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close this bookThe Courier N 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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close this folderSwaziland: Greener pastures
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View the documentInterview with Prime Minister Obed DIamin on prospects for the 1990s
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View the documentSwaziland and the European Community partners in cooperation


When the present King of Swaziland’s father, King Sobhuza II, died in 1982, he had occupied the throne for no less than 61 years and was, indeed, the longest-serving monarch in the world by far at the time of his death. The fact of his long reign is no mere historical fait divers, however, for Sobhuza, both before and after the country’s independence in 1968, enjoyed not only immense prestige but also great personal power. He had led Swaziland, as very much more than a figurehead, for more than six decades and his influence on the shape of the country today is immeasurable. First and foremost, he provided stability, through the years of British administration, up to and beyond independence, and beyond his death - by ensuring that the principle of a ruling hereditary monarchy remained an acceptable one in a world in which it was not simply fast becoming a rarity but had actually already become one. Secondly, the King was a great traditionalist, and not only ensured - by revoking the independence Constitution - that the Swazi concept of government remained highly traditional, but also, in a more subtle way, guaranteed a continuing feeling of comfortableness with traditional custom that is also becoming rarity. In present-day Swaziland, “modern” or “Western” is not necessarily better, it is merely different. This maintenance of stability and of traditional values was made vastly easier by one vital characteristic: the almost total absence in Swaziland of ethnic, religious or linguistic divisions.

It is truism, and every article or tourist guide on Swaziland will remark upon it, but this juxtaposition of modern and traditional is what distinguishes the country from much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, to some extent the Swazi position is the reverse of the norm: much of the continent has espoused “ modern “ forms of government, while economies have remained strongly traditional; Swaziland’s government, on the other hand, is only partially modern in concept, but its economy is becoming increasingly oriented towards the modern sector, with some of its manufacturing or processing industries attaining a remarkable level of sophistication.

But first, a little background.

Swaziland is the smallest of the countries of Southern Africa, and is almost entirely surrounded by the Transvaal and Natal provinces of the Republic of South Africa. It also has a 100-kilometre border with Mozambique. Maputo, the Mozambican capital, lies some 80 kilometres to the north-east of the Swazi border, with Johannesburg 350 kilometres to the west. The country divides into four distinct natural regions, three horizontal strips of roughly equivalent size and a fourth, much smaller strip, the Lubombo plateau. To the west is the Highveld, mountainous and near temperate, with an average altitude of 1300 metres. It is known in Siswati, the national language, as Nkhangala (the treeless region) but it in fact now contains one of the largest man-made forests in the world. The west-central strip, the rolling Middleveld, is lower-lying and sub-tropical, and it is here that most of the country’s foodcrops and some cash crops are grown. The Lowveld, to the east, is hotter, flatter and drier and, because it is subject to periodical drought, has become a region for the cultivation of irrigated crops, sugar cane in particular. Finally, there is the Lubombo plateau, similar in climate to the Middleveld, with good grazing and some good arable land.

The word “Swazi” means “the people of Mswati”, the mid-19th century king whose name has been adopted by the present King. Mswati l’s ascendants came from the clan of the Nkosi Dlamini, and if a considerable number of people in positions of authority today are called Dlamini, including the present Prime Minister and five former Prime Ministers, then it is at least partly because the population is small and the royal family large. Swazi kings are traditionally polygamous, and their wives are never Dlaminis, and the absence of intermarriage, together with the fact that the successor to the throne must himself be unmarried (and therefore, preferably, young), combine to ensure healthy numbers of royal descendants.

The total population of Swaziland is put at around 720 000, some 30 000 of whom are temporary absentees working in the farms and mines “ over the border “, as the Republic of South Africa is invariably referred to. This number is balanced by the refugees from Mozambique and, latterly, following recent disturbances, from the South African homelands, and though the numbers are relatively small in comparison with, say, Malawi, they add pressure on a country which, as it is, has one of the highest population growth rates in the world.

