Swaziland (Eswatini) embarked on construction of an airport in Sikhuphe in 2003. The project involved resettlement of local villagers in the area. New houses were built for affected residents, beginning in 2004 and continuing into 2005. The new airport was initiated by King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. In June 2013, with the airport scheduled to open by the end of the year, the Mail and Guardian reported that independent observers had called the airport a waste of resources in 2003. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had echoed these concerns, saying it should not be built as it would divert funding away from vital projects to fight poverty in Swaziland, with one in seven of its 1.1 million inhabitants living in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 per day. In contrast, the King enjoyed a lavish lifestyle - including a US$200 million fortune, 13 palaces, a private jet and fleets of expensive cars - a discrepancy that attracted criticism.
In October 2013 the Times of Swaziland reported that sensitive documents related to contracts for airport construction had disappeared from the office of the Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. Calling this disappearance ‘corruption’ the Times said:
‘It does not take a particularly brilliant mind to figure out that an audit must be coming soon and the documents were spirited away. That is the only explanation for confidential state documents being removed from an office without legal authority…This is a red flag that there is not within the Sikhuphe project that requires an immediate investigation from the Anti-Corruption Commission. Billions have gone into this airport and it is still non-operational. What more proof do we need that events have gone very wrong there?’
A needs analysis for the airport was never undertaken and since commencement of the project in 2003 no airline had signed a contract to use it apart from Swazi Airlink which was run in partnership with the government. Civil aviation officials frequently announced new deadlines for completion and opening of the airport, which remained unfinished, usually with no explanations given except for claims of ‘bad weather’ hampering constructions works.
A town to support the airport
In March 2014 King Mswati III announced that a new town would be established to support the new airport, which would bring development to the surrounding communities, including Mbadlane, Hlane and Malindza. He proclaimed “After a radius of about five kilometres from the airport, urban structures will be constructed. "I therefore, urge both domestic and international investors to grab this opportunity by investing in the town.” He stated that a team comprising community members and experts had already informed him that an area where the town would be developed had been identified. The next step would be zoning of the area so development could start as soon as possible. During marketing of the airport project it had been reported that an international market would be built. Other structures mentioned by the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) included a hotel to accommodate tourists arriving at the airport and passing through the country.
A lavish opening ceremony for a white elephant
An expensive ceremony for the opening of the airport, on 7th March 2014 attracted criticism. The previous day King Mswati III had unveiled the name of the new airport: King Mswati III International Airport. The government had spent over US$551,000 on the official opening ceremony for the airport, paid to various suppliers. A Boeing-737-200 had landed at the airport then took off again after a few hours. According to document in the possession of the Times of Swaziland the aircraft had been rented from Antroma, a South African company that had been awarded a contract worth more than US$3.2 million a year for services for the airport, including loading and offloading luggage and other ground handling services. Taxpayers’ money had also been paid to Swazi Airlink which flew in its Embraer 135 jet as part of the festivities. A company called Scan Air was hired to provide an air show for the event. Other expenditure for the event included at least US$64,000 on delicacies for guests and a cake costing US$4,250.
A year and a half after the lavish opening ceremony King Mswati III International Airport had confirmed doubters’ fears that it would become a white elephant. Former University of Swaziland professor Richard Rooney wrote on his website: “The KM3 Airport was built on the instructions of the king without benefit of a needs analysis. It has proved to be a disaster since it was formally opened in March 2014. Only one airline uses the airport, and that is partly owned by Swaziland.” SWACAA, which operates the airport, estimated that 300,000 passengers annually would be required for the investment to break even. In its first year of operations only a quarter of this number, about 70,000 passengers, used the new airport, approximately the same number as had used Matsapha Airport, which King Mswati III International Airport replaced.
In October 2017 the Times of Swaziland reported that King Mswati III International Airport had ‘brought nothing but misery to hundreds of residents of Sikhuphe, in Malindza, where the airfield was constructed’. The residents had not received any money in compensation for their relocation, despite a consultant’s recommendation that a sum of approximately US$6 million be allocated for resettlement of 188 homesteads falling within the boundary of the ‘airport city’. About 250 Malindza homesteads had sought the services of a Mbane-based lawyer, Bongani Mdluli, to demand compensation of US$6,661,000 from the SWACAA. Mdluli wrote a letter to SWACAA demanding this compensation payment and stating that residents had several meetings with SWACCA since commencement of the project. In particular, at a meeting on 28th May 2015 in Malindza where SWACAA made an unequivocal undertaking that it intended to review the 2001/2005 Sikhuphe Resettlement Report which had commenced during implementation of the airport project.
