Will Cyril Ramaphosa’s new dawn extend to Swaziland?

If the popular narrative is anything to go by, then South Africa is on the cusp of significant political changes, thanks in part to the election of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Campaigning on the ticket of a fresh start—or ‘new dawn’—President Ramaphosa has sold himself as a reformist tasked with the role of cleaning not just the ANC but the state too.

However, if Ramaphosa’s much punted ‘new dawn’ has to be meaningful then it ought to move beyond the national boundaries of South Africa, particularly as it relates to the neighboring country of Swaziland.

In fact, this new dawn must re-position South Africa’s foreign policy as the epicenter of Africa’s renewal and renaissance. To be brunt, Cyril must undo some of the foreign policy disasters of his predecessor.

Under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, South Africa had become a continental giant that could use her political, economic, military and moral clout to fight for the interests of Africans at the world stage.

The country even became an irritation to global powers by challenging them on several issues —the war in Iraq being one of the most prominent points of reference. It is not surprising then that the Trump administration would go on to complain that South Africa seldom votes with them at the UN

Even alleged plans by former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for a military intervention in Zimbabwe was thwarted by Mbeki. It was rightly argued then that Britain could not instigate an Iraq type of regime change in Africa with South Africa watching.

At a continental level, South Africa supported many progressive policies that were meant to give Africa new hope. For example, the country initiated the African Peer Review Mechanism to ensure Africans could engage in frank and robust peer assessment of each country’s governance achievements and failings.

In conflict riddled countries, Mbeki engaged in quiet diplomacy meant to bring feuding parties to dialogue (formation of South Sudan being his success) and avoided the straight jacket “take-them-to-ICC” approach in dealing with the Koudou Laurent Gbagbo vs Alassane Ouattara deadlock. In rare instances boots were put on the ground to preserve peace.

For tin-pot dictatorships like Swaziland, Thabo Mbeki simply gave the country a cold shoulder at best and a total snub at worse. Proof of this is that in all the years he was in power he never went on a state visit to Swaziland.

While it may be tempting to analyse South Africa’s foreign policy in different parts of Africa under the previous administration, for purposes of this article I will narrow down just to Swaziland because it is here that policy failures became even more pronounced.

Former President of South Africa Jacob Zuma pictured with King Mswati III.

South Africa’s continental standing took a knock after Pretoria’s support for the no-fly zone that led to the capture and death of Muammar Gadaffi. Allegations of corruption and state capture have also castrated the country’s moral standing that ordinarily allowed Pretoria to stand up to other dictatorships in the continent.

In the case of Swaziland, South Africa’s tacit approval and propping up of the despicable Swazi monarchy became a lamentable case of policy disaster in its most shameful form. For starters, the Zuma administration sidelined the ANC’s official position to support democracy in the country.

Instead, Zuma helped embolden the monarchy and uplifted its political standing in the region.

Worse still, South Africa’s foreign policy position got confused with Zuma’s own filial relations with the monarchy.  Even before ascending to office, Jacob Zuma had already cozied himself up to the monarchy through a botched marriage to King Mswati’s niece, Sebentile Dlamini.

This cemented personal ties between Zuma and King Mswati. This relationship bolstered King Mswati and removed the political isolation that had shamed him under Mbeki administration.

Never mind the numerous official and unofficial controversial visits to Swaziland, perhaps the most disastrous thing Zuma did was to endorse a fraudulent KwaMagogo project led by one Elias Masilela meant to sanitise the royal family’s complicity  in collaborating with the apartheid regime.

Through an elaborate scheme by Masilela, a well-known royal errand boy turned ANC bureaucrat, Zuma tied the party to a political white wash meant to cut the umbilical link between apartheid and the Swazi royal family. 

Over the years, Masilela was able to create business ties between sections of the corrupt ANC with the royal family in Swaziland. This has ofcourse been a spit on the face of the many democracy activists that look up to the ANC to stop the monarchy from routinely locking up activists for something as trivial as criticising the government.

