/ 29 July 2011

Calls to open Mswati’s ‘feedlot’

There are growing calls in Swaziland to open to public scrutiny a secretive royal fund worth several billion rands and for it to be used to help counter the country’s worsening financial crisis.

Tibiyo Taka Ngwane is an investment fund with extensive shares in a number of businesses, industries, property developments and tourism facilities in Swaziland.

It was set up “in trust” for the people of Swaziland by its first monarch, King Sobhuza II, but it remains under the control of his son, King Mswati III, who has been accused of abusing it for personal gain.

Tibiyo is kept totally separate from government accounts and does not appear in the national budget or any of the economic reports now being used by the country to solicit financial bailouts.

Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Labour and member of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, said: “If this is indeed a national trust for the people of Swaziland then we should have the right to call on it in times of need — and we are saying this is a time of need more than ever before.”

He said the fund should be taxed like any normal financial institution, which would not only benefit the national economy but also make it more accountable.

Tibiyo Taka Ngwane (wealth of the nation) was started in the 1960s before independence when every family kraal donated a cow to a central pot, known then as the Lifa fund, to facilitate the purchase of land from colonial powers.

Four decades later the fund’s value has ballooned. It is understood to hold a 50% share in the Illovo Sugar group, as well as stakes in Nedbank Swaziland, Swazi Spa Holdings (the Sun International group), the Swaziland Development and Finance Corporation, Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation and Bhunu Mall.

Tibiyo is also the outright owner of the Swazi Observer, one of two daily newspapers in the country, the Jubilee Printing and Publishing Company and Dalcrue Agricultural Holdings, which manages a portfolio of enterprises producing milk, livestock, timber, sugar cane and maize meal.

It also has a smaller sister fund called Tisuka Taka Ngwane (pillars of Swaziland), which is believed to have a large portfolio of properties, including several shopping malls, but few details are publicly available.

Described on its website as “neither a private or public incorporated company, nor a financial institution or wing of government, but a national trust”, Tibiyo is managed by a board appointed by the king. It is not required to present its accounts to Parliament.

The fund is regarded as a taboo subject in Swaziland, where most people are afraid to criticise Mswati, and has managed to fly under the public radar for many years.

Mandla Hlatshwayo, a Swazi businessman and pro-democracy campaigner, said: “These funds command more than 50% of the Swazi economy, but despite this they have no legal identity. They are a black box, totally opaque, and there are no records or accounts available to the public.

“We feel Tibiyio should be part of the solution to the financial problems. The nation is in crisis and we need that money.”

Some of the income generated by the investments is used to pay for certain cultural events, including the famous annual reed dance and the Incwala kingship ceremony.

Mario Masuku, president of the People’s United Democratic Movement, an opposition party banned in Swaziland, has accused Mswati of using the fund to supplement his already-bloated personal income.

“This fund is … being used as a feedlot for the king and his inner circle. It was created ‘in trust’ for the people of Swaziland and yet we have no say in how it is being run. We believe that Tibiyo should become part of government and be used for the good of the people, not just to accommodate the royal family.”

In a letter from the minister of finance to the unions, in response to calls for reform, including putting Tibiyo under the control of central government, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole said: “These entities were formed in terms of the royal charter, which does not provide for their income to be part of government income.”

Despite several attempts, no one from Tibiyo was available to speak to the Mail & Guardian.

It is understood that the International Monetary Fund, which has been working with Swaziland to help balance its books, has also called for Tibiyo to be subject to ­taxation, an issue the government says it is examining.

An official told the M&G that the IMF had raised the issue several times and had personally asked the king to curb his spending — a request that appears to have been heeded after the cancellation of this year’s much-hyped silver jubilee celebrations.

In the 2011-2012 budget the royal household received R240-million and a further R160-million was made available for maintenance of Mswati’s properties.

Two-thirds of Swazis live in poverty, many in rural homesteads with no access to running water or electricity.

The plunge in revenue payments from the Southern African Customs Union, coupled with a public wage bill amounting to nearly half of national expenditure, has left the country in severe financial difficulties.

South Africa is considering a financial bailout package for Swaziland.