Under the Radar: Why is Swaziland’s king defaming Asians?

Under the Radar: Why is Swaziland’s king defaming Asians?
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Swaziland’s royal owned paper is spreading hate speech about Asians, as the government seeks to distract from the country’s growing social unrest.

Swaziland’s government promoting hate speech

In recent weeks Swaziland has seen a wave of misinformation aimed at Asians, with the Swazi Observer – which is effectively owned by King Mswati III – publishing alarmist and xenophobic articles. Articles from the newspaper have claimed that 600,000 of the country’s 1.3 million people are of Asian descent. This claim that 45% of the population is Asian runs counter to every reputable statistics database, which show 97% of the country as African.

swaziland-swazi-observer-pngThe monarch’s newspaper is stoking fears of an ‘Asian Invasion’ claiming that the country’s main commercial centre is almost entirely in the hands of Indians, and that 90% of shops in the kingdom are owned by those of Asian descent. Other headlines from the paper include claims that wealthy Asian businessmen are evicting Swazi citizens to acquire development land, and that Asians are acting as sycophants to the royal family in order to win contracts. The paper even claims that “efforts by Her Majesty the Indlovukazi [Queen Mother] to liberate women from the grinding poverty are allegedly being frustrated by the influx of Asians into the country.”

October’s wave of xenophobia towards Asians is not the first time that Asians in Swaziland have been targeted this year. In July a group of Asian tenants were evicted by a local chief in Mgazini merely for being Asian. Furthermore, the government set up a committee to investigate Asian immigration into the country. This was coupled by a motion in the House of Assembly that suspended the issuing of entry permits to all people of Asian descent at the end of July.

Asians in Swaziland are being targeted as scapegoats by the king and the government – effectively the same thing given that Swaziland is an absolute monarchy. This is a very troubling trend as the monarchy is inciting hate speech against Asians in order to distract the populace from the country’s many problems.

While anti-Asian sentiment, especially anti-Chinese sentiment, does exists in many African countries due to fears over economic monopolization and exploitation, the situation in Swaziland is unique; there is a state-sanctioned program of discrimination and hate speech promotion. The recent anti-Asian statements in Swazi media have strong parallels to similar sentiments witnessed in Uganda under Idi Amin in 1972, and Zimbabwe’s anti-white initiatives under Robert Mugabe.

In both cases, nativist movements expelled ethnic minorities seen (rightly or wrongly) as exercising disproportionate power and economic control. Both efforts were also designed to distract the populace from the failings of their respective governments and use ‘the other’ as a scapegoat for national problems. The situation in Swaziland appears to be no different, as significant social discontent is evident.

Social unrest on the rise

The King’s efforts to demonize Asians is likely a ploy to distract popular discontent with his rule, which is characterized as detached from the country’s problems, lavish, and corrupt. 2016 has seen significant unrest in Swaziland, as a drought severely affected the nation, forcing it to import electricity from South Africa as dams were at record low levels. Moreover, the country had to declare a national emergency due to the drought which threatened large segments of the population.

More recently, police violently assaulted striking plantation workers in mid-September, and fired on student protesters on October 12th, severely injuring four. Students were protesting unqualified lecturers and sub-par education standards: in another confrontation with riot police an armoured transport ran over another student, likely paralyzing her. Students at the University of Swaziland are also being forced to sleep in ill-ventilated storerooms as the lack of housing continues to worsen.

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Alongside students, environmental health workers have threatened to strike if they do not receive a salary review and increased overtime payments. The workers cite chronic under-staffing and the lack of transport and resources as their chiefs concerns. Similarly, the country’s nurses are planning an indefinite strike, to start next week, after the government failed to address their calls for improved working conditions.

National Secretary of the Swaziland Nurses Association Sibusiso Lushaba explains the dire situation – “we have a nurse-to-people ratio of 1:1000 and it is decreasing by the day because the government is not […] creating new posts for nurses.” A strike by Swaziland’s nurses would cripple the nation’s healthcare system (where over 25% of the population is HIV positive), especially since the country does not have a medical school to train doctors; consequently, nurses in Swaziland undertake many of the duties of doctors. Even workers at the Swazi Observer have protested in recent months over working conditions.

Economic climate looks bleak

Complaints about the lack of employment and a lack of funding are common throughout these protests. Seven out of 10 Swazis live on less than a dollar a day, and the youth unemployment rate is 42.6% – a serious risk given that the country’s median age is 20.5. Despite (or indeed because of ) this state of affairs, the government has drastically increased security spending in 2016, reaching 11% of government spending. The King has also recently spent $14 million on a new private plane – his previous plane has been impounded twice by Canada due to an ongoing debt dispute. It is such misplaced priorities that exiled pro-democracy activist Sonkhe Dube argues are behind substantial public anger.

Swaziland’s lack of development and high unemployment rate are only being further complicated as FDI to the country completely dried up in 2015. Swaziland’s FDI inflow has shrunk from $23 million in 2013 to negative $121 million last year. The country has also dropped six places in ease of doing business rankings, now sitting at 111 out of 190, the lowest score in the South African Development Community (SADC). Since 2001 the Swaziland’s GDP growth has also averaged a full two percentage points lower than the average for SADC members.

Moreover, the appointment of King Mswati as chairperson of the aforementioned organization was met with vocal opposition by some SADC members. The fact that King Mswati is spending millions to host the SADC Heads of State summit later in the year is also angering the impoverished population.

Growing social unrest combined with the risk for a pogrom against Asians constitute serious threats to stability in the country. The economic slowdown in South Africa, an over-reliance on agricultural exports, non-existent FDI, and Swaziland’s other economic shortcomings all weigh heavily on the tiny nation. Investors should be cautious of rising nativism that could see foreigners and foreign businesses become scapegoats for the government.

Under the Radar uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.

Under the Radar is written by Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.

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