swaziland is spreading at an alarming rate. In the last 12 years the HIV prevalence increased from 3.9% in 1992 to 42.6% in 2004” (p.4).

Whilst the Prime Minister was happy to announce that UNAIDS has highly ranked HIV/AIDS programs in Swaziland, he seems to be dismissing UNAIDS statistics on HIV/AIDS prevalence as allegations. There is a general agreement among international bodies working in this area that Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world. As shown in the UNAIDS graph below, in the Sub-Saharan African region, Swaziland has surpassed Botswana which, in previous years, has had the highest infection rate.

Source: UNAIDS, 2004 Report

Like his Prime Minister, King Mswati has also misled people about the effectiveness of the umcwasho (chastity) strategy in preventing the spread of HIV infection. Umcwasho is an old-age traditional practice to delay sexual activity among teenage girls. In 2001, King Mswati reintroduced umcwasho under a new ‘chastity law’ which prohibited young women under the age of 18 years from having sex for five years. Failure to conform to the ban on sex attracted heavy sanctions. Families of the offending parties, woman and men, were required to pay a cow each - a highly priced treasure in Swaziland. However, by the time the chastity period ended in 2005 the ban was largely ignored and the enthusiasm by royal authorities to impose sanctions had died away. A survey by NERCHA (2006, p.23) shows that “the proportion of young people reporting to have started engaging in sexual practice below the age of 15 was about 10%.” This figure is alarming and is perhaps much higher if the 15-18 age group is taken into consideration.

There is strongly divided opinion between HIV/AIDS activists and traditionalists whether or not the ‘chastity law’ has helped in the fight against the epidemic. When the Australian Sixty Minutes television journalist asked King Mswati III about the effectiveness of the ‘chastity law’ in fighting HIV/AIDS, he replied: “I was so happy to see that the figures of the HIV rate from their age group it decreased a lot, it helped the country very much.” The King did not back up his statement by saying which figures he was referring to, but we assume that these figures should be in the public domain somewhere. After considerable research, we were able to locate only one set of figures in the public domain which show any decline in HIV rates for that cohort and assume that these figure are the ones to which he referred.

The figures were reported in the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare HIV Ninth Sentinel Serosurveillance Report of 2004. The report shows a slight decline in HIV infection among pregnant teenagers in the 15-19 years age range from 33.5% in 2002 to 29.3% in 2004. There are no statistical analyses of the data recorded so we do not know if the change is in fact statistically significant or if it represents a chance fluctuation. These figures are not representative of the entire population of teenage girls within this age group because they represent a population of pregnant teenagers who attended Ante-Natal Clinics (ANC) and were tested for HIV infection (see Figure 1).
In response to the report, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health and Social Welfare misled the public by claiming that these data show that “ Swaziland had turned the corner in its battle with AIDS” (, August 23, 2005). Contrary to the claim by King Mswati III, these data have nothing to do with umcwasho as they are taken from pregnant teenagers who attended Ante-Natal Clinics. The fact that they were pregnant shows that they had broken the ban on sex. If the slight decrease in HIV infection rate is real and not a chance fluctuation, it might reflect changes in risk behaviours of the form promoted by other anti-HIV campaigns, such as increased monogamy. Thus, these data cannot be honestly interpreted as showing that umcwasho was successful in arresting HIV infection rates. Since its introduction in 2001, its main goal was abstinence and not changes in behaviour. Thus, these data are irrelevant to umcwasho, as they relate only to people who, by definition of their pregnancy status, have not followed umcwasho.

A systematic study of the relationship between the ‘chastity law’ and HIV prevalence is yet to be conducted. The pregnancy rate among this age cohort within the period of the sex ban would be more relevant to considering the effectiveness of umcwasho . A significant decline in pregnancy rates might indicate increased abstinence amongst this cohort of women, although it could of course indicate the increased prevalence of other forms of safer sexual practice such as condom usage. During the period of umcwasho, there were a range of other interventions such as anti-HIV/AIDS programmes organised by non-government organisations. Most of these programmes have serious reservations about the contribution of the ‘chastity law’ to the anti-HIV/AIDS campaign. Consequently, umcwasho does not feature in local and international periodic progress reports. Even NERCHA, a statutory body, does not mention umcwasho in its 2006 report. One would assume that if the chastity strategy was effective, it would have featured significantly in the NERCHA report. Instead NERCHA developed its own program (Likusasa Ngelami or The Future is Mine) to encourage young people to consider the health benefits of abstaining from sex.

