8 February 2018

Swaziland: 50/50 - Learn Lesson of Past Disaster

People in Swaziland are being prepared for the double celebration of King Mswati's 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the kingdom's independence from Great Britain.

This is being marketed as the 50/50 celebrations. But memories are short. Ten years ago similar 40/40 celebrations were marred by incompetence and an enormous spending overrun. It happened at a time of massive cuts in public spending as Swaziland's economy spun out of control.

This year (2018) celebrations have been planned for 19 April. A budget of the equivalent of US$1.7 million has been given by the government. A 13-member committee has been formed to mobilise funding for the event.

Home Affairs Minister Princess Tsandzile said in September 2017 the committee was made up of chief executives of private companies and financial institutions.

The APA News agency reported at the time, 'The committee will develop its own terms of reference and will mobilise resources of any kind. It will also be guided by the ministry in terms of the time frame within which it is expected to operate.'

Princess Tsandzile added that government had also put in place committees to work on different issues such as raising awareness, decorations, entertainment and other issues.

King Mswati III rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch. Political parties are banned from taking part in elections and the King appoints the Prime Minister and top ministers. Seven in ten of the estimated 1.4 million population live in abject poverty with incomes of less than US$2 per day.

In 2008 the cost of the celebrations overran by E32.6 million (about US$5 million at the then exchange rate). E17 million was budgeted but it ended up costing 'at least' E50.2 million. The exact figure is uncertain.

The celebrations took place at a time when Swaziland was under the pressure of savage financial cuts, imposed by the International Monetary Fund, after years of mismanagement of the economy by successive Swazi governments - all handpicked by King Mswati.

The budhet overrun was revealed in the 'Comprehensive Project Completion Report' (CPCR), written by Luke Mswane, chair of the double celebrations committee that oversaw the 40/40 celebration that took place on one day - 6 September 2008.

The CPCR highlighted a catalogue of mismanagement. Next to no time was made available to set a proper budget for the events and it became impossible to keep track of the money. At least E1.8 million was spent on capital projects without any formal written authority.

The CPCR also stated that E500,000 was budgeted for labour costs, but overtime paid to civil servants amounted to E5 million.

Tellingly, since the world was led to believe that King Mswati's joy at his 40th birthday and the independence anniversary was shared by his subjects, the CPCR report stated that there was actually a lack of interest in the event and it was impossible to attract sponsors. They had expected sponsors to pay E0.8 million but in fact only E104,000 was given.

At the celebration, the King said, 'I am aware that the world might be wondering as to why we are so excited in celebrating 40 years of our independence. The answer is simple, we are celebrating our nationhood and also thanking God almighty for preserving us as a nation. We are celebrating the unity, peace, stability and progress that we have enjoyed for the past 40 years.'

In the week before the celebrations police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters engaged in a two-day strike for democracy.

In his report, the CPCR showed government made many mistakes in organising the celebration. The project was only launched at the end of October 2007, less than a year before the celebrations. As a result there was not enough time for proper planning and proper costing of all the activities and services that were going to be required before and during the celebrations. The report also listed problems that arose because nobody was sure on the rules governing purchasing goods and services for the celebrations.

Meanwhile, the 40/40 celebration proved to be a global public relations disaster for the King. Instead of praising King Mswati, the international media coverage of the event showed him as a man out of touch with his people. He was seen as selfish and greedy. It was estimated at the time that the celebration might have cost as much as US$10 million (about E70 million at the then exchange rate).

It was pointed out that while the King lived a lavish lifestyle with at least 13 palaces, fleets of top-of-the-range cars and a private jet, six out of ten of his subjects relied on international food aid and four in ten were moving from hunger to starvation. And Swaziland continued to have the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

Swaziland

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