Eswatini’s ruling elite have recognised the need to stem the tide of youth disaffection with tinkhundla governance but, at the same time, been sure to keep the monarchy in luxury while also bolstering finances for the security forces.
Eswatini, which remains the continent’s last absolute monarchy, has been rocked by civil unrest in the last two years. One of the casualties was renowned human rights lawyer and political activist, Thulani Rudolf Maseko. His brutal murder in January this year has left emaSwati shell-shocked and sparked outrage across the globe.
Of the 1.2 million citizens in Eswatini, 326 200 are unemployed youth and 700 000 are under 35 years old. While these kinds of statistics go a long way to explain the social discord and dissatisfaction with government among emaSwati, finance minister, Neal Rijkenberg, tabled what he termed a youth-focused budget in February. It is meant to pacify the disaffected youth facing the triple problem of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The 2023/24 budget of E26.44 billion themed “First Fruits” is purported to be priotising youth empowerment after the outbreak of the civil unrest two years ago.
“If one considers this budget holistically the E900 million increase in the wage bill is mainly for the youth, the E286 million increase in scholarship is 100% for the youth, the E430 million increase in the education budget is 100% for the youth and the E85 million budget for the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs will mainly benefit the youth. These numbers are the true reflection of how this budget is focused on youth empowerment,” said Rijkenberg in his budget speech.
According to Rijkenberg, the budget is also meant to restore peace and stability in the country. He said the national development goals must be grounded in peace. He expressed deep concern about the continued acts of violence, vandalism and destruction of property over the past two years. To restore law and order, he allocated a E1.3 billion budget to Umbuntfo Eswatini Defence Force (UEDF) while the Royal Eswatini Police Services (RESPS) received E1.17 billion. He revealed that such increase was necessitated by that the security forces were insufficiently equipped to crush the political uprising.
“Without law and order, whatever else we do to build the nation is done on a poor foundation and remains unsustainable. I urge all emaSwati to fully support our security forces and to understand and appreciate their critical role in enforcing law and order and re-establishing peace and stability in the country. We call on all emaSwati to assist in fighting crime, terrorism and gender-based violence,” he said.
It takes Business Eswatini (BE), a private sector business organization promoting cooperation between businesses, government and organised labour, to notice that the finance minister is this time around walking on a tightrope on the one hand; while on the other, trying to make every effort to please ‘everyone’. The BE gleaned that from the expenditure line items which cover almost every conceivable demographic in the country, ranging from the youth to the elderly and all the way to institutional bodies.
Said the finance minister: “Care has been given to make enhanced provisions for previously compromised budget lines and programmes such as tertiary education scholarships, free primary education grants, more grants for the elderly and the disabled and youth empowerment programme. This, however, does not suggest reckless and irresponsible spending, but a move towards striking a balance between improving lives and livelihoods, while supporting sustainable growth.”
At a closer look, the youth-focused budget pales in comparison with the youth empowerment challenges. In his analysis of the budget, economist, Thembinkosi Dlamini, now Coordinating Assembly of Non-Government Organizations (CANGO) executive director, said the 2023/24 national budget falls far short of addressing the youth grievances of political and economic reforms, greater job opportunities and better government services. He noted that the E430 million budget for education is a drop in the ocean given the hue and cry in the country. He also noted that a pro-youth budget would have created enough education, training and employment opportunities for the young people in big numbers.
Dlamini tore to shreds the scholarship budget increase from E361million by an additional E286million to a total of E647million. This 100% increase, according to the minister, will grow the number of scholarships from 2 500 to 3 500 scholarships this year. The economist described the additional E286 million, which cater for the additional 1 000 students as insufficient. Recent studies show that out of 17 000 young people who graduate from high school each year, only about 5 000 managing to find their way into main tertiary institutions. This then begs the question of what happens to the remaining 12 000 students. Incessant protests by the tertiary students and university lecturers are telltale signs of insufficient higher education funding.
The CANGO executive director dismissed the youth-focused budget which does not focus in hi-tech job creation. This is evident in the small budget allocated to the Royal Science and Technology Park Authority (RSTPA), which houses a business incubator, to nurture innovative business enterprises run by the hi-tech-savvy youth, compared to the construction of textile factory shells. RSTPA received a budget of E96.6m compared to E171 million set aside for the construction of factory shells to create low skill and low pay textile jobs.
Dlamini said there is nothing youth-friendly about the national security budget allocation. He claimed that a lot of it will go into the militarisation of eSwatini. He believed that a huge chunk will be spent on equipment to increase cybersecurity and surveillance of the citizens. He pointed out that that will promote impunity and suppression of civil liberties. He also viewed it as a precursor to a rogue state already characterised by disappearances of those who hold dissenting views. According to media reports, eSwatini has hired military experts from South Africa and Russia to train its national security on national security techniques.
“There is no need to militarise eSwatini because emaSwati are known as peace-loving. All that they want is the political space to be free and where their voices can be heard,” he said, adding: “The most unfortunate thing is that once the security forces are used to spilling blood of unarmed citizens as we are observing lately, it becomes a norm and the people retaliate. It’s a never-ending cycle of violence with no winners but losers throughout.”
