In May 2011 I was asked by the Royal African Society (RAS)2 to prepare a short commentary on the current political situation in Swaziland. There had been an increase in attention towards the country with news of protests and economic decline. The analysis was intended to stimulate discussion on whether political reform was likely.
At the end of July, I spent a few days in the Kingdom. The primary reason was to attend a Governing Council Meeting at Waterford Kamhlaba School but I also took the opportunity to meet with a number of people outside this community. I spent time with the National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA) and presented an update on recent events, including the IAS Pathogenesis Conference.
We were briefed on the Swazi economy; the political situation; and the rule of law. On the basis of all of these meetings, and other observations, I am reporting on the situation. It does not make happy reading. If I were in the prediction business then I would say in the next six months the crisis will reach its peak.
The economy is in dire straits and the country is bankrupt. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund suggested the government declare a ‘fiscal state of emergency’ and offered support subject to Swaziland following a road map of measures. This would have included laying off staff and reducing government expenditure. The government declined to do this. There was a view that the country would not meet its July 2011 salary bill but it has in fact done so. The civil service and security forces are now under pressure to take cuts in pay.
The country has seen a 60% fall in revenue, primarily because the South African Customs Union (SACU) payments have dropped (SACU members are Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland). This was not a surprise. The government, international agencies, donor community and Swaziland watchers have been aware of this expected fall for many years. See for example our brief and longer article on our website. Brief at: www.heard.org.za/downloads/health-expenditure-implications-of-sacus-revenue-volatility-in-blns-countries-issue-brief.pdf.
In early August the King went to South Africa, cap in hand, asking for emergency funding. The country has received R2.4 billion. South Africa has put conditions in place for better fiscal governance (but there are few on democratization, this has caused great unhappiness among South African unions and others). This loan is a stopgap. Until such time as there is good economic governance there will no new investment in the country. At best the economy will slowly contract, with debt rising steadily.
Swaziland is the last absolute monarchy in Africa. King Mswati III seems oblivious to pressures to reform; the suffering of his people; and does not understand basic economics. Quite how the country operates politically is unclear, even to informed Swazis. It is a nepotistic, autocratic, kleptocracy where the ruling elite treat the national treasury as their own personal bank. The election system of tinkundla is Byzantine and impenetrable. Although there were constitutional reforms in 2006, political opposition remains banned. Nonetheless there are a growing number of protests and the trade unions – possibly with help from across the border – are flexing their muscles.
The Legal Situation
There is a crisis of law and the independence of the judiciary is under threat. Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi was appointed as Chief Justice by King Mswati. He is from Lesotho and also sits on the appeal court in Botswana. He issued an order preventing anyone from “directly or indirectly” suing the King. He then suspended High Court Judge Thomas Masuku. In a case filed recently with the Judicial Service Commission, the Law Society accused Ramodibedi of sexual harassment. The Judicial Services Commission banned Swazi press from publishing details of the complaint.
There is an excellent source on Swaziland at: http://swazilandcommentary.blogspot.com.
What Does this Mean for HIV/AIDS?
Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV prevalence. In the last ante-natal clinic survey 42% of women tested were HIV-positive. The 2006 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) found that 26% of all Swazis between 15 and 49 years were infected; among men prevalence was 20% and among women 31%. Overall HIV population prevalence was 18.8% across the nation meaning about 200 000 Swazis are infected. The response, coordinated by NERCHA, ironically is one of the country’s few success stories.
NERCHA was created through an Act of Parliament, in 2001 under the Prime Minister’s office. It is charged with coordinating and facilitating the HIV/AIDS response and implementation of the national strategic plan. Its main sources of funding are government and the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and it acts as a conduit. The second major source of funding in the country is the US government. PEPFAR provided $38 million in the 2011 financial year.
The exceptional measurable progress is that approximately 70% of those who should be on anti-retroviral therapy are receiving the drugs. This is 65 000 of 84 000 people and therapy is administered at the 350 or lower CD4 cell count level which is extremely impressive. There has been great success in the area of prevention of mother to child transmission. Approximately 97% of women visit the ante-natal clinics, and 85% of those who need drugs are started on therapy. Prevention has been slow to show results. There is a major programme of medical male circumcision with over 30 000 men circumcised in the last three years. Various other initiatives are also in place.
The lack of government money means that NERCHA’s funding is under threat. They asked for E63 million3 for the April 2011 to March 2012 financial year. They were allocated E47 million (about E4 million per month). For the four-month period ending 31 July 2011 they have only received E4 million of the E16 million allocated. There is no indication as to when, or indeed if they will get the next subvention.
Swaziland was unsuccessful in its last Global Fund bid. Globally there are concerns about US funding. The US House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee Bill would cut 9% from current global health funding levels and 18% from President Obama’s FY2012 budget request. It is not clear how this will operationalise in Swaziland.
The Ministry of Health is charged with implementation but government is creaking and it is unclear as to how sustainable the response will be.
As early as 1993 we were warning of the potential social and economic consequences of this epidemic for Swaziland. While it has taken longer than anticipated, the AIDS epidemic in combination with the failure of governance and economic contraction means Swaziland faces a bleak future. Ironically the glimmer of hope is in the response to HIV and AIDS where civil society is powerful and the receipt and disbursement of outside funding is efficient and honest.
1Alan Whiteside grew up in Swaziland and maintains close links with the country. He has written extensively about Swaziland, and is working on a book The Political Economy of Swaziland intended for publication in early 2012
2The RAS undertakes research, analysis and host lectures and meetings of African interest. Its website with commentary is African Arguments
3The Swazi Currency the Emalangeni (sing. Lilangeni) is on a par with the Rand, and Swaziland is in a Common Monetary area with South Africa.