Rain for the Ruins

Swaziland Sunrise
(photo: Michael Deeble)

With heavy rains flooding Southern Africa and displacing thousands, surely saving graces must be found in parched and dying Swaziland, a country long thirsting for a drop of rain. But somewhat typically, that oppressed country’s autocrat King Mswati III, has taken the event of the rain for more than it is, and in so doing has begun another trek away from the path of reform.

The other day Mswati delivered a speech in the rain to army cadets, saying that salvation had finally come. The king believes that now is the time for his citizens to give up living off donor food from the international community and return to agricultural self-sufficiency:

“The time has come for us to come out of the dependency syndrome and start eating our own food that we have cultivated in our fields instead of depending on the donor community,”

Were it only so simple.

In many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such words might come as a welcome and encouraging policy statement. Perpetual African dependency on foreign aid has gone a long way to becoming a crippling effect for many emerging markets there, depressing incentives for self-help (particularly in agricultural development), giving atrophied dictatorships unnaturally longer lives by placating restive populations, and often creating new and fantastically complex levels of social and political corruption. But in Swaziland, given the situation, the king’s remarks can only be received as further confirmation that his approach to the country’s problems is profoundly myopic. It will take more than a good rain to arrest Swaziland’s dependence on foreign food.

The Kingdom of Swaziland, outside of a few urban enclaves, is an utterly impoverished, starving and broken nation, desiccated by cycles of drought and ravaged by widespread terminal disease. The scale of reliance on foreign food aid is not small or easily overcome. It is not a matter of feeding a few thousand refugees in border towns as it is elsewhere in Africa. In Swaziland almost half the population lives on permanent foreign food aid. A crisis that has as much to do with the government’s incompetence and myopia, as to the punishment of drought itself.

For a small example, consider that with roughly 450,000 people living on food donations from abroad, the Swazi government is allocating thousands of hectares of its best farmland not to food production, but to growing cassava for ethanol export. This is part of an effort to feed Western enviromanticist appetites for a more humane and earth-friendly fuel source than petroleum (an effort that in fairness did infuriate some enviromanticist thinkers recently, such as George Monbiot). The indifference of the government to looming mass starvation on a gargantuan scale –literally, a potential halving of the country’s population is just a few weeks away every day– is indicative of how backwards the major policy choices tend to be in Swaziland.

It goes without saying that drought is ruinous in a country where the economy remains predominantly premodern. In Swaziland, 80% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture on often unproductive land. Unemployment stands at 40%, the 14th highest in the world. Economic growth is worse than slow, it’s unstable…even psychotic. For instance in 2004 Swaziland’s GDP grew by 11.36%, two years later it contracted -1.96 %. These dynamics present conditions which makes the long-term stockpiling of food stores such as maize, in order to meet the catastrophic droughts of the future, almost impossible. And thus a good year of rain is an ameliorative event that leaves a vast structural problem undisturbed.

Long-term, its even worse. Because as the nation lingers on the periphery of starvation, it is dying from within. Swaziland has the highest HIV infection rate in the world (26% of all adults and a staggering 49% of all young women). And just last month the government’s census discovered that despite a prodigious birth-rate of 28.6 per 1000, the country’s population had actually fallen since 1997 by 17,489 people, to 912,229. Disease and the drought have earned Swaziland the distinction of the world’s lowest life expectancy, just 31.3 years (Rehmeyers in Swaziland tells a grim story of their visit to a rural town where entire generations of adults have simply disappeared, leaving a slum city of children).

Over this colossal human catastrophe reigns Africa’s last surviving absolute monarch: King Mswati, a leader who is almost a case study in the caprice and iniquity that is endemic to the institution of hereditary autocracy. In the words of Joseph Siegle, under Mswati, Swaziland has become a society that is being “marched off a cliff.” Living in opulent splendor with his court of 13 wives and 27 children (a modest household, as his father managed 70 wives), the king’s detachment from the nation’s problems is often quite profound. It’s not entirely certain that he’s even aware of the situation most of the time, as he has confessed to not bothering to read state documents supplied to him by his advisers.

Politically, Mswati’s words and deeds can range from the absurd to the inhuman. Obsessed with criticism in the press, he’s banned periodicals that attack the government (in defiance of the courts) and his state-run media outlets routinely inveigh against supposedly devious “plots” from their Western counterparts, to subvert and discredit Mswati’s allegedly benevolent rule. His lifestyle, in contrast to his people’s abject misery, is purely abominable. In 2005 for instance, when these problems were no less acute, he purchased 10 new BMW SUVs for each of his then ten wives. For himself he bought a $500,000 Maybach 62, for a more comfortable ride through a nation of slums.

Mswati’s solutions to the HIV crisis have included the proposed sterilization and branding of the infected, and a law mandating the prohibition of all sex in the country for five years (a mandate he himself ignored). His solutions for economic decline include the building of massive industrial parks for the offices of nonexistent foreign investors, and encouragement to a similarly largely nonexistent Swazi middle-class, to create more medium sized technology firms. Which collectively might be considered a kind of reversion to the postcolonial African development idea of creating a “symbolic economy,” as George Ayittey labeled it. That is, the view that since modern economies have business parks and software companies, if Swaziland has a business park and a software sector, then it will have a modern economy. This was the logic that led to many African regimes purchasing advanced Western and Soviet technology that would then sit in warehouses unused and unusable in the immediate postcolonial period.

