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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

SWAZILAND: Donors condemn palace building programme

MBABANE, 19 January 2004 (IRIN) - International donor agencies and Swaziland's pro-democracy groups have expressed dismay over government plans to spend more than R100 million (US $14 million) to construct new palaces for each of King Mswati's 11 wives in the midst of a drought emergency.

"Swaziland will be a harder sell when it comes to fundraising because of this publicity," a senior aid worker at an international health organisation told IRIN.

"It is true that we will rehabilitate the palaces of His Majesty and his wives," a palace source confirmed to IRIN, although he could not give a figure for the project's costs.

The privately owned Times of Swaziland, however, put a R100 million price tag on the rehabilitation and construction work. It also reported that another R20 million ($2.8 million) had been earmarked for luxury homes for Mswati's aunts, the widows of Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II, on top of the R57 million ($8 million) that was spent last year on royal housing and related road developments.

The newspaper calculated the total price of Mswati's palace building programme at around R200 million ($28 million).

By contrast, the government has budgeted R205 million ($30.8 million) for national health services this year, in a country that ties with Botswana as having the world's highest rate of HIV infection, at about 40 percent of the adult population. Two-thirds of Swazis are mired in chronic poverty, and a quarter of the country's 900,000 people are currently dependant on emergency food aid from the international community.

"This [spending] illustrates how isolated and out of touch the royal family is with the realities the people face," said Gladys Yende of the Women's League of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, which, like all political opposition groups, has been outlawed by royal decree.

GDP growth was only 1.7 percent last year, half the rate achieved in 2002 and well below the 3 percent annual growth rate required to keep Swazis from slipping further into poverty, according to the Central Bank.

Swaziland is also facing the worst drought in recorded history, and the National Disaster Relief Task Force's chairman, Dr Ben Nsibandze, has recommended that the government declare a national drought emergency.

Some diplomatic sources suggested the palace was more likely to forfeit international assistance that would follow an emergency appeal because government spending would be scrutinised, and pressure could mount to divert monies planned for royal projects to meet humanitarian needs.

"This [palace spending] will make it difficult for the government to declare a drought emergency," a Western diplomat told IRIN.

Expenses for King Mswati and his family are usually paid through a special fund financed by the public treasury. However, for major undertakings, additional treasury funds are sought. Initial outlays for the palace projects were paid for by the royal conglomerate Tibiyo TakaNgwane, which owns portions of most major businesses and enterprises in the country. The conglomerate is mandated to exploit its holdings "on behalf of the Swazi people", but pro-democracy groups say the conglomerate essentially benefits the royal establishment.

The United Nations Development Programme lists Swaziland as among the top five countries in the world with the greatest divide between rich and poor.

"We are angered and embarrassed by the wanton, senseless and limitless expenditure by the monarchist government of Swaziland. [The palace construction] is typical of an autocratic regime lacking the democratic fundamentals of inclusivity and grass-root participation," Mario Masuku, president of the banned opposition party, People's United Democratic Movement, commented in a statement.

The government is operating a record high budget deficit. "There is no money. But because this is for the king, something will be done," a finance ministry source was quoted as saying in the Times of Swaziland.

Local media reports on Monday said Mswati's aunts were refusing to occupy new houses built for them, which they consider inferior. Each costs R350,000. A typical three-bedroom house in the capital, Mbabane, sells for R250,000. Nor are Sobhuza's widows impressed by the BMW luxury sedans the government has purchased for them at taxpayer's expense. "These are not enough," a senior prince was quoted as saying.

Themes: (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Governance

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