Population growth: worrying implications

Swaziland’s economy has been growing at an average of 5 % per annum for the past four years, but growth has only just kept ahead of the increase in the population. In 1986, at the time of the last census, it was estimated that 47.3 % of the population was under 15, a statistic which means that the need to create employment, as well as the demands on the country’s health and education systems, will be enormous challenges in the not-so-distant future. In spite of the fact that the Ministry of Education is allotted 28% of the Government’s recurrent budget, its resources are still too limited to allow for the building of new primary schools. Efforts are concentrated on the construction of secondary schools, with the building of primary schools left to parents, often with outside help. Funding for teachers’ houses is also seriously lacking, but government is able only to pay for teachers’ salaries, and recognisedly modest salaries at that. Parents contribute towards the cost of schooling, including the payment of building fees, but, though education is certainly prized, the financial burden can be very onerous indeed. For rural families, it would almost certainly represent the largest single item of expenditure and might absorb as much as 80% of a household’s cash income. Some parents, particularly those who do not rely on the land for a living, consciously limit the size of their families so as to be able to continue educating their children. More often, however, particularly in rural areas where children help with cultivation or herding (and this represents nearly 80 % of the country), parents have to withdraw children from school because the total costs of fees, books, uniforms, bus fares and so on simply become too high.

Losses to “ greener pastures “

The Minister of Education, Chief Sipho Shongwe, sees this lack of funds as the overwhelming problem facing Swaziland’s education sector today. He would like, he says, to see universal primary education, but the money is not there. The inability to retain teachers is a further problem: turnover is high, because the salaries are low, and housing often inadequate and particularly because of the proximity of “ greener pastures “ where teachers can get double or more the levels government can afford.

This drain on Swazi brainpower affects all levels of the teaching profession, including university education. Professor Makhubu, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Swaziland, lost professors to Transkei and Bophuthatswana last year. The solution, she says, its of course to pay competitive salaries, but it is a solution which is unworkable at present.

Another characteristic of the Swazi education system which Minister Shongwe sees as a disadvantage has been its emphasis in the past on academic achievement as opposed to practical, vocational achievement, geared to the country’s manpower requirements. “We have not only to, educate “, he stressed, “ but also to meet specific targets, and we have not, in the past, met the expectations of the private sector”. It is not that vocational training establishments do not exist indeed there are some excellent ones but that the numbers of graduates produced are insufficient to meet the needs of a growing and modernising economy. Electricians, carpenters, welders and mechanics are all in great demand, as are accountants, statisticians, specialised lawyers, bookkeepers and the like. Professor Makhubu recognises that she has to be “...a developmentalist, clued up on how the country is going”, in order to shape the University according to the needs of the country, and to this end she plans to create a Business Studies faculty at UNISWA, within the next two years, to respond to the undoubted demand of the private sector. Fortunately Swazi/South African wage differentials are far less pronounced in the private sector than in the public sector, so that the danger of loss of these kinds of skills to other countries in the region is less great.

Approaching the “ mini-boo m “ with caution

The Swazi economy is, for a number of reasons, enjoying what the Minister of Finance describes as a “mini-boom”. Export revenue levels are high, due largely to steady production and healthy prices for the traditional exports, sugar and woodpulp, and soft-drink concentrates (coca cola) have entered the market as a major export earner. A new development is the emergence of manufacturing as the dominant sector of the economy, now accounting for 26% of GDP. Despite the substantial increase in foreign exchange reserves the boom is being approached with characteristic prudence, born perhaps of long experience of influential factors beyond the country’s control.

One such factor is the lilangeni, the national currency unit which though officially de-linked from the South African rand, in fact remains at parity with it. The effects of this are various, amongst which that Swaziland “ imports “ South Africa’s inflation (now running at between 12-14% per annum) and that the country’s debt service payments have increased. Elliot Bhembe, Acting Principal Secretary at the Department of Economic Planning, admits that it’s difficult to plan a nation’s economy when its currency is linked to that of a neighbour. But there is general acceptance, even so, that the system has worked well for Swaziland. For one thing, it has avoided considerable complications for trade. More than 80 % of Swaziland’s imports come from fellow Southern African Customs Union (SACU) countries - RSA, Botswana and Lesotho - and a large percentage of the country’s exports (35-40%) go to South Africa. It is also attractive to tourists, particularly South African tourists, who still constitute the largest group, and, most importantly, it has meant that the lilangeni is, to all intents and purposes, a convertible currency. Actual de-linking could become desirable, nevertheless, if the investment climate in South Africa was to substantially improve.