University of Eswatini (UNESWA) economics lecturer, Sanele Sibiya, who is also a Times of Eswatini columnist, shared the same sentiment. He observed that the budget is, at face value, youth-friendly but not quite responsive to the youth needs. He viewed it as a continuation of the programmes that the government has been perpetually funding. This is evident in the education expenditure line items of free primary education and scholarships. Government, for example, has increased the FPE grant for the orphaned and vulnerable children (OVCs) by E45.6 million which represents a 20% increase. But it had remained stagnant since 2010 despite its erosion by the rising inflation. He noted that it does not respond to the immediate problems facing the youth such as youth unemployment.
“The youth need jobs, an investment in re-training programmes in alignment with the recent skills audit would contribute to the immediate reduction of youth unemployment. We need to retrain the unemployed graduates to align with the required skills in the economy,” he said.
Sibiya disputed Rijkenberg’s claim that the youth will benefit from the capital expenditures (CAPEX) in the construction projects. He pointed out that, first and foremost, capital projects are a preserve of few business people owning big construction companies. He said this would only yield short-term jobs providing temporary relief from the plight of unemployment. He stressed the need to integrate the youth in the value chain as service providers. He said improving public procurement and making it youth-focused would ensure that the youth benefit from CAPEX as service providers not as labourers. He then called for an affirmative action because the youth-led businesses cannot compete at an equal footing with the well-established enterprises.
“We ought to have an allocation as a country reserved for the youth and negotiate for relaxed conditions of access. We should also re-allocate some money towards responsive areas aimed at reducing youth unemployment. If eSwatini neglects the needs of the youth, the demographic dividend will turn into a demographic curse and emaSwati will pay dearly,” he warned.
Lucky Dlamini, who is chairman of the Swaziland Unemployed People Movement (SUPMO), tore apart the finance minister’s youth-focused budget. In charge of SUPMO with a 12 000 membership, he laid the blame squarely on government for the high youth unemployment and underemployment. He blamed it on lack of investment in Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programmes meant to address the challenge of high unemployment. Apart from the few dilapidated and underfunded TVET centres, he said, the government had stopped funding others including Manzini Industrial Training Centre (MITC), Siteki Industrial Training Centre (SITC) and Nhlangano Agricultural Skills Training Centre (NASTC) in the 2021/22 fiscal year. Given that the FPE grant is up to Grade VII, only a small fraction of school-going children goes beyond primary school level due to poverty. He then wondered what happened to those who fall through the cracks in the school system.
“We have many Grade VII dropouts because the street vendors and hawkers were badly affected by Covid-19. The young people in the informal economy were also badly affected by the civil unrest. So, this budget was expected to take into account these realities,” he said, adding: “Now there are many school dropouts who are unemployed and unskilled. SUPMO has 4000 college/university graduates and 8 000 unskilled school leavers. With such a mix of unskilled and qualified youth, how is this so-called youth-focused budget going to address their unemployment challenges.”
Doubly qualified unemployed Shepherd Dlamini, who is Logongolweni Inkhundla youth leader in the poverty-stricken Lubombo region, dismissed the youth-focused budget as state propaganda. He slammed the finance minister for not breaking down the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs budget of E85 million to show the exact budget allocation for the Youth Enterprise Fund (YEF) established in 2009 to reduce unemployment and alleviate poverty among young people between the ages 18-35 through provision of start-up capital. He complained bitterly that the government has underfunded YEF since inception.
According to its website yef.co.sz, the Youth Enterprise Revolving Fund (YERF) statistics from 2018 up to 2023, show that it has disbursed E15.3m and created 640 jobs and financed 282 businesses in 11 cycles. In the period spanning five years, on average per cycle, YERF disbursed E1.4m, create 58 jobs and financed 26 businesses. However, the created 128 jobs in the 11 cycles pale in comparison to the unemployed 326 200 young people in the country. This year’s Budget Estimates Book shows that the Youth Development Fund budget has been increased by E1.2m from 12.6m to E13.9m and only a third of this amount goes directly to the youth-owned businesses. As a result, the Fund is battling to make a dent in youth unemployment and poverty.
Dlamini called on government to invest more in TVET programmes to address the youth empowerment challenges as the shrinking job market cannot absorb the unemployed young people.
Mandla Hlatshwayo, who chairs eSwatini think-tank known as Leftu Sonkhe Institute, saw the budget as anti-youth. He decried that the finance minister did not take advantage of the windfall from the Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU) receipts doubling the SACU revenue. He noted that the budget is still skewed towards feeding the same fat cows as more funds are allocated to the security cluster and the royal family.
“On average the government spends more on the royal family than on higher education or skilling of the youth of the country. The royal budget is being maintained in the region of E1.3bn. The capital budget for the entire education system is just over E100m and the capital budget for the royal family is projected at E160m. Yet, schools have no laboratories, no IT technologies, no libraries or infrastructure to upgrade the quality of education,” he said.
Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) and Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) youth leaders unanimously rejected the youth-focused budget. SWAYOCO’s leader, Sakhile Nxumalo and his NNLC counterpart Mafafa Mabuza said it can’t be because it is a far cry from what is needed to address youth challenges in the education system and labour market. The youth leaders cited the sporadic protests of students and lecturers as tell-tale signs of a failed education system due to lack of funding, vocational training and irrelevance programmes to the demands of the job-market. They also viewed differently the bolstering of the finances of security forces as their incentive to maintain the status quo.
It takes a discerning eye to see that finance minister Rijkenberg is walking a tightrope between fuelling the sporadic anti-monarchy protests by mostly youth and strengthening the national security to preserve the influence of the monarchy, hence this carrot-and-stick type of budget.