In the light of improvements in Sacu receipts this financial year, the king and the royal household will receive a hefty increase in their allocation. The royal family continues to live a life of opulence and unbridled expenditure while many ordinary emaSwati still battle to rub two pennies together. King Mswati must be given credit though for cancelling his 52nd birthday celebrations and directing the country’s efforts towards fighting the deadly COVID-19 disease. Our government had not seen this disease coming in February when the national budget was delivered, writes NIMROD MABUZA.
King Mswati III and the royal household have again benefitted hugely from the increase in revenue from the Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU) as government increased the 2020/21 royal budget for wages by an obscene E17 million. The staggering increase has been made in the budget for Royal Emoluments and Civil List. This budget provision covers remuneration for the king, Indlovukati, the royal household and anybody chosen by the king as a beneficiary.
The increased budget provision for the royal family is contained in the 2020/21 budget released in February by Minister for Finance, Neal Rijkenberg.Presenting his second national budget of E24 billion on Valentines Day, which he described as “…designed to improve the delivery of services and distribution of resources to all citizens in particular the vulnerable groups.
Rijkenberg highlighted an improvement in SACU receipts this financial year but also cautioned against reckless and excessive expenditure. Said the minister: “While Eswatini is in a year of improved SACU receipts, we are committed to stay firm on the demanding course of fiscal adjustment we have set for ourselves. We will continue intensifying our efforts to eliminate our structural inefficiencies.” He added: “We are cognisant of how cyclical buffers in SACU receipts create an illusion which leads to increases in expenditure. We are committed to using this temporarily larger fiscal head-room to cushion our reserves and meet our payment obligations.”
Receipts from SACU, according to the minister, are expected to increase by 32.5 percent – from E6.3 billion in 2019/20 financial year to E8.34 billion in 2020/21. It was not the same in the last financial. With SACU receipts on a drastic decline in recent years, government did not increase the royal budget last year. A slight increase was only on capital projects, such as the rehabilitation and maintenance of royal residences. As government sheds crocodile’s tears on the cost of living adjustment for its employees that has not been made for three consecutive years because of so-called financial constraints, the increase in the royal budget does not augur well for governance.It makes a mockery of government’s its concerns over the bloated wage bill for public servants.
Said Rijkenberg: “Mr. Speaker, an unfortunate consequence of the cash flow challenge, largely a contribution of many factors, is that it has resulted in government not being able to grant a cost-of-living adjustment for the past 3 years.” The budget estimates show that the overall royal budget, recurrent and capital, has steadily increased over the years and now well above E1.1billion. The Ministry of Education received the highest budget allocation at E3.5 billion this financial year, followed by the Ministry of Health and then the Ministry of Defence.
While increasing budget provision for royal emoluments and civil list by E17 million, Rijkenberg made a tight-fisted budget provision of E227m for cost of living adjustment for public servants.A budget provision of E113 million has been made for payment of notches for public servants.According to the Ministry of Finance, there are over 43 380 government employees and they account for 31% of the national budget, translating to about E7 billion annually.
The payment of notches have never stopped even during difficult times, said Rijkenberg.Hopefully, the outbreak of COVID -19, will not affect the budget provision for the cost of living adjustments for public servants. It is known that in the past three years, while government declared dire financial constraints and said it was unable to pay public servants CoLA, royal projects amounting to billions of Emalangeni have not been affected.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank amongst others, have raised several concerns in the past about the bloated public service and called on government to do something about it without any positive result.As an austerity measure, government froze recruitment of public servants.
While, on one hand, the freeze on the recruitment reduced the numbers and improved government coffers, it, on the other, created staff shortages and affected delivery in the provision of health services, among others. At the outbreak COVID-19, government said it would recruit over 100 nurses to fill up vacant positions. The delivery of medical supplies has not improved in any way. The problem is still as alive as it was last year and the year before.
Rijkenberg told parliament: “The five most recent IMF and World Bank country reports cautioned that Eswatini’s largest budgetary “outlier” on the expenditure side, and also the single largest contributor to our fiscal deficit, is the size of our wage bill.”He cautioned: “We simply cannot afford to ignore this problem. Since the implementation of the freeze on employment, the number of civil servants has been reduced by a little over one thousand. “As much as these policies and trends need to continue, we also must ensure that the quality and effectiveness of service delivery is not affected.”
The combined budget for the royal household, which is now above the E1 billion mark has become as unsustainable as the wage bill for government employees. The recurrent budget provision for the obscure Swazi National Treasury was increase by about E8 million from E420 million in 2019/20 financial year to about E429 million in the current year.
