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Posted on Friday, 27 November 2015 11:00

Swaziland Country Profile 2015: Stuck in a right royal rut

By The Africa Report

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Political repression, widespread poverty and a faltering economy were major headlines in 2014 and will remain the main challenges in 2015.

King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, has ruled the Southern African kingdom with an iron fist since 1986, smothering every political threat that puts his rule at risk. In July, the courts handed journalist Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko two-year prison sentences for publishing news articles criticising the country's judiciary.

As The Africa Report went to press, high-profile political prisoners included People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) president Mario Masuku and secretary general of the Swaziland Youth Congress Maxwell Dlamini.

Both were arrested in 2014 and face up to 25 years in jail if convicted of sedition charges. Pudemo, like all other opposition groups, has been listed as a terrorist organisation under the Suppression of Terrorism Act introduced in 2008.

Blackballed by Barack

The crackdown on political opponents and the failure to meet regional and international demands for democratisation have come at a high cost. The R2.4bn ($225m) loan that South Africa promised in 2011 has still not seen the light of day.

In June, President Barack Obama announced Swaziland's removal from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which offers incentives for building free markets and is set to take effect from January 2015. This will especially hurt the textile and sugar sectors. He cited the use of "security forces and arbitrary arrests to stifle peaceful demonstrations, and the lack of legal recognition for labour and employer federations" as reasons.

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The labour ministry confirmed in October that it did not legally recognise several of the country's major unions and business federations. While Mswati II and his ever-expanding royal clan – including 15 official wives – enjoy a life of utmost comfort and luxury, the World Bank estimates that 63% of Swazis live in poverty despite the country's relatively high gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $3,475.

Widely criticised for profiting privately from his public role, Mswati III won a spot on Forbes' list of Africa's five richest kings in June, with a personal fortune estimated at more than $50m.

World Bank figures also show that Swaziland has the world's highest HIV rate, 26.5%, and a high incidence of tuberculosis. Life expectancy plummeted to 49 years in 2012 from 59 in the early 1990s. The latest health statistics report that there are only 1,619 hospital and health centre beds available to cater for the needs of the 1.2 million population.

In 2013, it was estimated that more than 60% of Swaziland's budget came from Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU) receipts, mainly paid out of South Africa's annual contribution to the union of around R48bn.

However, SACU revenue has declined sharply in recent years, and there have been reports that Pretoria is considering an exit from the union, which could cripple the Swazi economy.

Youth unemployment

An International Monetary Fund team's visit in July led to the warning that increased fiscal and external imbalances, low private investment, high government expenditure and possible declines in SACU revenue posed risks to the economy. Furthermore, Swaziland's exports are likely to bear the brunt of economic stagnation in South Africa, its major trade partner.

After slipping three positions to 123rd in the latest World Bank's Doing Business ranking, the government needs to bolster business confidence and tackle the scourge of unemployment. The last time youth unemployment was measured, in 2010, it was 52.4%.

The IMF also recommends a series of public-sector reforms, including a review of public-sector hiring and salaries, which represent nearly 15% of GDP. Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, holds the most promise for the year ahead. The government, with the EU and other donors, is drafting a 10-year agricultural investment plan to create a shift from subsistence farming, which engages 75% of the population, to commercial farming.

The government developed a draft land policy in 2009, and parliament has not yet approved it. Investors say improving land management is crucial to attracting more companies.



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