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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Corporate responsibility on the rise

Swaziland - An impoverished kingdom that seeks foreign investors to raise the economy out of its doldrums also looks to corporations to play a significant role in meeting social issues.
James Hall

"Corporate responsibility" is perhaps a greater requirement in a nation with limited public sector resources. Companies are asked to sponsor initiatives that would usually be handled by government agencies. The record of success is mixed," Musa Hlope, the outgoing secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Employers, says.

"Foreign investors come to Swaziland to make money. They take advantage of the favourable trade treaties the country has with the US and Europe," Hlope said. "They are business people, first; not necessarily benefactors, and certainly not aid workers."

But investors also find a picturesque country with a genial people. An urge to contribute to society often takes hold, he said. For instance, Swaziland is a soccer-mad country, but government has no funds to finance sports programmes. It has been the tradition since national independence in 1968 for local breweries to sponsor national football championships.

Currently under construction in the central commercial town of Manzini are two multi-purpose stadiums, the first major sports facilities built by government in 40 years. But the project would have remained on the drafting table without private corporate sponsorship.

But for nominal contributions of food, companies are staying out of major food relief efforts currently underway to assist the estimated 250 000 Swazis who will face hunger by early next year. Poor rains and an agricultural workforce decimated by AIDS are to blame for diminishing harvests. The World Food Programme is coordinating relief efforts.

However, corporations are contributors to the many AIDS-containment efforts underway nationwide. Companies are sponsoring HIV-information projects, and funding health facilities. 38.6 per cent of adult Swazis are infected by the HIV virus that will sooner or later compromise their immunity systems, allowing opportunistic diseases associated with AIDS to attack.

"Companies are suffering as the nation suffers. Most people dying of AIDS are in their 30s and 40s. This is the prime workforce, and skilled labourers and managers," a source with the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce said. "Companies want to save their employees, but they have to be discreet about it," he added.

Swaziland's foreign-owned businesses recall an effort at "corporate responsibility" that proved naïve and premature for one manufacturer four years ago. They have heeded the lessons of cultural sensitivity that fiasco taught.

A refrigerator manufacturer that at the time was the largest industrial employer in Swaziland was alarmed at the loss of its workers to AIDS. The management announced to the local press its plans to sensitise the workforce on the disease that was sweeping through the factory.

But even today it is taboo for a Swazi to admit that he or she is HIV positive. Such denial explains why the nation may have the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. But "forced awareness" proved costly for the refrigerator maker. Angered that people were ridiculing their workplace as "that AIDS place," the company workers went on an illegal three-day protest strike.

Company management had to apologise for raising the AIDS issue. Since then, corporations have relied on health-oriented NGOs and AIDS organisations like The AIDS Support Centre and the government initiative the National Emergency Relief Committee on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA) to conduct workshops to workers.

But the corporations are writing donor cheques to finance these efforts. Corporate sponsorship has bankrolled the Council of Swaziland Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA).

"Sexual abuse against women and children wasn't even recognised as a problem five years ago, when SWAGAA began its work. But it is now an issue firmly on the national agenda, and we are making great strides in education and law enforcement, in part because of corporate contributions," Angus McLeod, the organisation's fundraiser, said

McLeod is a private businessman in the agriculture sector. He is similar to other fundraisers in Swaziland who are also business or corporate people who have embraced an organisation or cause. Their connections with other business people help spread the fundraising net. The business community knows these people as associates, and is assured that donated money given to them will be well used.

One area of social responsibility that has been addressed with only partial success by Swaziland's corporations is environmental preservation. Currently, the Swaziland Environmental Board, a five year-old government body that is just beginning to make its presence felt in the kingdom, is challenging one of the country's oldest industrial companies, a paper manufacturer, on pollution.

This writer accompanied the government chemists as they tested the Lusushwana River in central Matsapha, and filled vials at the factory location with liquid as black and viscous as motor oil. Water drawn one kilometer downstream was grey, and swimming with debris from the paper making process.

"Thousands of Swazis depend on this river for their daily water needs," said Chris Khumalo of the environmental authority. The Swaziland Electricity Board is also under investigation for river pollution. Up to now, environmentalists say, corporations have been allowed to do as they pleased with Swaziland's environment.

Swaziland's problem with "fly by night" companies that disappeared after accumulating debts, leaving behind hundreds of unpaid workers, has diminished in recent years as stricter company licensing laws have been enacted. Generally, labour relations are good.

A strong Industrial Court is one of the country's most effective regulatory bodies. Labour disputes are handled in a timely manner. There has been no widespread industrial unrest in years. Rather, the labour federations are mobilizing the workforce in national job stay-aways to protest government polices. Government considers the actions political rather than economic.

A growing corporate presence is garment manufacturers from Asia, particularly Taiwan. Workers complaints are relatively high, and seem to revolve around cultural differences. Independent commissions have criticised the companies for not empowering Swazis with management skills, and for often-bitter employer-employee relations.

The garment makers, who employee tens of thousands of Swazis and are responsible for a 5 per cent drop in unemployment last year, also contribute little to social welfare initiatives.

The Ministry of Enterprise and Employment, labour unions and the Federation of Swaziland Employers are working with the Taiwanese embassy to bring the dozens of garment makers who have established businesses in the country into the mainstream of Swazi life.

The intention is to turn the newcomers into responsible corporate citizens like older established companies, to recognise that every sector in an impoverished country has to contribute to nation building.

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