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Royal Riches – the business of being king

Never in the history of the eSwatini has a king been directly involved in business. King Mswati III, the absolute monarch of eSwatini, has changed that. His vast business interests first raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging in 2004 when he acquired 10% shares at mobile telecommunications service provider, MTN Swaziland. The availability of the MTN shares in the market had not been advertised.

The Swaziland Post and Telecommunications Corporation, a public enterprise, had handed over its shares at MTN to the king on a silver platter. By giving the king 10% the SPTC share was reduced to 41%

By acquiring the shares, it was argued, the king had boldly and loudly announced his first move into business.

In 2009, Forbes Magazine listed King Mswati III as one of the 15 richest royals, worth about $200 million. In November 2018 he bought a fleet of about 12 Rolls Royces, for himself and the royal family. The purchase of these luxury vehicles was heavily criticized by among others the US embassy eSwatini. This purchase intensified the criticism of King Mswati’s lavish lifestyle when 63%, of his people live in abject poverty.

Since the open acquisition of shares at MTN, the king and the royal family have not looked back and have continued to expand their business interests. In some businesses, it has been alleged, he is a sleeping shareholder.

King Mswati’s acquisition of businesses has been an addition to the royal 1968 conglomerate, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, created by his father, King Sobhuza II by a royal charter. Tibiyo was established at independence by King Sobhuza who stated that the company was being set up to empower emaSwati and assist government to develop the country.

However, as Tibiyo grew to become a significant player in business, its initial mandate changed significantly. This change became more visible during the reign of King Mswati.

Tibiyo has turned into a behemoth that only serves the interests of the royal family. To that end, it has investment interests in economic drivers in the country that, it can safely be said, it controls this country’s economy.

Political formations in eSwatini are reported to have raised the matter of the royal family’s wealth during the SADC Troika’s visit to the country on a fact-finding mission in July last year following the violent pro-democracy protests

This was in the aftermath of the June 29 political-motivated unrest.

In eSwatini there are increasing public calls by pro-democracy campaigners to boycott business entities linked to King Mswati and royal family who are estimated to own about 50% of the country’s economy. Some of the businesses connected to the king, the royal family as well as others linked to the tinkhundla system of governance have also been sabotaged.

In March this year, for example, heavy machinery belonging to Inyatsi Construction, a company rumoured to be linked to the king, was burnt by unknown arsonists at Sicunusa where it was preparing to start construction of a road. Inyatsi has been winning high profile civil construction projects such as the construction of an international airport at Sikhuphe and the International Convention Centre and Five Star Hotel.

The royal family’s control of the economy is done through Tibiyo Taka Ngwane which holds significant shares in different companies, mainly in the agricultural sector, particularly the sugar and forestry industry.

The agricultural industry is one of the main drivers of this country’s economy.

There are other business entities believed to be cash cows of the royal family. Others, suspected to be connected to the royal family have come out in public to declare their shareholding as not connected to royalty in order to avoid being targeted by a disgruntled population tired of the royal family’s greed.

Southern Star, a haulage company in Matsapha (central eSwatini) came out to distance itself from the royal family, claiming no connection whatsoever with the royal household.

Lincoln Motsa, a co-director of Linac Investments running the OK chain of stores in the country, also did the same. The other director, he said, is his wife. For Motsa, it was rather too late because three of his shops had already been torched

As of the end of its financial year, April 30, 2018, Tibiyo had assets worth E2.13 billion, according to its annual report.

Tibiyo Taka Ngwane holds 100% shares or less in some of the sugar companies in the country and holds large tracts of land which are home to its commercial forests.

Tibiyo is held by the King/iNgwenyama in trust for emaSwati. However, what ordinary people derive from its investments are crumbs compared to what it offers to the royal family as dividends. It offers sponsorship to emaSwati students, right from primary school to tertiary and funds cultural activities. But that is drop in the ocean. Tibiyo spent E43.8m on bursaries and scholarships and E3.8m on various institutions involved in the fight against poverty and those in the health sector.

“The organisation was able to successfully fulfil its mandate to improve, in whatever way, the lives of the people of eSwatini and to partner with government and other stakeholders in their national development efforts,” Tibiyo reported on its successes in the 2018 annual report.

While Tibiyo mainly takes care of the royal family’s interests to the exclusion of emaSwati. Tibiyo, on behalf of the Swazi nation, receives dividends from the companies in has invested in.

In the sugar industry, according to the royal investment company’s annual reports, Tibiyo is a 50% shareholder at the Royal Eswatini Sugar (RES), widely known Simunye (we are one), as it was so named by King Sobhuza II. The RES is the largest sugar production company in the country.

Writing in The Bridge, an online publication, Mandla Hlatshwayo who is chairman of Letfusonkhe living in exile in South Africa said in 2021, Tibiyo received E130 million in dividends from RES.

He wrote; “The US Department of State 2017 report points out the obvious that Tibiyo was set up as the country’s wealth fund and yet is run as a private equity investment fund for the benefit of the king and the royal family.”

At the establishment of RES, situated in the bush-land near Hlane Game Reserve, from around 1978, scores of emaSwati had to move to give way to the sugarcane growing project.

King Sobhuza II had assured the people that the sugar mill would provide employment for them and generations to come for their welfare.

Government initially held shares at the RES but its shareholding was later sold to Tibiyo.

The sad truth about the removal of the families was that they were neither compensated nor had new homes built for them.

They were merely provided transport to move their moveable properties and were given caravans for temporary shelter.

Some were moved up to Shewula, Mafucula and Khuphuka. At Mafucula and Khuphuka, government had bought a farm for their resettlement.