By July 2018 King Mswati III International Airport, built at an estimated cost of US$ 250 million, had still failed to attract any new airlines. The sole airline using the airport was still Swazi Airlink; part-owned by the Swazi government it had been instructed to do so, moving its operations from Mataspha Airport. Yet over the years there had been repeated misinformation about the prospect of airlines choosing to use the airport. For example, in March 2013 SWACAA claimed that five airlines had signed deals to sue the airport when it opened. However, an investigation by Swazi Media Commentary revealed that two of the airlines named did not exist and the claim that Botswana Airways would use the airport was false. Back in October 2013 the International Air Transport Association (IATA) had said the airport was widely perceived as a ‘vanity project’ because its scale and opulence compared with the size and nature of the market it aimed to serve.
Resettled residents demand compensation
In June 2020 residents who were resettled to make way for the airport demanded US$2,781,000 million in compensation from the contractor which constructed the airport, Inyatsi Construction Group Holdings. This amount was the balance of the US$399,000 that was approved by the government, upon the recommendation of a consultant hired to evaluate compensation for the community members that they should be paid a total sum of US$3,180,000. Dr. Tambo Gina, the Minister of Economic Planning and Development, met with affected residents and delivered a report about the compensation, which was adopted and approved by Parliament in April 2020. Acknowledging residents’ claim for US$3,180,000 in compensation he said that the contractor, Inyatsi Construction Group Holdings, should have budgeted to compensate the community for any damages that they suffered. Bongani Mdluli, the residents’ lawyer, said that many residents had been impacted and the damages were huge. Noting that the report delivered to the minister recommended that the remainder of the compensation should be paid by the contractor on site the residents demanded that Inyatsi should compensate them. Member of Parliament Mduduzi Magagula, also chair of the Economic Planning and Development Portfolio Committee, confirmed that the report recommended that the rest of the settlement should come from the contractor, adding that according to the report the recommendations should be implemented in May and June 2020.
In October 2020 the government set aside a total amount of US$399,000 to compensate 162 Malindza residents who had been affected during construction of King Mswati III International Airport and the road leading tothe airport. This was announced by Minister of Economic Planning and Development Dr. Thambo Gina as he was in Malindza handing over the reportcompiled by the ministry on the residents who were affected. The signing and compensation exercise was scheduled to begin on 25th October, the amount to be shared among residents according to how much they were affected. Dr. Gina thanked the residents for their patience and two residents expressed their gratitude and explained that they had been awaiting the compensation for a long time.
Protests over water supply and damage to houses
In September 2021 Malindza residents protested demanding Inyatsi restore their water supply; Inyatsi’s road construction had destroyed their dam. A resident of the area involved in the protest, Make Malindzisa, said:
“We are residents of the area earning a living through farming and our livestock is now struggling to access water because the dam was destroyed by Inyatsi. We depend on the dam for farming vegetables that we sell as a source of income, now we are made to be poor because no one cares about our grievances. Now every farmer has to pay E 5.00 every month for water to be filled in the livestock’s dip tank which was also affected.”
As residents blocked trucks from conducting activities in the area a representative of Inyatsi, the site manager, attempted to address the residents but they told to get back into his car.
On 9th November 2021 nearly 200 residents of Ntandwene blocked Inyatsi’s stone-carrying trucks from entering and exiting the quarry near King Mswati III International Airport. Mine workers called the police, who were deployed to ensure that trucks and property were not damaged by the protesters. Who were seeking compensation from the government for their houses which had developed cracks due to blasting works at the quarry. The protest was the third of its kind in two months. The protest organiser said their actions were peaceful and had followed all protocols by reporting it to the police. A number of communities near to the airport and the mine had been affected by blasting works which caused cracks in their houses. The residents also claimed that two dams had been destroyed by works at the mine. Mduduzi Magagula MP said an urgent meeting with the residents, next to the airport, had been scheduled for 12th November. He said the meeting was long overdue, “Their protesting is justified because they have been patient for so long”.
On 12th November 2021 it was reported that the residents, mainly women, had been protesting for almost a week and were living in bushes, demanding compensation after construction of the airport had damaged their houses. They said they had been patient with the government for almost 20 years. The meeting that has been promised had not taken place and they had had been told to elect a committee to deal with the matter. One resident thought this was another delaying tactic, saying “All we know until we get incontacts about our compensation, no operations will be done by Inyatsi because you are making a joke out of us and our children.”
On 17th November 2021, following the residents’ protest at the quarry, the government called residents of affected community members to a meeting. During the meeting a committee of affected Malindza residents demanded payment of compensation within two days. The government asked the community committee to grant time to push Inyatsi to speed up the compensation process as specified in the consultancy report. One committee member said they were disappointed because they had been complaining about the matter for over a decade but the government had only recently submitted the report to Inyatsi. After a lengthy discussion the residents’ committee and the government team agreed that feedback would be given on when Inyatsi would pay US$2,960,000 compensation and that if the construction company did not have this amount of funds it should give the residents a reasonable interim amount and work towards paying the balance.