Within the tripartite alliance itself, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African Party (SACP) have been at pains trying to place the Swaziland question firmly on the state agenda.

However, the business and personal ties between Zuma and Mswati proved too deep and tight to untangle. In fact, the highlight of this relationships was the ANC’s investment arm buying mining shares with Tibiyo, the monarchy’s lucrative piggy bank.

The saddest part though is that of all the Presidents in South Africa, none had the best opportunity to squeeze Mswati into giving in to democracy than Zuma.

 When Swaziland was cash-strapped and could not get money to bail out that sinking dictatorship, many thought South Africa’s loan would provide the much needed leverage to bargain for change. Instead, Zuma gave the monarchy a loan with ‘no strings attached’. True to his despotic credentials, Mswati then demanded a slice of that very loan.

If there is anything we learn of the last few years is that when it comes to Swaziland there is more than meets the eye. First, the ANC as a party has substantial business interests in the country through its investment wing, Chancellor House.

Secondly, sections of the corrupt ANC elite think of the monarchy as an embodiment of ‘pristine’ African culture and tradition that must be protected from ‘western influence’. This explains why they flout their own party resolutions through regular participation in either the king’s annual golf tournament or cultural events.

The real difficulty in getting policy certainty on Swaziland can be found in the fact that South Africa sees itself as the country’s ‘step daddy’ that must keep the Swazi economy afloat.

The reasoning is that Pretoria must balance two interests; on the one end help stabilise the country’s economy and cash flow to avoid a Zimbabwe type mass immigration while also protecting South Africa’s business interests in the country.

The proof of the pudding can be found in the statistics themselves; South African absorbs  an estimated 60 percent of Swaziland’s exports and provides  as much as 86 percent of  imports as well as accounting  for 63 percent of  Swaziland’s foreign  direct  investment  (FDI). 

Infact the Swazi economy is overwhelmingly owned, controlled and/or managed by foreign capital. Until independence in 1968 this meant British capital, with the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) as the main generator of investment into largely agro-industry (sugar, timber and citrus).

Since then, British capital’s domination has been eclipsed by South Africa. It is also somewhat misleading to describe the Swazi operations of Standard and Barclays Banks as representing British capital. 

Through Swaziland’s membership of SACU and the Rand Monetary Area, their operations are necessarily more integrated into the South African banking system than with those of their English parent companies. 

Interest rates, for example, are adjusted in response to changes effected by the South African Reserve Bank. This means the existence of the Swazi economy literally owes in part to South Africa.

The fear of a Zimbabwe type exodus is but a lame excuse why Pretoria can’t take action against the Mswati regime. This is because at 3.61 percent, Swaziland is already the fourth largest exporter of human capital amongst the SADC countries. As long ago as 2013, there were at least 117, 552 Swazi’s working or staying in South Africa, and this number is likely to have increased today.

Of these, 103 097 had no right to work in the country. Based on 2007 census figures, the Swaziland Diaspora in South Africa is about 11.54 percent of the total Swaziland population (Mail & Guardian, February 22, 2013). For a country of its size this is without a doubt very high and underlines the significance of immigration.

It stands to reason, therefore, that it is in the interest of South Africa for Swaziland to become democratic peacefully. This is more so given that an outbreak of conflict would threaten South Africa’s very own business interests in the country. 

In any event, the ANC’s NASREC resolutions themselves give Ramaphosa the party backing to act against the monarchy. The starting point in this regard would be to renegotiate the apartheid era South African Customs Union (SACU) revenue sharing formula (which makes up 50 percent of the Swazi budget) as a bargaining point.

 The profligate monarch continues to be arrogant and spendthrift knowing he has SACU money to clean his mess. The onus is on Ramaphosa to prove he is ready and willing to take bold decisions and switch off the oxygen to oils the Swazi dictatorship.

 NB: Manqoba Nxumalo is Chairman of the SIAI. The views expressed here are his and do not represent those of SIAI or Ulibambe Lingashoni.  

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Manqoba Nxumalo
I follow the principles of Jesus Christ and the example of Hugo Chavez