Nation’s Biggest White Elephant

Next month, King Mswati III will officially open Swaziland’s biggest white elephant – the Sikhuphe International Airport, amid fears that it will continue bleeding precious funds from the country’s coffers long after its (long-delayed) completion.

From the inception of this ultimate in monarchical vanity projects, civil society organisations have criticised the airport as nothing but a drain on the taxpayer – as an unjustified waste of space and resources. And there is no indication that it will be anything more than that once its doors and runways are finally opened on March 7th, especially as it is a whopping 40 kilometres from the country’s commercial hub of Manzini – and even further from the capital, Mbabane.

The government’s rationale for this airport has always been that it would attract flocks of extra tourists and investors to the kingdom because it would enable them to avoid the hassle and time spent transferring through. And in the government’s dreamland, these hordes of new investors and tourists would create thousands of jobs and help to reduce Swaziland’s 40 percent unemployment rate – and contribute towards the realisation of Mswati’s vision of transforming his kingdom into a first world country by 2022.

Needless to say, few others believe in this grand plan.

Workers – and most other Swazis – are not convinced that this giant structure, which cost untold (and never-to-be told) billions is worth the money. The Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), Vincent Ncongwane, argues that the airport is not going to be sustainable. “The government has not availed feasibility study reports to make us think otherwise,” said Ncongwane. “Right now, the only planes we have between our current airport at Matsapha and Johannesburg are often half, or even just a quarter, full.”

While Sikhupe will begin operating as soon as the King inaugurates it on March 7th, the government is still in the process of enticing airlines to use the new facility, which has the capacity to handle 300 passengers an hour – a far cry from the current dribble of customers at Matsapha. Indeed, so far, the government can only count on Swazi Airlink, which the government co-owns with South African Airways, flying to the new airport – besides, of course, Mswati’s private jet, which he acquired in 2012 through a so-called anonymous donor.

But this has not stopped the government from waxing lyrical about its achievement in finally finishing the airport – even though its launch will come 7 years after it was meant to start operating. However, the authorities are not nearly as vocal about its cost, proving very reluctant to answer any questions about the price of the nation’s newest infrastructural glory.

Recently, the principal secretary at the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, Bertram Stewart, reportedly told a journalist that he was not accountable to his newspaper – after he was asked how much had been spent building the airport’s taxiway. Stewart refused to disclose the expenditure on this key component of the airport – the construction of which looked very much like an afterthought – because, as far as he was concerned, it was information meant for the privileged few rather than the poor majority.

I got a similar response from Stewart two years ago at the height of the economic crisis, which temporarily derailed the construction of the airport.

Swaziland had run into serious financial trouble when income from the Southern African Customs Union, which provides the country with over 60 percent of its national budget, was drastically reduced due to the global economic meltdown. Contractors had halted construction at the site because the government no longer had the funds to pay them. When I asked Stewart how much government owed these contractors he told me it was “none of your business.”

And he is not the only public official with this kind of attitude. In fact, it is a norm in this country to hide what is supposed to be public information. Some like Stewart make it plain that ordinary people have no right to know what’s going on, while others prefer to take a more diplomatic approach and tell nosy journalists that the matter is still being dealt with at a high level so they cannot comment. But the result is the same – the public has no access to critical information. Indeed, ordinary Swazis have no practical – as opposed to constitutional – right to know, even how vast amounts of their money was spent.

The reality is that it is the king and his ideas – or in this case dreams – that matter. And expense is no object. Never mind that the taxpayers, whose children are no longer guaranteed scholarships because of misguided public spending, are footing the bill. Never mind that the belief that “if you build the airport, planes will come” was never going to be fulfilled in this case. In Dubai, perhaps. In Swaziland, never.

Another critic of the airport, Muzi Masuku, OSISA’s Swaziland Programme Manager said that maybe if the government provided more (indeed any real) information perhaps he would be able to form a different opinion. Perhaps he could begin to see some benefit in the mammoth project. But without information, the only conclusion to draw is that it will not be worth the money – and that the billions of emalengeni could have been better spent on providing food, water and jobs to Swaziland’s people.

“It looks like the airport will turn out to be a white elephant just like most of the soccer stadiums that were built in South Africa for the World Cup,” said Masuku.

It will be interesting to see how the government reports on the airport after it opens – how they spin the lack of traffic. But knowing the Swazi authorities they will resort to silence – to doing what they like best, keeping the nation in the dark.