Swaziland: Trouble In Paradise

Since the beginning of 2010 I have made three trips to Swaziland, twice flying in and once driving up. The reason is, primarily, that I am desperate to write my book The Political Economy of Swaziland. Although I know the country well, am a regular visitor, and try to stay in touch I need to collect data, do research and check facts.

There is also the Waterford connection as one of the trips coincided with the School Governing Council meeting. We have a new development officer in post and have great expectations going forward. Do visit the website at www.waterford.sz.


Swaziland is such a beautiful country, at the end of this summer it seems to be exceptionally green and lush. I drove from the airport to Mbabane in the late evening on my last trip. There had been rain and the sky was overcast and quite ominous. We had dodged thunderstorms en route from Johannesburg to Matsapha. There was a band of cloud halfway up the Mdimba mountains on the side of the Ezulwini valley. The contrast between the black glistening rock, the green of the grass and vegetation and the pure white of the cloud was remarkable. I wished I had a camera because words can not begin to capture the scene.

The story of Swaziland is being written slowly. I have divided the book into four key periods. The first the history up to independence in 1968; second the reign of King Sobhuza over the independent nation from 1968 to his death in 1983; then the time up to 1994, a defining moment when South Africa gained independence and Swaziland began to slip off the international radar screens; and finally the story to 2010. This last part is dominated by two themes, the change in South Africa and the inability of Swaziland to adapt to it; and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As with many activities this book is so clear in my head, but then I sit down to write and it slips away like water between my fingers.

There are also distractions that mean I literally loose the plot. The big diversions have been the HEARD board and donor meetings and international travel. We gathered with our key donors in Durban on the 17th March and on the 18th we held the first board meeting of 2010. The good news is that the organization will continue to be funded; it seems that we will have support for the next four years. This means we can plan serious work, and I can continue to put time and resources into Swaziland, one of the themes of this letter. These meetings need a great deal of work, thought, preparation and co-ordination and are ‘core business’.

The most recent international travel involved going to British Department of International Development organized ‘High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS’ which was held in the House of Lords. My word it was interesting, the setting alone was amazing. The Houses of Parliament must be among the most majestic gilded buildings of any national assembly anywhere in the world. The meeting was held in a committee room called ‘The Moses Room’ because of the huge painting on the back wall. This is of Moses bringing tablets of stone (the commandments) down from the mountain to the people of Israel. I suppose one could make a link between these tablets and anti-retroviral therapy – but it would be a stretch!

The purpose of the meeting was to assess how we, the global community, are doing in achieving the targets for 2010. It was attended by the core international leaders of the HIV response and I was invited to give the opening remarks and set the scene. Of course the power point presentation I had prepared was not on the projector and so I had to start without the pictures. Despite this it was a good presentation and a great meeting.

I flew from London to New York for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative’s Policy Advisory Committee meeting and was there from Wednesday to Saturday when I was scheduled to fly back to Durban. The hotel in New York was at the end of the Island of Manhattan just off Wall Street. The weather was uniformly windy and miserably wet, so walking back to the hotel I ducked into a stationary office supply shop that had a most unlikely selection of secondhand books. One of these was called “How we die” and the details are at the end of this letter.

The highlights of New York were having dinner with Stephen Lewis and Paula Donavan of AIDS Free World (www.aidsfreeworld.org), this was really fun; and sitting at JFK Airport with no flights taking off or landing because of strong wind which was not fun. A key theme of the dinner was what is going on in Swaziland. Among Stephen’s many activities has been mobilizing grandmothers primarily in Canada to work with their African counterparts. The details of this remarkable initiative can be found on the Stephen Lewis Foundation website at http://www.stephenlewisfoundation.org . There will be a “Grandmother’s Gathering” in Swaziland in early May. One of the big questions is how to reach the political leadership in Swaziland and, specifically, the King. There is so much misuse of money that it becomes hard to argue for continued support without real changes at the top. This, importantly, does not mean change of leadership, but rather change of heart and style.

I expected to leave New York at six o’clock on Saturday and be back in Durban early on Monday having slept overnight in Johannesburg. It was a filthy day so I took the taxi to the airport well ahead of time, checked in and went to the lounge. The wind was incredibly strong, gusting across the airport, making the building shake and the luggage containers dance. There was no activity at all out on the apron. The boarding time came and went. We were informed that the airport was closed, flights were being diverted or cancelled and we just had to be patient. I know I had missed my connection and that there was nothing I could do so I just chilled out.

