Coca Cola: It’s bubbling up in Swaziland

There’s renewed attention internationally on Swaziland with King Mswati III excesses. He’s getting it from all angles: criticised for squandering the country’s sugar, turning a blind eye to the tax bill  of  Coca Cola, and the continued incarceration of the student leaders, teachers and journalists after the November 2011 demonstrations.

Most recently,  Times of Swaziland columnist Mfomfo Nkambule publicly apologised to King Mswati III for  articles that were critical of the king’s leadership style. In his apology in the paper, Nkambule wrote: “I know what the lion is capable of doing when it is angry or threatened.”

With a personal fortune of about $100m (£64m), King Mswati III presides over one of the worst-off countries in the world, with 64 per cent of the population living in absolute poverty. Political parties are banned and activists are regularly arrested, imprisoned and tortured. The kingdom’s largest opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), was banned as a terrorist organisation in November 2008 and its president, Mario Masuku, arrested under the suppression of terrorism act. With one of the highest literacy rates on the continent at 92%, the media is hugely stifled,  with debate, and progress, completely constrained.

Coca-Cola says that Mswati III does not directly receive any profits or dividends from its Swaziland operation, its biggest in Africa. The plant supplies all of the Southern and Eastern African region, (over 23 million people)  and Coca Cola is often available where clean water isn’t. It’s relatively cheap regionally, at about 25p a bottle, but its production leaches valuable water tables, rots teeth, and most poignantly, say activists, the drinks firm is propping up a dictator.

Local activists estimate that Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest beverage company, contributes as much as 40 per cent of the country’s GDP. The company admits it cannot account for how the money it pays in taxes is used by the Swazi government. Swaziland has the highest HIV rates in the world, at 26 per cent of the population living with HIV and aids.

Mary Pais Da Silva, co-ordinator of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, has called for Coca-Cola to pull out of the country immediately. “Coca-Cola must know they’re doing business with the wrong people,” she said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t benefit the economy in any way. Their profits don’t help the average Swazi, while the King is getting richer by the day.” She added: “The king is milking the country. This is entrenching him more and more, giving him economic strength to crush opposition. Nobody should do business with the regime in Swaziland. They should cut ties and take their business elsewhere.”