The backbone of Swaziland’s economy is, and always has been, agriculture. It accounts for some 40% of exports, 23% of GDP and is by far the largest employer. The country’s agricultural activities take two distinct forms. Firstly, there is traditional, subsistence farming, whereby over 40 000 farmers are supported on smallholdings of less than three hectares on Swazi Nation Land. Here, rainfed food crops are grown for family consumption, with perhaps a little maize or cotton grown for sale. (Swazi Nation Land, which makes up over half the country’s total land surface, is owned by the monarch and held in trust for the nation). Secondly, on the remainder of the rural land, are farms owned by individuals or companies and growing sugar cane, pineapples, citrus fruits, cotton or tobacco. Here, the average holding is 800 hectares (though the largest sugar estate is more than 10 times this) and, while land use is varied, the farms tend to be market-oriented and highly mechanised.

Cattle-breeding and herding is another major agricultural activity: the country has a near 1:1 ratio of cattle to inhabitants - one of the highest ratios in Africa. Only a small percentage of the sector is run along commercial lines, however. As in much of Africa, cattle constitute capital; quantity tends to take precedence over quality, and slaughter only to take place on ceremonial occasions, or for ritual purposes or for family consumption. The pattern is changing only slowly. At the 600 or so diptanks around the country, through which herds have to pass weekly, the word is spread that there is money to be made out of cattle farming... but that herds have to be younger and heavier. The country’s abattoir, now upgraded and under new management, could slaughter many more than the present 80 cattle a day, and there is, after all, a market for the country’s beef in the form of the EEC’s 3 360 tons per annum - a target not yet being reached.

Sugar: major returns for government

The sugar industry is the country’s largest single employer and although Swaziland’s three estates and mills, Mhlume, Simunye and Ubombo, are all situated in the Lowveld, cutters are signed on for work from throughout the country and brought to the estates for the duration of the harvesting season. Labour is so plentiful and so relatively inexpensive that Simunye, the newest of the estates, having been 60 % mechanised in its first production year, has in fact now phased out mechanical harvesting altogether. Production topped 500 000 tonnes in 1986, but has averaged 450 000 tonnes or so for the past three years, and though further expansion of the estates would be perfectly feasible, the quota marketing system rules it out. The lion’s share of Swaziland’s production goes to the EEC, part of which - 117 845 tonnes of which, to be precise - at a guaranteed price under the terms of the Sugar Protocol. Canada is also a major buyer. The estates, like many of Swaziland’s large-scale agricultural and manufacturing enterprises, particularly the highly sophisticated ones, tend to be managed and part-owned by expatriate individuals or companies, but with the Swazi development corporation, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, as a major shareholder. Ubombo Ranches, for example, is 60 % owned by Lonrho Corporation and 40 % by Tibiyo, meaning that the nation benefits far more by the industry than by employment opportunities alone. Earnings could be improved slightly, nevertheless, if the rail link to Maputo harbour could again be normalised. Last year, because of poor security and unsatisfactory rolling stock, the industry as a whole lost 10 000 tonnes of sugar between Swaziland and the Mozambican terminal, and 50 % of production now takes the much longer route to Durban, involving substantially higher transportation costs.

The same is true for what is now Swaziland’s second largest industry and third biggest export earner, the timber and woodpulp industry, whose transport costs rose by 18 % in 1989.

Forestry: a development success

Forests cover about 7 % of the country’s total land area, and are an unusual feature in Southern Africa. The reason is that they are largely man-made and are, in fact, amongst the largest man-made forests in the world.

Swaziland’s forestry industry is the stuff of which development dreams are made. Less than 50 years ago the hills of the Highveld and parts of the Middleveld offered little but poor grazing to the Nguni cattle and goats of the local inhabitants. In 1947, Peak Timbers, one of Swaziland’s oldest commercial companies, began producing sawn timber and in 1949 the Commonwealth Development Corporation, seeing the potential for forestry, embarked on a 50-million tree-planting programme. Peak Timbers is now a major producer of logs and sawn timber and The Usutu Pulp Company, established in 1961, aims to produce 180000 tonnes of pulp a year - nearly 20 % of total world requirements at its mill on the Usutu River.