At ten pm that evening the flight was boarded and the captain came on the public address system and said something like: “Welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen, you all understand the reason for the delay. We have been told a lull in the wind is forecast, so we will taxi down to the end of the runway, and if it is safe we will take off. But don’t worry if it is not safe we won’t. I am afraid the wind was so strong that there has been no baggage or food loaded onto the plane. However we did bring cookies on through the front door”.

We duly taxied to the end of the runway. I could see from the windsock that the wind was blowing straight down the runway (which was good), and the lights of two other planes landing. I was reasonably confident that we would be able to leave. The crew put on full power and, after the shortest take off run, I have ever experienced we were in the air and on our way.

There was a small degree of chaos in Amsterdam, but eventually I got to the front of the queue to see what my options were. The ground staff had already booked me on a flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town the next morning, which was a rather a long way round so we looked at other routes. In the end the best option was to fly to Paris then go overnight on the Air France flight to Johannesburg. I only looked at my boarding card when I was in Paris – and then saw that I was in seat 68F. After a moment of bafflement I realized that this was the new airbus, the biggest plane in the world. I walked to the gate to look at it and it is amazingly huge! It does not feel that different inside. As I boarded I asked the steward where my seat was.

“Hang on”, he said with a delightful French accent, “I will have a look at the map”.

They are having teething problems, in the case of this flight the entertainment system did not work. Oh well what can you say. At least I got back to Durban and having been there a couple of days had the donor meeting then drove up to Swaziland with a colleagues from the SIDA team in Lusaka. Then back to Durban to welcome Rowan my daughter and her boyfriend for their ‘South African holiday’. They arrived and went to a party this evening so I headed for the cinema. The film that was on when I got there was called “It’s complicated”. With Steve Martin, Meryl Streep and Jack Baldwin. I found it both touching and though provoking.

I will in my next posting, describe going on a canopy tour , which basically meant being terrified, the pictures are on the website. They say: “The canopy tour involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30m above the forest floor. The tour comprises seven platforms and eight slides that zig-zag down a pristine forested valley”. Nothing about the fear and horror and getting stuck!


Thirteen Moons; by William Frazier Random House 2007 432 pages

About 12 or so years ago William Frazier published his first novel called “Cold Mountain” set in the American Civil War. He has not published anything since. A couple of weeks ago I was passing though the airport in Durban and Exclusive Books had a sale on. In among the piles of books I spotted “Thirteen Moons”. It is an excellent and thought provoking book. It tells of an indentured boy who is sent to manage a trading post in the Cherokee nation. The main characters are the boy, Will Cooper; his adoptive father Bear, a Cherokee Chief; Claire with whom he has a complicated sporadic relationship, but who the wife to an aristocratic Indian called Featherstone. The love story is between Claire and Will, but there is also a deep relationship between him, Bear and in complex ways, with Featherstone.

The Cherokee Nation and indeed all the Indians in the East of the United States were forced to move to ‘beyond the Mississippi’, something I did not know and which resonates with South Africa. Will and Bear fight to keep land for the Cherokee Nation and succeed in doing so. Will ends up re-meeting with Claire at a Spa towards the end of the book and the end of his life. According to Wikapedia again the book is loosely based on the life of William Holden Thomas who was the principal chief of the eastern band of Cherokee Indians and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War who lived from 1805 to 1893. Charles Frazier was given an advance payment of over 8 million dollars for the proposal and of its initial print run of 750 000 only half were sold so the publisher may lost money on the advance. It deserves to do better. I learnt a huge amount from the book about the United States, the removals of the Indians and was surprised to learn that it was set in North Carolina. It is clear that this part of the world had a bloody history of which I know only a small part. I find myself wondering why we are so slow to learn from experience.

Perhaps the most poignant is the way in which the book is written as an older man sitting and reliving his life. He is perceptive but desperately alone, and I have to say I found it to be most moving especially as I have aged (although I am certainly not in my 90’s, I sometimes just feel it). I wonder if this is sort of thing that my father and others went through as they moved through their lives. I hope it is more widely read, it certainly is a classic and is deeply moving.

“How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter” by Sherwin B. Nuland (Vintage 1995, 304 pages).

Nuland examines what death means to the doctor, patient, nurse, and family. It was thought provoking and humane. He draws on his own experiences with various people close to him: the deaths of his aunt, his older brother, and a longtime patient. Disease, not death, is the real enemy. However there is not much comfort as he warns most deaths are unpleasant, and painful. It is an excellent book and certainly one we should all read. I found myself thinking of it as the South African Deputy Health Minister Sefularo died in a car accident last week. I had met him some months ago and was so impressed, what an excellent man and what a loss