By Peter Kenworthy
June 22, 2011 -- Pambazuka News -- Next time you crack open a Coke to quench your thirst, spare a thought for the sugarcane workers in Swaziland. Coca-Cola is one of the largest and wealthiest companies in the world, as well as being one of the world’s best-known brands. The desperate situation of the poverty-stricken workers in the sugarcane fields in Swaziland, who harvest the sugarcane that is the most important ingredient of African Coke, on the other hand, is a well kept secret. Their plight is not deemed newsworthy. They live their lives in a brutal and repressive absolute monarchy where King Mswati III and a small elite live in luxury while the majority of Swazis live in abject poverty.
More than 1 billion cans or bottles of Coca-Cola are consumed every day and the Coca-Cola Company makes huge profits every year, over US$15 billion in 2005.
Due to the lessening of growth potential in Western markets, where the US market had been dropping off since 1984, Coca-Cola has delved into the markets of developing countries, not least in Africa. Here growth potential is higher and competition less fierce.
"Business is growing [but] … nowhere is it growing faster, however, than in our Eurasia and Africa group", states the company’s chair of the board of directors, Muhtar Kent, in Coca-Cola’s 2010 Annual Review.
Coca-Cola can be bought all over Africa, where the Coca-Cola Company is one of the largest employers, with over 160 plants and nearly 70,000 employees. I remember seeing Coca-Cola on sale in even the smallest, most remote villages when I was in the Monze East district of rural Zambia 15 years ago, and the supply of Coke hasn’t lessened in the years gone by.
"In most of Africa", says Constance Hays, author of Truth and power at the Coca-Cola company, Coca-Cola "didn’t have to persuade people to drink Coke instead of Pepsi. [They] had to persuade people who had next to no money to spare, and whose nutritional and health issues were enormous, to take the rands or the shillings out of their pockets and spend them … on a Coca-Cola."
Coca-Cola has therefore had a huge impact on the economies of both many African countries and their citizens in recent years. Not least in Swaziland, where Coca-Cola contributes over 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The Coca-Cola concentrate that is the most important ingredient in the Coca-Cola that is consumed in Africa, Australia and parts of Asia comes from a huge industrial plant in Mapatsa, Swaziland. The Coca-Cola Company chose Swaziland because of the favourable tax arrangement that the regime gives it, as well as the country’s abundance of cheap labour and raw sugar.
"Coca-Cola can blackmail Swaziland at any moment it likes. If it doesn’t get its way it simply has to threaten to take its business elsewhere", as Richard Rooney, a former associate professor at the University of Swaziland, puts it. And if Coca-Cola doesn’t punish Swaziland, others will. The liberal open-market policy that Swaziland has implemented is self-reinforcing, as any attempt to reverse it is instantly punished by the markets.
Swaziland has been "Coca-colonised’, so to speak. Not that Swaziland’s absolute ruler, King Mswati III, needs to be coerced -- he is said to be on good personal terms with the Coca-Cola Company and visits its headquarters in Atlanta every year. Mswati has also made sure that the ever-louder calls for human rights and socioeconomic justice do not interfere with business in Swaziland.
"Coca-Cola has been accused of dehydrating local communities in its pursuit of water resources to feed its own plants, drying up farmers’ wells and destroying local agriculture … it takes almost three litres of water to make one litre of Coca-Cola”, says English anti-poverty and human rights organisation, War on Want, in a report on Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola and its affiliates have also been accused of abusing "countless fundamental human rights", according to a HRCI research report, such as anti-union violence, discriminatory practises and union busting.
Coca-Cola, for their part, claims that it acts altruistically in Africa, especially through the so-called Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, of which King Mswati III is a patron.
"Any good we secure for ourselves is uncertain until it is secured for us all. That is the fundamental belief of the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation", one can read on the foundation’s website, "so that we are able to give back to segments of our local communities most in need of assistance", said Coke CEO, Fanus Nothnagel, in a 2009 sustainability review.
"We feel a deep responsibility to ensure all the work we are doing … is creating tangible value … for the communities we serve", said the company’s 2010 Annual Review, which also speaks of "making a positive difference in the communities in which we operate".
The foundation also donates medical equipment to the Swazi government, supports community projects focusing on education and initiated a water development project last year.
The real point, though, is that Coca-Cola is in Swaziland because it is a dictatorship that oppresses its unions and population. This allows wages to be kept low and unemployment high.
