opinionBy Richard Rooney
King Mswati III, the absolute monarch of Swaziland /eSwatini, has demanded severe public spending cuts across his impoverished kingdom.
But, the King who wore a watch worth US$1.6 million and a suit of diamonds weighing kg 6 at his 50th birthday celebrations last year shows little sign of making any personal sacrifice. Days before the celebration he had taken delivery of his second private jet. This one, an Airbus A340, cost US$13.2 to purchase but with VIP upgrades was estimated to have cost US$30 million.
Meanwhile, seven in 10 of the estimated 1.2 population of Swaziland live in abject poverty on income less than the equivalent of US$2 per day (about E25).
The King has 13 palaces and fleets of top-of-the-range Mercedes and BMW cars. He and members of his extensive Royal Family (he has had at least 15 wives) live opulent lifestyles and are often seen in public wearing watches and jewels worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The King made his call for cuts at the annual opening of the Swazi Parliament on Friday (8 February 2019). He said the kingdom’s spending had ‘surpassed sustainable levels’ and government debts were increasing. The countries financial reserves were falling and there was little economic growth. He warned that taxes collected in Swaziland would not be enough to pay the bills.
King Mswati said there needed to be ‘very stiff measures and concerted effort’ to cut expenditure. He added, ‘hard decisions will have to be taken, sacrifices need to be made and unconventional methods of reducing expenditure need to be pursued’. He did not say what these ‘unconventional methods’ might be.
In his budget speech in March 2018 Finance Minister Martin Dlamini said Government owed E3.1bn (US$230 million) in total to its suppliers for goods and services.
Swaziland has been in financial meltdown for many years under a succession of governments handpicked by King Mswati. He chooses the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers; political parties are banned in Swaziland and cannot take part in elections. Across Swaziland at present some schools are closed and public hospitals and clinics have run out of food and vital medicines because the government has failed to pay suppliers.
The King’s demand for others to make sacrifices is not new. He has made similar calls at the opening of parliament in recent years. However, he and the Royal Family have failed to make any sacrifices of their own.
The extent of the King’s wealth is a closely-guarded secret. However, in 2009 Forbes magazine estimated that the King himself had a personal net fortune worth US$200 million. Forbes also said King Mswati was the beneficiary of two funds created by his father Sobhuza II in trust for the Swazi nation. During his reign, he has absolute discretion over use of the income. The trust has been estimated to be worth US$10 billion.
In August 2014 the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa reported King Mswati personally received millions of dollars from international companies such as phone giant MTN; sugar conglomerates Illovo and Remgro; Sun International hotels and beverages firm SAB Millerto. He continues to receive money from these sources.
The King receives income each year from Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, which is a an investment fund with extensive shares in a number of businesses, industries, property developments and tourism facilities in Swaziland.
The King is the sole trustee of Tibiyo. Neither the King nor Tibiyo pay tax.
Money generated by Tibiyo is meant to be used for the benefit of the nation, Tibiyo in fact channels money directly to the Royal Family. A report from the United States State Department in 2016 said, ‘Tibiyo is run as a private equity investment fund for the benefit of the King and the royal family.
It added, ‘This fund is not subject to government or parliamentary oversight.’
According to the Tibiyo 2016 annual report it held assets worth E1.8 billion.