When SA sneezes, Eswatini catches the cold

The Ngwenya Border between Eswatini and South Africa.

By Jabu Matsebula

When South Africa sneezes, Eswatini catches the cold. It’s an expression that regularly comes alive when events inspired by its neighbour hurt the country just as much.

Even though they say ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can’t,’ such wisdom is not to be taken for granted. Someone who took this proverbial adage at face value just last week, no longer thinks so. 

The Mayor of the city of Witbank, barely 200km from the Ngwenya border went out to address an angry community protesting against poor service delivery. They were causing mayhem, including burning trucks and blocking roads.

She is probably innocent, but the crowd went berserk, accusing her of insulting them that they “behaved like people who owned refrigerators.” They responded with a hail of stones and other missiles which hurt her. 

By Friday, the trouble had calmed down and traffic resumed. Solanje Soares, spokesperson for TRAC told the Portuguese news agency LUSA that the company had cleared the road that had suffered damage from four days of violent protests.

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The source of the problem, according to the local newspaper, Mpumalanga News, is anger at poor service delivery. The residents said they had been without electricity for 16 days.

On Friday Mozambique authorities issued a travel advisory warning citizens not to venture into South Africa along the N4, quoting Trans Africa Concession (TRAC) managers of the Maputo Corridor N4. She said protesters from the high-density settlement of KwaGuqa north of Witbank city were blocking roads with barricades and setting vehicles on fire as well as throwing stones at vehicles. The action had forced a closure of the road.

Meanwhile, in Eswatini this major incident on the most important gateway for exports and imports hardly registered on the radar of national concerns. It did not even rate a mention in the national media or the business chambers or government. It may be a case of thick skin and deadened sensitivity to shocks as well as trusted adaptation mechanisms.

Daily, almost 10 taxis leave Eswatini, carrying people and goods to Johannesburg and Pretoria and back. This traffic amounts to almost 300 people per day. 

Asked if domestic passenger service to Johannesburg had been restored following the reopening of the N4, a leader of the cross-border taxi networks sounded surprised at the inquiry: “I can assure you my brother that taxis are moving normally between Eswatini and Johannesburg.” 

The issue was so minor that he had no shadow of a doubt that business was normal. “We have ways of communicating so that we are able to bypass trouble spots. We’ve had protests in Carolina before and had no problem. There’s nothing unusual with protests in Witbank. I am not aware of any problem. Taxis have been flowing back and forth as normal.” 

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Any instability in South Africa is of equal worry to Eswatini; and of the many major concerns, is power generation. These days, the Republic live mostly in the dark, literally. A legendary failure of ESKOM, the RSA power generator has forced Africa’s biggest power generator back to the age of candles and kerosene lamps. Without adequate power and extended hours of loadshedding that has become a normal way of life. 

With unreliable power, the economy falters. Work that should be done cannot be done on time. Processes become inefficient and more expensive. Inflation rises and is exported to Eswatini for the price of goods and services to continue to rise.

Socially, who is safe in the dark streets of Johannesburg? Already notoriously high, crime grows worse. At home, children cannot do homework. Food in refrigerators rot and angry wives henpeck frustrated husbands. The result is whole communities pouring out onto the streets, as they just did in Witbank.

A power failure has a knock-on effect on the Republic’s competitiveness and sends jitters to the markets. The Republic is already grey-listed – thanks to nebulous control measures over international financial flows that can also benefit terrorism; every one of the country’s financial transactions comes under the global spotlight.

For this and other problems, the blame goes squarely to the teething aches of a learning curve in democracy. Not-so-responsible political power-play enables the politicians to enjoy 29 years of interparty one-upmanship and squabbles that totally ignore attention to serving the people. Linked to politics is corruption that enables political parties to distribute patronage and keep members and party operatives happy and working at the expense of development.

Read More: South Africa’s inflation rises for the second month, driven by food prices

Unfortunately for Eswatini, South Africa generates the electricity that keeps the Kingdom happily in the light; providing as much as 60% of the country’s power needs; higher when it does not rain and the Kingdom’s own hydropower generators run dry.

Is there a possibility that someday, perhaps even soon, South Africa’s power problems can spill over into the kingdom? Maybe who knows? Is there a possibility that the roles may be reversed? Absolutely. In two years, major parts of Eswatini could easily end up under candlelight at night. It is a possible scenario that provides a major headache for policymakers. 

The elephant in the room is an ancient agreement that allows Eswatini to buy an assured supply of electricity from ESKOM. It worked fine when things worked, and not so well when the supplier suffers darkness while clients enjoy their power. In any event, that agreement is coming up for renewal in two years. By that time, policymakers hope there will be sufficient hydro, solar and biomass generation capacity to carry the country through in the unlikely event someone pulls the plug.   

An unremarked problem lurking in the shadows is the rising cost of living. The country’s stable food is maize. Thanks to good rains especially in the Kingdom’s bread basket – the country harvested a record bumper crop in the 2022 maize season. The Food and Agriculture Organization says last year’s harvest came in at 127,000 tonnes – above the nation’s five-year average. 

Good weather had a lot to do with the excellent harvest – but so did public confidence. That year an estimated 75 000 hectares, almost 45 per cent more than the short-term average was planted with maize. 

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The good fortune is however short-lived. 

Even as communities were starting to bring last year’s maize harvest home, Russian tanks rumbled across the border in what was suggested at the time to be a special brief operation to teach the Ukrainians a lesson. It is a war fought in the less fashionable parts of Europe but hurts African countries disproportionately. 

Immediately after the war started, energy prices skyrocketed. Petrol and diesel rose rapidly from E16 per litre to shutter records at over E21.00 per litre. Fuel price escalations drive everything else upward. Food prices shot up. Modest emasi, the diet.

The UNDP’s Souleman Boukar projected that a jump by an astonishing 76% in the price of fertilizer will impact an estimated -33% decline in agricultural production of grains and sugarcane exports. 

When fertilizer prices run amok, people abandon the field or reduce input quantities which assures a poor harvest. Despite the excellent 2023 summer rains, a drive in the countryside shows many fallow fields. People cannot afford fertilizer. 

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While none of this has anything to do with South Africa sneezing, things are likely to grow worse, not better soon. Other elements in the firmament are unravelling. BRICS – the emerging cartel of rebel countries determined to ditch the dominance of the USA Dollar in the world economy is meeting in South Africa next month. It’s an occasion that riles the global superpower. Last week, the US ambassador to South Africa went ballistic in a tweet that accused South Africa of selling arms that Russia used against Ukraine. 

The American has since apologized for a tweet which frightened the Rand Dollar exchange to climb beyond the E19 mark for the first time. The cosy Russia – South Africa relationship, to the Americans suggests South Africa is not as non-aligned as it proclaims. As fears of the possibility of sanctions on South Africa loom on the horizon, Eswatini will feel the chill of a cold winter breeze.

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