Local resources as basis for manufacture

There are spin-offs in the form of manufacturing, too. Pine shelves are being produced for export by Swazi Timber Products, for example, a fast-expanding company on the main industrial estate outside Manzini. In three years, annual turnover has risen from E. 240 000 to E. 1 200 000, and the workforce has increased from 80 to 250, with more to be taken on this year. The company is of just the kind that the Minister for Commerce Industry and Tourism, Senator Douglas Ntiwane, “ loves most “. It is export-oriented, heavily labour intensive and local resource-based, with no less than 98 % of its raw materials of Swazi origin.

S.I.D.C., the national industrial development company, has had considerable success in establishing such enterprises in the past four to five years. After a slowish start, some 200 firms are now operating on the Matsapha estate, ranging from small workshops to huge factories employing up to a thousand workers. Growth has been so rapid in the late 1980s that existing infrastructure on the estate needs not only repair but also considerable expansion. South African-owned firms predominate, but there are also a number of major Swazi-owned enterprises.

A healthy investment climate and genuine market advantages

Like its competitors in the region, Swaziland offers the usual package of favourable leasing terms, tax holidays and other advantages to investors, but, in the Minister’s words, it also offers the “true face of a genuinely independent country”, and one known for its political stability. It has good communications, good labour relations and good market access, including access to the European Community. The country is landlocked, it is true, but Maputo (though admittedly a difficult route at present) is only 160 kilometres away, and road and rail links exist to the ports of Richards Bay and Durban in South Africa. Such port access is vital, because most of the industries at Matsapha are export-oriented. Indeed, with so small a domestic market, they need to be. NATEX, the ultra-modern textile corporation, which uses Swazi cotton, would take only four days’ production to clothe the entire nation! Its Managing Director, Peter Jones, is certain that investing in Swaziland makes good sense, particularly as opposed to investing in South Africa, and this from a number of points of view. In the first place, while there is great resistance to goods from South Africa in, for example, Scandinavia, West Germany and the United States, Swaziland is very much an acceptable source. (It has indeed benefited a certain amount from recent U.S. disinvestment in South Africa). In the second place, labour costs are not only very much lower, but labour relations are also very much smoother. Swaziland is entirely free of the tribally-based industrial disputes that affect parts of South Africa, and a firm like his, which operates 24 hours a day, 351 days a year, would not expect to lose any production at all through industrial action, he says, which in South Africa would be almost unthinkable. “Moreover”, he adds, “the government is very supportive. You are made to feel that they want you and that they need you “.

Lack of credit hampers expansion

Not all Swaziland’s manufacturing is as large or technologically advanced as the big boys at Matsapha. On the outskirts of the capital, Mbabane, is the SEDCO (Swaziland Enterprise Development Company) estate, which houses a number of small and medium-sized enterprises. Some of the businessmen or women who are established here, such as Mike and Thoko Mmema, who now have 23 women working for them, making school uniforms, have found good market niches, but find the estate too out-of-the-way. Others find the rent high, and a common problem - which causes many of the smaller businesses to stagnate unnecessarily - is the lack of credit. With out collateral, they are unable to obtain bank loans, and government credit schemes on soft terms are not yet available.

Infrastructure suffering from success

If the economy is working well, it is partly due to Swaziland’s relatively well-functioning transport and communications system, and if that system is now coming under increasing strain, it is because... the economy is working well. Traffic volumes, especially on the road between the two main towns, Mbabane and Manzini, which passes through Matsapha, have built up considerably in the past two or three years. Some stretches are carrying up to 14000 vehicles a day, and the congestion is such that the road now badly needs upgrading, probably in the form of widening.

Swaziland has more vehicles per inhabitant by far than any other SADCC country, but, in addition to its domestic traffic, it is a transit state for goods travelling in both north-south and east-west directions. Rehabilitation of the Matsapha-Goba railway line, to and from the Mozambique border, is under study and would link up with a similar project on the Mozambican side of the line. Infrastructure and communications, because of their role in attracting investment and in keeping the economy growing, are given high priority by government and get a handsome share of the budget. But major capital expenditure almost always requires some outside finance. The African Development Bank is a major funder of road projects, and the World Bank has been substantially involved in the past, though is less so now. The Works and Communications Ministry is hoping that the EEC will provide funds for the rehabilitation of the Matsapha-Mozambique line, as well as for the Mbabane-Manzini road upgrading, and that it will extend its assistance to the development of the airport.

