10 January 2012

Swaziland: Critics Want Coke d'état in the Country

Photo: Taurai Maduna/IRIN
King Mswati - one of Africa's last executive monarchs.

Poor old Coca-Cola. The world's favourite drink can't do much right these days. If it's not responsible for America's obesity epidemic, then it's causing children's teeth to rot. Or using up all of India's water while stealing Nigerian jobs. But this latest accusation goes even further, claiming Coke is responsible for propping up the authoritarian regime of an entire country - and it refuses to do anything about it.

That country is Swaziland, where Coca-Cola has its concentrate manufacturing plant that exports all over southern and eastern Africa.

Critics, led by the Swaziland Solidarity Network, claim Coca-Cola alone accounts for up to 40% of Swaziland's GDP. This number is probably a generous overestimate, but even if it's just 20%-30%, it's still a hefty slug, without which the nearly bankrupt government of King Mswati III would be completely bankrupt.

And that is the critics' issue. By virtue of its economic position, Coca-Cola is in a powerful position to influence Swaziland's wayward king, Africa's last absolute monarch and often criticised (with some justification) for using his power for the good of himself rather than his people. But so far, the corporation has remained determinedly apolitical, confirming in a statement it has no intention of meddling in a country's internal affairs.

A sensible position from a company looking to protect its balance sheet, but one that doesn't correspond to recent history. The only reason Coca-Cola is in Swaziland at all is because it moved out of apartheid South Africa.

Although this only came after huge international pressure, and only in 1987, it shows the company can be motivated by political factors if the circumstances are compelling enough.

And with Swaziland's economy getting worse by the day, and Mswati's inaction becomes more inexcusable, those circumstances might be closer than we think. DM

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