Royal claims that umcwasho has been an effective intervention in the HIV epidemic just serve to illustrate the regime’s failure yet again to operate in the real world. Their response to the HIV epidemic has been grossly inadequate and now they are citing completely irrelevant data in attempts to show that their intervention was useful. Do they really believe that telling a small section of the female population to abstain from sex would have any impact on the HIV rate? This is ridiculous and in fact there are many ways in which umcwasho could have made the situation worse.

For example, umcwasho may have increased the likelihood that young males in the cohort would have become sexually active with female populations likely to be experiencing higher levels of infection, such as older women and sex workers. The graphical data in Figure 1 show that women in the older cohorts have higher infection rates and that these seem to have increased from 2002-2004, especially in the 25-29 year old and 30+ year old cohorts. Thus, even if young females obeyed umcwasho and delayed becoming sexually active, they may well have found that their male age-peers were more likely to be infected than would have been the case without umcwasho. Their risk of infection once they finished umcwasho and became sexually active with age-peer males may have thus increased. Thus, even if umcwasho managed to delay onset of sexual activity and HIV infection in that female cohort, the longer term outcome could well be higher rates of infection. Ultimately, the King might gain some benefit from having a pool of young virgins from which he chooses a new wife each year at the next reed dance ceremony, but it seems unlikely that umcwasho would help reduce Swaziland’s HIV rate.

The King’s response to the HIV epidemic is reminiscent of the story about Emperor Nero sitting in his palace playing his fiddle while Rome burnt to the ground and his people died. In Swaziland, we have an absolute monarch who sits in his palaces and plays games while people die. Then he takes credit for any positive changes in the HIV rate and completely disregards all the work done by non-government organisations who have struggled to conduct sensible HIV prevention programmes. This is rather like Nero claiming that his fiddling put the fire out and fed the people while failing to mention the emergency services.

Our people are hungry and dying whilst the royal family and politicians are dreaming of the past, stealing from the poor and spending lavishly. The Australian Sixty Minutes television documentary describes the hospital situation as “awful” and gives glimpses of royal luxury, hospital overcrowding, poverty and death. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2006), the life expectancy for men and women in Swaziland is 36 and 39 years respectively.

The Sixty Minutes crew put it to King Mswati that one of the concerns in Swaziland is that he is a big spender and is running the country aground. The King denied this whilst sitting on a golden chair during the interview. He argued that his critics “…don’t know what they are talking about. They haven’t got that information…”. King Mswati is correct because the details of his family spending are a closely guarded secret. However, the lavish lifestyle displayed by the royal family is there for all to see including a fleet of ultra expensive automobiles such as a Maybach 62 and an S-Class Mercedes Pullman. When King Mswati III paid a staggering US$500,000 for the Maybach 62, he became only the third person in Africa to own this car. Royal family children go to prestigious educational institutions in the UK and USA whilst the government is unable to honour its pledge to pay fees for disadvantaged children orphaned by the high AIDS death rate.

Swazis and the international community would remember very well the US$45 million private jet scandal in 2002 when the government and Tibiyo Taka Ngwane secretly planned to steal public funds and buy King Mswati an18-seater Global Express jet. At the time, the cost of the plane was more than twice the health budget. When the information was leaked to the press, no one was willing to own up to this secret plan. However, as outrage about the purchase mounted, it transpired that a deposit of about US$4 million had already been paid. This money has never been recovered. The current Prime Minister, Themba Dlamini was the Director of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, when the plan was hatched. Tibiyo Taka Ngwane is a multi-million corporate body held in trust for the Swazi nation by the royal family. One of its responsibilities is managing royalties paid to the country by various companies doing business in Swaziland. However, since its formation in 1968, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane has operated as a private royal family business but politicians continue to mislead the nation that this corporate body belongs to the Swazi nation.

The betrayals in Swaziland go on and on. There can now be no doubt about the corruption in this government or the extent of its contempt for its people. While international donors do their best to support ordinary Swazi citizens, the prospects of real change are slim as long as there is no adequate infrastructure to deliver services and aid with integrity. Please support the struggle for democracy in Swaziland and help put a stop to this human suffering.


Dr. Jabulane Matsebula
PUDEMO Representative
Australia, Asia and the South Pacific Region