December 24, 2003

Record national debt / Government attacks media



Government overspending has burdened Swaziland with a record national debt that is now the cause of concern both domestically and among the country's development partners. "The growing deficit is straining available financial resources, and has been financed in part by a draw down in the government's foreign exchange reserves," said finance minister Majozi Sithole. The national debt has hit a record 1 billion lilangeni (US $145 million).

Swaziland had negligible deficits before 1999/2000, when King Mswati embarked on a series of high-value "Millennium Projects". Currently in various phases of planning or construction, the projects include a 1.7 billion lilangeni airport, and an international trade fair and amusement park outside Manzini, 35 km east of the capital Mbabane.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has criticised the projects as unaffordable in the light of declining tax revenues and foreign investment, and mounting humanitarian needs brought on by AIDS, food shortages and persistent poverty that ensnares about two-thirds of the population.

The government has not released business plans to prove the Millennium Projects' profitability. Environmental impact assessments have reportedly been neglected as pressure is brought by project sponsors in government on local authorities to have construction permits granted. Construction has begun on the airport, though no airline has committed itself to using the facility, and the nation's chief carrier, SAA Airlink, told government it wished to remain at the current Matsapha Airport outside Manzini.

"Of particular concern [about government's role in the economy] in recent years have been weaknesses in fiscal transparency and accountability, the slow pace of legislative change, and lapses in the rule of law," said the IMF report. Ephraim Hlope, principal secretary in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, which is overseeing the Millennium Projects, however stated: "Some of their concerns are ill-timed, and were not properly understood. The projects are fully backed by the private sector. All the projects that they complained about are for the benefit of the country, and are very vital. These projects are the foundations on which the country's economy has to be based. It is vital that we develop our infrastructure when we want to really compete effectively in the international community."

In the meantime, Swaziland's new cabinet, appointed by King Mswati, has made a crackdown on leaks to the media by government officials one of its first priorities. "Government workers who leak government documents to the media will be arrested," announced Prime Minister Themba Dlamini in a statement. He said the media would be given press statements on government activities, but all other information would be considered unauthorised, with arrests and prosecution awaiting violators. The Swaziland National Association of Journalists has condemned the cabinet's alleged anti-press attitude: "If cabinet wants to make media legislation, it should make a bill that helps media to have access to [government] information," said the president of the journalists' union, Maxwell Mthembu.

The Times of Swaziland printed government documents showing R80,000 (US $12,000) of Dlamini's South African hospital bills had been paid by the fund, which the health ministry had previously said was insolvent. The newspaper juxtaposed his treatment with the story of a critically ill nine-year-old boy in need of a kidney transplant, who was not helped. Dlamini plans to sue the newspaper. (IRIN)

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