Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Swaziland: The King's Monopoly

King Mswati III’s control of the telecoms sector mirrors his hold on the country and its economy.
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Can Swaziland's King Mswati III (pictured) speak for his people? Photo courtesy of UN.

Mbabane, Swaziland:

Last week, employees of the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC) became the latest group to go on strike in the public sector in Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy. The protest was a reaction to the decision by the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) to hold the SPTC in violation of a Joint Venture  Agreement with Swazi MTN (MTN), the only other company trading in the telecommunications sector.

Yet many claim the Joint-Venture Agreement lacks legitimacy. It prevents SPTC from expanding into specific areas such as internet data services and fixed phone tariffs - designed to secure a trading monopoly for MTN in the most lucrative areas of the telecommunications. And the deal has attracted further controversy because an "esteemed shareholder" in MTN is suspected of having used his influence to obtain the signatures of SPTC officials. That shareholder is believed to be King Mswati III. 

Raiding the community chest 

This case bears a wider significance than simply upholding the legal interests of one company. It shows the willingness of a narrow elite to enrich themselves to the detriment of a majority.

Xolile Dlamini* told Think Africa Press that she could not understand why an international body deemed an agreement so clearly skewed in the interests of one party worthy of protection. 

The SPTC, by diversifying its business ventures and providing some competition with MTN, brought significant benefits to consumers. While Swazi MTN charges higher rates than anyone else in the region, it is renowned for poor service delivery - internet modems will frequently lose connection, services will be down and text messages are often undelivered. 

Those who previously could not afford to use MTN were able to take advantage of the lower rates offered by the SPTC. And a continued SPTC presence would have put real pressure on MTN to both review its pricing strategy and improve its provision of services.

However, with the SPTC no longer allowed to provide these services, many Swazis face a return to life without basic ways of communicating that are taken for granted in so many countries around the world.

Public sector revolt

The Joint-Venture Agreement, signed in 1998, was not left to chance. Official papers claim that MTN's "esteemed shareholder", who owns a 10% stake in the company, used his power to force the deal through under conditions of duress. By ensuring that SPTC does not move into the more profitable areas of internet and telephone services it allows a company that the king is invested to operate without accountability - to charge higher prices and capitalise on the growing interest in mobile phones and the internet.

This casual disregard for the people has not been an isolated incident and as a consequence, such acts of civil resistance are not uncommon. In August, strike action by teaching staff was finally brought to an end. Teachers, who had often spoken against their inadequate pay, were left incensed after high-ranking government officials were given a substantial pay rise. They demanded the pay hike should be revoked or that salaries in other sectors should also be increased. The strike action lasted three months and despite the fact that students were approaching their final exams, officials refused to take any steps to bring an end to the negotiations. 

The situation mirrored a strike by civil servants last year and although many Swazis were left appalled at the situation, they were not surprised by it. 

No radical change

Without the threat of accountability or criminal sanctions, there is little impetus for a top-down change in government policies. And even the most cursory glance at the country reveals a growing disparity between those close to the king and everyone else. 

Although Swaziland is considered a middle income country, its poverty levels are more typically indicative of a poor one - 69% live below the poverty line on less than $2 a day. Against this backdrop, the king continues to lead a lavish lifestyle. For a king who has pursued vested business interests, one purchase has become symbolic of his tenure - obtaining a private jet worth around $4million using the taxpayers’ money. His personal fortune is estimated to be around $100million.

Despite reports of corruption, citizens do not appear to want radical change. Boniswa, a Swazi-national, encapsulates the public perception:

“I don’t disagree with having a monarchy, in fact the current king’s father was fantastic...I just wish that this one was a bit cleverer.”

With disillusionment likely to grow, better organised and more widespread social protests might provide a grassroots-led way of applying pressure on officials and policies. However, whether the king can be shamed into action remains to be seen. 

* Names in this article have been changed to ensure anonymity. 

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