Around 2019, the resettled community of Mafucula got hot under the collar and demanded reasonable compensation after heavy machinery from the company dug up old graves in an unmarked cemetery.

The company had been attempting to develop the piece of land for sugar cane growing.

The home of Nhlavana Maseko, a traditional healer who passed away in September last year, was the only one left untouched when people were moved and was aptly named “Mashiyazimile.”

At Ubombo Sugar, the country’s second largest sugar production company, Tibiyo is a 40% shareholder.

Tibiyo has a 50% shareholding at Inyoni Yami Swaziland Irrigation Scheme, which is involved in sugar cane farming and livestock. Sihhoye and Sivunga sugar estates are wholly owned by Tibiyo. So was Vuvulane Irrigated Farmers (V.I.F.) before it was liquidated

In the 2018 annual report, Tibiyo’s Managing Director, Absalom Themba Dlamini is quoted saying: “Tibiyo has invested heavily in the sugar industry from where it derives more than 80% of its income. It thus has substantial interests in sugar markets globally.”

Dalcrue Holdings in Malkerns, is wholly owned by Tibiyo and is involved in livestock farming, sugar cane growing, dairy, crop farming, milling and forestry.

According to Eswatini Farming, an agricultural publication, Shiselweni Forestry Company runs Dalcrue’s forestry operations and the forests plantations in the Shiselweni region covers 687 45 hectares.

Early in the year, Inhlase reported that another royal company, Silulu Royal Holdings, has been freely acquiring tracts of land and some, mainly those situated in the Shiselweni region, were set aside for commercial forests for the benefit of the royal family.

Other farms, many of them, under Silulu Royal Holdings are owned by the king and the royal household. They are utilized for royal projects for the benefit of the king and royal family.

Those owned by the ministry of agriculture are grossly under-utilized.

The royal investment company, Tibiyo, has over the years also invested largely in property, finance services and others.

Tibiyo is a 40% shareholder at Bhunu Mall in Manzini and owns the Eswatini Observer newspapers.

It holds 30% shares at Eswatini Development Finance Corporation, 25% shares at Simuye Plaza and 100% shares at Tibiyo Properties.

It owns 41.25% at Tibiyo Insurance Brokers.

In mining, the royal company has 25% shares at Maloma Colliery, an anthracite coal mine. The rest of the shares were previously held by Chancellor House, the ANC investment wing.

The 75% shares initially held by Chancellor House have since changed hands and a local investor has taken over. It’s still a matter of speculation who the new shareholder is.

In the manufacturing sector, Tibiyo is a 40% shareholder at Swazi Beverages, a company that was burnt during last year’s political unrest, and holds 26% shares at Parmalat Swaziland.

The investment company is a 100% shareholder at Tibiyo Leisure and Resorts known as the Royal Villas, a five-star resort at eZulwini.

It also held 39.69 shares at Swazi Spa Holdings, now under liquidation. It used to own 76% shareholding at the Royal Swazi National Shipping Corporation, which has been dormant for years.

Additional to these are numerous farms held by Tibiyo and some are held by the king/iNgwenyama in trust for the Swazi nation but they essentially benefit the king and the royal family. On these farms, agricultural activities such as livestock farming are carried out by Tibiyo.

Tibiyo’s operations have become similar to the Pahlavi Foundation established by the then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza in 1958. Tibiyo, like the Pahlavi Foundation, has been taking care of interests of the king and royal household.

In his book “From Palace to Prison”, Professor Ehsan Naraghi gives a clear picture of how the Pahlavi Foundation operated and acquired businesses solely for the benefit of the Shah.

Prof. Naraghi had told all his fears and views to the Shah a year before the Shah was toppled in February 1979. The Shah had been worried about the advances of the revolutionary fighters.

The Pahlavi Foundation had invested in about 200 companies. The Foundation was involved in charitable and cultural activities.

This was obviously meant to hoodwink the people of Iran.

“The charitable activities of the Pahlavi Foundation in practice represented a minute part of its activities.

“In fact, it had three aims; first, to find sources of finance for commercial companies belonging to the Shah; second, to maintain the court’s interest in the country’s economy by investing in various fields; and third, to provide financial support for people considered loyal to the monarchy, or more precisely to the person of the Shah,” wrote Prof. Naraghi.

The Pahlavi Foundation, according to Prof. Naraghi “engaged in a range of charitable and cultural activities; it gave scholarships to students belonging to families of police, military…”

Wedded to his look Middle East policy, King Mswati runs the Tibiyo in almost the same way.

He continued; “The foundation was also a shareholder in companies producing sugar, cement, and cars as well as in large construction companies. It owned a big chain of hotels and casinos, claiming a near monopoly in the field…”

Same as Tibiyo here.

Perhaps, most significantly was the writer conceding that: “For my own part, I had been convinced for a number of years that these dubious operations were threatening the existence of the monarchy in Iran.”

On the monarchy, Prof. Naraghi wrote that he told the Shah that; “The foundation’s affairs always worried the supporters of the monarchy more than its opponents.”

When asked by the Shah to elaborate, he said” “Because your supporters have always believed that if business became the prime concern of the royal family, it would corrupt it from within and render the crown indefensible, whereas your opponents, who are determined to see you go anyway, the more rotten your realm, the easier their task.”

Here eSwatini, it has come to a point where the monarchy is no longer held as a symbol of unity. Its business endeavours have created division even within the royal family itself.

Being connected to royalty is no longer something to boast about as it attracts its own dangers.

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This article is part of ‘The Palpable Stirrings of Change in eSwatini’ series made possible with the support of the Canon Collins Educational & Legal Assistance Trust under the Sylvester Stein Fellowship.