Swaziland: King's Vanity Comes Before the Poor

An extra E220 million (US$73 million) is to be spent in the coming year on Sikhuphe International Airport, dubbed King Mswati III's vanity project.

Meanwhile, only E125 million is to be spent on free primary education in Swaziland.

The Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Education Fund, set up to help mainly children whose parents had died from HIV-related illness, gets E170.5 million.

And, elderly people are to get an increase of only E20 per month in their subsistence grant, taking it up to E220.

These figures were announced on Friday (22 February 2013) by Swazi Finance Minister Majozi Sithole when he delivered the annual budget speech to the Swaziland Parliament.

Last year, the Swazi Government allocated E1.2 billion toward the cost of Sikhuphe. It is now impossible to accurately compute the total cost of the airport, including the building of access roads and a rail link, but the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati, in 2010 estimated it could be as much as US$1 billion.

Sikhuphe is an on-going project to build an 'international airport' in the wilderness in Swaziland. Since the idea for the airport was first raised by King Mswati, who rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, more than 10 years ago independent observers have called it a waste of resources.

As long ago as 2003, the International Monetary Fund said it should not be built because it would divert funds away from much needed projects to fight poverty in Swaziland. About seven in ten of King Mswati's 1.1 million subjects live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 per day.

Meanwhile, the king has a lavish lifestyle, including a personal fortune, once estimated by Forbes magazine to be US$200 million, 13 palaces, a private jet and fleets of top-of-the range Mercedes and BMW cars.

No 'needs analysis' was ever made to see if the airport was needed. Swaziland already has an underused airport at Matsapha, close to both the kingdom's capital, Mbabane, and its main commercial city, Manzini.

Reacting to the news of the additional funding of Sikhuphe, Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) Director Solomon Dube unwittingly revealed that nobody knew whether the airport would attract passengers.

Asked by the Swazi News if SWACAA had identified airlines to operate the airport, Dube said, 'We are talking to some including Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airline and various Gulf airlines. What remains now, is a study on where do Swazis want to fly to.'

Critics of Sikhuphe, who have dubbed the airport 'King Mswati's vanity project', have argued for years that there is no potential for the airport. Major airports already exist less than an hour's flying time away in South Africa with connecting routes to Swaziland and there is no reason to suspect passengers would want to use the airport at Sikhuphe as an alternative.

Completion of the airport has been delayed for years. King Mswati had announced it would be open in time for the FIFA World Cup, played in neighbouring South Africa in 2010, but it did not happen.

Sithole said in his budget speech the airport would open this year.

Dube told the Swazi News, SWACAA had received an order from government to complete the project soon.

The newspaper quoted him saying, 'His Majesty must rest assured that the order will be carried out.'

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