Passenger traffic in Matsapha, the main airport, now stands at 80 000 or so annually, and has increased fourfold in the past 20 years. Long gone are the days when, if the air traffic controller was momentarily absent, a total ing - perhaps a cleaner - would answer overflying aircraft with a few set phrases, learnt parrot fashion. Nowadays there is a modern control tower, with sophisticated radio and navigational equipment, and expert controllers. The runway, 2600 metres long, is designed for the 737s typically used in regional traffic, but it can take larger cargo carriers. Freight volumes are low, however, because handling facilities are inadequate and apron space limited. Preliminary discussions are under way regarding the financing of further work on the airport (enlarging the apron and the terminal buildings) from LomV national and regional funds. If all goes according to plan, the improved facilities should be in place by 1994.

Tourism: steady growth

One sector that will benefit from the improvements will be tourism, because more apron space will mean more flights being able to be scheduled. Not that Swaziland is ever likely to become a one-stop destination for European or other long-distance tourists, but its attraction as part of a Southern African tour (combined with the nearby Kruger Park) is already well established. It holds attractions for the up-market traveller, including comfort, peacefulness and golf, and for the adventure-holidayer, and offers ample accommodation for both categories, and for many categories in between. Casinos exist, but the image of Swaziland as a refuge for afficinados of all that was outlawed in South Africa is a thing of the past. As would be expected, most of its visitors are from South Africa. The Sun Group, South African-owned, but in which Tibiyo has a major shareholding, runs three large hotels in the Ezulwini Valley, making up three-quarters of the country’s total hotel accommodation. Over 1200 people are employed in the Suns? and probably 2000 or so work in hotels and guest houses throughout the country. Many more are partly or indirectly supported in ancilliary services or in the handicrafts industry, for example, which produces attractive and good qualitity baskets, candles, pottery, glassware and much else for tourists, as well as for export. Government supports the development of the industry, even if it has not always been as dynamic as the private sector would have liked. It has just agreed, for example, to issue visas to visitors from EEC countries not enjoying visa exemption at border posts, free of charge, which will reduce delays and encourage greater numbers of arrivals. Another initiative which Minister Ntiwane hopes to bring into being, is a “ tourist village”, a representation of a traditional Swazi homestead at which visitors could not only see and understand the daily pattern of rural life, but could also witness, year round, the highly spectacular traditional dances such as sibhaca, umbholoho and the umhlanga (Reed Dance) that are now to be seen, in their traditional context, perhaps only once a year.

There is a paragraph in this magazine’s last country report on Swaziland, written in 1985, which now makes rather interesting reading. It concerns the country’s (then) future economic outlook, and reads as follows: “ The Department of Economic Planning and Statistics... forecasts real growth to rise by only 0.8% in the period 1984-90, because the factors that enabled earlier growth are unlikely to come into play”. Happily, this forecast (based largely on projected developments in the sugar, woodpulp and fertiliser industries) has turned out to be quite inaccurate, and proves what the Department nowadays readily admits: that there is high risk in even medium-term economic forecasting at a time, and in a place, where coefficients can change so radically, so swiftly.

Possibly this has never been so true for Swaziland as now. Political, economic and social change in South Africa, such as that now gathering momentum, is bound to have major repercussions on Swaziland’s economy. So, too, could change for the better in Mozambique’s economy, which was once a powerful force in the region, since greater regional security would ease the refugee problem and would bring obvious benefits to trade through improved transport links. But on whether the changes would benefit Swaziland in both the short and the long term, opinion is divided. Investment opportunities might well be lost to South Africa, and Swaziland’s customs revenues would decrease, but it might also be the case that the country would be carried along in the general upturn that the region’s economy would be likely to experience. Whatever the outcome, these changes are still a few years off, and the Swaziland government has time to refine and bring into sharper focus its overall development strategy. To continue improving the investment climate will surely be a pillar of that strategy, and one which carries few risks: it will pay dividends in both the “ worst case “ and the “best case” scenarios.

Swazis tend to refer to South Africa as “ greener pastures “, particularly in the context of higher wages for certain trades and professions. But the term, in any other context, is surely debatable. Swaziland after all, has a stable and widely supported form of government, a people undivided by language or ethnic origin, a fertile soil or, at least, a not infertile one-and, of late, a prospering economy too. Its pastures, both literally and figuratively, are at present pretty green themselves.