January 9, 2007

Prime Minister upbeat about country's prospects

Prime Minister Themba Dlamini's optimistic expectations of Swaziland's growth and development in 2006 have been dismissed by banned political parties and the country's largest labour federation as "words speaking louder than actions". In his New Year message, broadcast on the government's radio station and carried in the local press, Dlamini, an appointee of executive monarch King Mswati III, asserted that "following improvements in the economy in 2005, the GDP growth is expected to rise to 2.8 percent in 2006, as manufacturing output improves as well."

The upbeat forecast found little support from the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), which is seeking democratic reform. SFTU secretary-general Jan Sithole commented, "The economy is on the decline trail. Projections rate that Swaziland will be one of the lowest growing economies in the Southern Africa Development Community region, and it is estimated that it will grow to the tune of 1.5 percent, as opposed to the 2.8 percent as presented by the premier."

In its annual report covering 2005, delivered to parliament in October 2006, the Central Bank of Swaziland said at least 2.9 percent economic growth would be required to match population growth and keep the standard of living of the majority of Swazis from declining further. Two-thirds of the country's roughly 1 million people live on US$2 or less day, and the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS has reached 34.2 percent among people aged 15 to 49, the highest in the world.

Dlamini conceded in his message that Swaziland's international image was cause for concern: foreign direct investment was stagnant in 2006. He said this would be counteracted by "image building" and the development of a "proactive rather than reactive" communications strategy to ensure that the country received more favourable publicity in the world press, but did not elaborate on how this would be achieved. According to the prime minister, food insecurity would be addressed by encouraging farmers to grow more fruit and vegetables; corruption would be tackled, but to date no one has ever been charged. Although government has consistently shied away from letting go of its monopoly of the electronic media, he said the radio and television broadcasting environment would be liberalised. The government was committed to improving healthcare services, the premier said, specifically mentioning a national deworming exercise and the 91 percent coverage achieved in the immunisation campaign for schoolgoing children. Dlamini called for a new regulatory framework for the procurement of drugs to address the shortage that afflicted hospitals and clinics in 2006, attributed to government's failure to award drug tenders.

Dlamini's message carries little weight and is more an indication of what direction Mswati will take when he opens parliament in February. Swaziland's parliament does not create laws, but debates and approves laws tabled by Cabinet, while Mswati sets down government policy at the opening of parliament. (IRIN)

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