Its functions are not known by a majority of people in this country. The SNT is under the chief officer at the king’s office, which was also allocated a recurrent budget of E5 million, an increase from E1.14 million last year. Government significantly slashed the budget provision for the Minister of Defence. In 2019/20 financial year, it was at about E141 million and it has been cut by half this current year to about E70.8 million.
King Mswati is the Minister of Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs represents him in parliament.
Capital budget for the rehabilitation of state houses – royal residences – increased by about E5 million to E160 million. Significant construction is on-going at Hlane royal residences.
Budget for construction of royal link roads was increased significantly from E23.5 million to E69.5 million this year. The book of estimates shows that the money is for the upgrading and rehabilitation of the link road from Lozitha, Ludzidzini and Mlilwane. The royal budget is not debated in parliament, not because there is a law against it but members of parliament long decided not to question it.
Audited statements are for the eyes of the king and royal board of trustees appointed by the king only led by the Minister for Finance. In other areas, government made a budget provision of E E60 million for heavy plant. It is not clear if the heavy plant will be used in keeping in passable condition gravel roads in the country as currently many are almost impassable. The shortage of vehicles for police to carry out their day-to-day policing has now reached crisis levels. Some police stations have found themselves grounded because there are no vehicles to attend to emergencies.
The budget provision for royal emoluments and civil list is slightly lower than the budget for social grants for over 50 000 senior citizens. It is now at about E467 million. Government made huge budget provisions for construction of the international convention centre and five-star hotel and the road from Manzini to Mbadlane that connects the city with King Mswati III International Airport at the expense of national roads such as Sicunusa – Nhlangano road and Pigg’s Peak – Bulembu road. The latter road was impassable during the rainy season. Government owes supplies E2.2 billion. These are arrears that have accumulated over many years. The outbreak of the COVID–19 could dash any hopes of suppliers being paid anytime some soon as funds may be diverted to the fight against the virus.
That would mean supplies have to wait a little longer. In a measure aimed at scoring much-needed political points following the disastrous purchase of 13 Rolls Royce Phantoms at the end of last year, King Mswati postponed celebrations of his 52nd birthday and commanded all funds set aside for the event to be diverted to the fight against COVID-19. It is not known how much was budgeted for the celebrations but Rijkenberg’s estimates show that a recurrent budget of about E26 million was made for the celebration’s office. The generous budget provision made for the royal household has been condemned by political organisations and trade union movements who all agree that the provision has reached unsustainable levels.
In the wake of the purchase of the Rolls Royce vehicles, Sive Siyinqaba fumed, saying: “In its support and inherent belief in the institution of the monarch, Sive Siyinqaba has since its formation always held the view that the nation enjoys primacy and supremacy within the traditional system. “However, in the recent past, Sive Siyinqaba has noted with regret a significant shift from this position by those entrusted with the keys of State.” The organisation said the events are typical of the resurgence of medieval times scenario of a ruling class versus commoners, something that led to the erasure of kingdoms of Europe. In such a situation, people feel like farm dwellers and squatters in their own country. The People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) said the huge budget provision for the king and royal household is nothing but looting with impunity of taxpayers’ money. “It described the budget allocation as driven by excess greed that denies the citizens basic necessities of life “while enriching the royal family to live an opulence lifestyle.”
Pudemo was scathing in its reaction to the royal budget, pointing out that while government makes huge budget allocations to the royal household, there are no checks and balances on its expenditure. While the royal household benefits from the sweat and toil of emaSwati, 63 percent of the people in the country live in abject poverty, waking up in the morning from shacks not knowing where their next meal would come from. The Swaziland National Association of Teachers observed that the biggest “problem in the country is the docility of the emaSwati” and pointed out that what is sad is the fact that when a few people raise concerns on the royal budget, they are considered unpatriotic, unSwazi and anti-monarch.
Secretary General of Snat, Sikelela Dlamini said it is known that parliament never discusses the royal budget and there is no mechanism where parliamentarians could take such issues to the people for their input.“We have always been saying these things. The huge wage bill and ghost employees. Government has been talking about ghost employees in the civil service yet it knows where the ghost employees,” he said. Dlamini called for the royal budget to be discussed and debated openly. He decried the fact that members of the royal household, besides benefitting through their budget allocation, also benefit in many other ways as some are appointed in several boards and political positions where they are paid.