One thing you can count on for the people of Swaziland is reverential treatment of the king’s nonsense by a claimed to be free Swazi state press. A press which is certain to ascribe salvation to the temporary rain storms just as their leader does. An instrument of that press (that once required a story on the king as the headline on every day’s front page) had this editorial on the occasion of Mswati’s rain speech to the cadets. You can be the judge of its independence from the government interest:

[T]he one thing Swaziland has that no other Country in the world can boast is an absolute Monarch so dedicated to his people that he would embrace brutal rain in the name of sacrifice and leadership.

As I watched His Majesty’s dedication in the midst of heavy down pours and thunderstorms it occurred to me that the negative publicity his office receives is largely an ignorant effort fueled by the western media due to fear and a huge misunderstanding of culture.

While printing this genuflection, the press largely remains silent about the problems facing the country. The problems that have induced the dependence Mswati now declaims.

Richard Rooney maintains what is without question the best blog on the press in Swaziland, Swazi Media Commentary. Yesterday he posted a Panos report which concludes that in a country where radio is the predominant means of mass communication, the state is reluctant to use it for HIV discussion because…

‘The government is suspicious of radio call-in shows that allow listeners to express views that might be embarrassing or politically dissenting.’

This reminds us of the frequently forgotten rule that death in dictatorship comes as frequently from inaction as action.

The notion that the residue of Western imperialism continues to punish and manipulate Swaziland is also fairly well embedded in the political culture’s elite. Something generous Western food aid has had little effect on.

Fiercely independent, Swazis once controlled a far larger domain than the tiny area they now occupy. The advent of foreign rule is a relatively recent memory, which came quite late to the country in the 20th century. Throughout the traumas of the early imperial age in South Africa, the Swazi successfully resisted the Boers, the British and the Zulu. The Swazi only began to lose their land in the late 19th century under the ruler Mbandzeni, who gave large sections of his territory to foreign interests in mineral concessions. The political tradition of a creeping threat from the West gobbling up the inherited rights of Swaziland probably began to emerge during this period.

It wasn’t until 1903, after a short interim administration by the Transvaal, that the British assumed genuine political control over Swaziland. The British however left the Swazi monarchy intact and largely autonomous to rule as it saw fit. This enabled the preservation of a royal continuity that stretched back to precolonial times. Something that has been instrumental in maintaining the legitimacy of a tiny tribal and autocratic kingdom, despite being surrounded by more modern states.

Swaziland for her own part animated Western hostility when the monarchy rejected international sanctions on Apartheid South Africa. Although in fairness, landlocked Swaziland, which ships half of its exports and receives 90% of its imports from South Africa, was perhaps in no position for moral squabbles with her huge and belligerent southern neighbor. In the process of inspiring international scorn, Swaziland’s government was further convinced that foreign interests were out to get the little kingdom. It began borrowing much of the siege mentality and language of her unlikely ally in isolated white-ruled South Africa and a great deal of this thinking has survived the fall of Apartheid in Swaziland.

In the 1990s, in the midst of another drought cycle (something of a motor in Swazi history), Mswati pledged to make greater strides toward democracy and constitutional reform, following widespread civil unrest. Unsurprisingly, little changed. The drought eventually abated and things returned to normal. But as rain now falls again on the clustered human, economic and political ruins of this country, it is well past time for Swazis to recognize that what they need is not a fleeting respite from the cycle of drought, but a flooding river of political change that will give them a sane and representative government. One which can at least try to create conditions for their enduring survival.

Alas, with a rapidly shrinking population and imploding economy, time is not on their side. What sort of country will the king survey in his rain speech following the next drought cycle? One thing is certain. If things remain as they are, far fewer will be attending his words.

This post has relied heavily on information provided by these excellent works: Joceyln Murray’s Cultural Atlas of Africa, George B. N. Ayittey’s Africa Unchained, Ieuan LL. Griffiths’ Atlas of African Affairs, and John Readers’ Africa: A Biography of a Continent.

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2 Responses to “Rain for the Ruins”

  1. on 13 Jan 2008 at 2:13 am Steve Newton

    Great piece, but absolutely saddening (and maddening).

    I linked to this one on Delaware Libertarian.

  2. on 13 Jan 2008 at 3:16 am Lee

    Splendid commentary Steve, thanks. I think you’ve an enormously powerful question there: “is it genocide when a country commits suicide?”

    All the more so in Swaziland, because it is one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa where the historical legitimacy of the state is not in question. It’s not a product of some colonial administrator in Lisbon or London saying “Ah, let’s put a country here and call it Nigeria.” There is no Swazi Biafra. Habitation in their territory is as old as 1770, when Ngwane III brought his people through the Lebombo Mountains to settle there (they were in the general area for centuries before). The illegitimacy of Nigeria’s state and borders was for instance often used as the explicit and implicit excuse for mass murder during Nigerian civil war.

    But what if a regime that has historical legitimacy is nevertheless a despotic agent of the genocide of its own people, not through war, but through outright incompetence and misrule? A regime that despite its invented prejudices, is no victim of ongoing imperial crimes. This is a pregnant postcolonial question really.

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