The bittersweet taste of Swazi sugar
October 28, 2016 Leave a comment
According to a new report from the ITUC about the sugar industry in Swaziland, the country’s absolute monarch uses sugar profits to sweeten his own life, leaving sugar-cane farmers and the majority of the population bitterly impoverished.
Sugar cane production has brought about more human suffering than development in Swaziland. Many people have been evicted and the general conditions in the sugar industry are atrocious. This is the conclusion of a new International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-report, written by journalist Manqoba Nxumalo and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze.
Swaziland main export commodity is sugar, the so-called “Swazi gold”. With a population of only 1.3 million people, Swaziland is nevertheless the 4th largest sugar producer in Africa. Sugar production accounts for almost 60 percent of Swaziland’s agricultural output and 18 percent of Swaziland’s GDP. The biggest market for Swazi sugar is the European Union (although the duty-free and quota-guaranteed access to the EU market will end in 2017).
According to Manqoba Nxumalo, one would therefore expect that the wealth generated from sugar sales would lead to improving living standards for the Swazi population.
“But as our research was able to prove, it is only a feeding ranch for the royal family. Sugar has been the primary locomotive by which they have mutated from a backward aristocracy to a new comprador class”, says Nxumalo.
A royal dictatorship
According to the report, the problems all lead back to a 1973 royal decree that banned political parties, criminalized political activism and vested all power in the king, thereby transforming Swaziland from a thriving constitutional democracy to royal dictatorship.
The decree thus created an absolute monarchy that was able to use its control over Swaziland’s wealth through companies such as Tibiyo Taka Ngwane to control the nation, the report concludes.
King Mswati is the sole trustee of Tibiyo, which was initially created as a national trust. Today, however, “income from Tibiyo’s present worth around US$ 2 billion supports King Mswati … Like Mswati, Tibiyo is immune from taxation”.
Workers ‘live in squalor’
World sugar production has doubled in 30 years, and Mswati – who Forbes estimates has a personal wealth of around US$200 million – has become personally rich from Swazi sugar. The thousands of workers who produce the sugar, on the other hand, have seen little of this wealth.
Mswati III, as the sole trustee of Tibiyo, is both a head of state and a businessman unfairly competing with local and foreign businesses. The workers, who work in Tibiyo-aligned companies, on the other hand live in squalor and abhorring conditions, especially in the sugar industry, says Nxumalo.
King Mswati, and his father Sobhuza, have evicted and forcefully relocated villagers from their lands without compensation to make way for Tibiyo-controlled sugar-cane fields, the report says.
So being employed on one of the large-scale Tibiyo-owned farms as a returning seasonal worker or casual employee has become a necessary alternative to working one’s own fields, although it is a hard and accident-prone job where chemicals such as roundup used to destroy weeds also destroys the people employed to spray the weeds.
According to the report, casual employees make an average of US$5.32 per day – hardly enough to pay for school fees for their children or, proper food or medicine – and are not paid for overtime. They also receive no pension benefits or medical aid.
Farmers fight back
As unemployment levels in Swaziland are over 40 percent, and the alternative to a job is poverty and often starvation, many Swazis do no complain.
But sugar cane farmers in the impoverished area of Vuvulane have decided that enough is enough. According to the report, there is an ongoing battle between sugar cane farmers in the area and the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation.
In February 2016, 22 Vuvulane farmers were evicted from lands that they and their families had tended since 1963 by Vuvulane Irrigated Farms and the Swaziland Sugar Corporation.
Such forced evictions have led to farmers storming Tiboyo-run farms, in an attempt to ensure their livelihoods and the burning of vast areas of Tibiyo-run sugar cane fields in connection with another round of evictions.
Sugar boycott will hurt regime
If governments and ordinary people outside Swaziland wish to come to the aid of the protesting Swazi farmers, and help ensure that they and the rest of the population get both a decent part of the income from the sugar production, and a say in the running of their own lives, then there are measures that they can take, says Manqoba Nxumalo.
“The EU and the USA must realize that by supporting Swaziland through sugar markets they are, in fact, propping up the Swazi regime. Instead, they must make demands to the king to reform with the threat of cutting the lucrative EU markets. Because unless we change the economic foundation of the royal misrule, Swazis will continue to be slaves in their own country”.
As for ordinary people, they can put pressure on Coca-Cola to relocate their African headquarters from Swaziland, where the multinational contributes with over 20 percent of Swaziland’s GDP, and organize a boycott of Swazi sugar, Nxumalo says.
“Boycotting Swazi-made sugar will hurt the regime more than any activism carried out inside Swaziland”.