Coca-Cola is certainly happy with its relationship with the autocratic Swazi regime. "I would like to convey our sincere appreciation to the Kingdom of Swaziland", the Coca-Cola Foundation’s supply chain manager, Thembinkosi Thwala, told Swaziland’s prime minister, Sibusiso Dlamini, in 2010. "We are looking forward to the continuation of a solid relationship."
Poverty-stricken sugarcane workers
That this '‘solid relationship" meant to make "a positive difference in the communities" in which Coca-Cola operates did not extend to embattled sugarcane workers became only too obvious when in September 2010 I visited a sugarcane field in eastern Swaziland.
"Cutting cane is backbreaking work, and accidents are common", states a 2004 Human Rights Watch report on sugarcane workers. "Of all forms of agricultural work, sugar cane is the most hazardous." This certainly also applies to Swaziland, according to the sugarcane workers.
The area that I visited, Vuvulane, is managed by the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms (VIF) but the sugarcane fields are under the auspices of the Swaziland Water and Agricultural Development Enterprise and the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation, which lease them to individual farmers, who in turn employ casual labourers.
In a small village in Vuvulane, most of the adults worked in the sugar fields as casual labourers for between 400 and 550 rand per month. "This is not enough to pay for medicine, proper food or school fees for our children", one villager told me. "Sometimes we do not eat for days. We used to have our own vegetable gardens but these were confiscated by the sugar company. We sometimes fish in the nearby dam in the evening, when it is dark. If we are caught we will be arrested as the dam is owned by the sugar cane company", another villager said.
Practically none of the children in the village, who were clad in dirty and ripped clothes and looked underfed, attended school and many of the villagers receive food aid. In addition to this, the water supply is controlled by a privately owned company that readily closes the water supply from the village if they are not paid on time.
No one speaks up
Companies such as Coca-Cola always claim that "we didn’t know" about the human rights violations that their line of production causes. "Coca-Cola's guiding principles apply only to its direct suppliers", the company told Human Rights Watch in 2004. But this excuse is no better than that of a person buying stolen goods from someone on the street who has clearly stolen them.
Unfortunately, the media in Swaziland, which should be giving balanced analyses of important issues such as the immense power of the Coca-Cola Company in Swaziland and the abysmal conditions that those workers who produce the sugarcane work under, are usually blatantly positive and uncritical when reporting about the company.
"Coca Cola joined the rest of the world in celebrating the soft drink which has contributed immensely to the international economy", wrote The Times of Swaziland on May 21 in a typically non-critical article. "Ploughing back to communities is one of Coca-Cola’s greatest attributes", the government-owned Swazi Observer chipped in.
The international community in Swaziland is not much better. The US embassy in Swaziland spoke last year of Coca-Cola Swaziland’s "commitment to recognise and encourage corporate social responsibility … and democratic values".
But is Swaziland really an example of corporate social responsibility and democratic values? And does Swaziland really benefit from having the Coca-Cola Company effectively propping up its brutal royal dictatorship? Yes, the Coca-Cola Company might provide a large part of Swaziland’s annual GDP, but what good is this to the impoverished sugarcane worker or the average Swazi who can barely make ends meet? What good is it when much of this GDP ends up in the pockets of a small elite?
When Coca-Cola chair of the board of directors Mukhtar Kent said that he "sense[d] a better day … for society, communities and humanity" in 2011, he surely could not have been thinking of Swaziland.
The workers in the sugarcane fields are more or less left to fend for themselves -- together with the Swazi trade unions and democratic movement, plus a few foreign-based solidarity organisations and friends.
But there has been some indication of an improved political consciousness and willingness to brave the prospects of being clamped down upon by a brutal regime. This consciousness has, among other things, been brought about by an extensive campaign of democratic and rights-based civic education in Swaziland’s rural areas by organisations such as the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice.
This improved consciousness has enabled Swazi workers to link their poverty, poor working conditions and the low wages that the multinationals pay to royal regime and company neglect and neoliberalism. And the workers of Swaziland have therefore been more open and clear in their demands in recent years.
Examples of this are the massive strikes by over 16,000 underpaid, and frequently abused, (mostly) female textile workers in 2008, and the recent historically large demonstrations for socioeconomic justice and democracy in March and April 2011.
Swazi workers might previously have seen their struggle against Coca-Cola and the Swazi regime as akin to David’s struggle against Goliath. But recent events seem to prove that they are slowly waking up to the fact that David ended up winning that battle.
[Peter Kenworthy is an activist with Africa Contact. This article first appeared at Pambazuka News.]
SWAZILAND, SPONSORED BY COCA-COLA