The people of Eswatini have been hard hit socio-economically and politically from different directions, and are left reeling from the fear that neither governmental, nor international assistance will bring lasting relief. During this storm, local and multinational companies can make a difference by responding to areas of need, especially those of a disillusioned, disempowered youth.
Already burdened with years-long high unemployment rates and other socio-economic issues, Eswatini was dealt a double blow when intense political unrest erupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since June 2021, two waves of pro-democracy protests have further damaged the lockdown-ravaged economy through the destruction of numerous businesses. Finally, the government clamped down, 100 people were killed and Eswatini now finds itself in a political crisis with socio-economic fallout.
Even before the pandemic and the protests, between a third and two-thirds of Eswatini’s 1,2 million people relied on food aid. During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people were retrenched. Unemployment is at 23%, with youth unemployment (in the 15- to 35-year age group) at 60%, and even graduates struggle to find the jobs they are qualified for. All of this has built up to a resentment against the current political system which led to the fruitless protests.
Where has this left the youth? For many, bitter resignation reigns as they face closed doors to the kind of future they want and need. Some of the protesters have expressed feelings of hopelessness about their future due to the lack of freedom, opportunities and the seeming impossibility of having their needs met. The struggle will continue, however, and the aspirations of the young people are still alive.
While political reform in Eswatini will likely come from a serious power struggle, South Africa’s ANC has called upon the Eswatini government to normalise the political environment by moving away from autocracy, and upon the SADC to intervene. In the meantime, the country’s young people, amongst others, have urgent unmet socio-economic needs.
CSR can play a meaningful role in the current political climate as it impacts governance issues through concerning itself with developmental goals which redress inequalities and other forms of social injustice. Social impact drives systemic change. Efforts towards stabilising a disrupted socio-economic environment through life-changing CSI are also good for business. Companies need to weigh up all these benefits.
Even in a democracy, social ills such as unemployment, poverty and inequality undermine socio-economic welfare. The Eswatini Companies Act does not mention CSR or impose an obligation upon companies to engage in CSI, or provide for monitoring and evaluation of these activities, while the constitution refers to “social and national responsibilities including responsibilities to contribute to the overall development of the country”. None of this seems to compel CSR.
Nevertheless, the need remains significant. Various companies, including multinationals, have been able to fill specific gaps by embracing CSR towards creating sustainable change, such as the Royal Eswatini Sugar Corporation, Eswatini Water Services Corporation, Standard Bank and MTN. Getting to the heart of the people’s needs, multinational companies operating in Eswatini, as well as local businesses, can make a difference in line with some of the country’s national development goals:
• Facilitating access to quality education and skills training for youth and vulnerable groups, especially in rural areas.
• Increasing employment opportunities.
• Providing financing and access to training, coaching, mentoring and advisory programmes for entrepreneurs and SMEs.
• Supporting preferential procurement and local sourcing.
• Facilitating access to quality healthcare.
• Investing in rural infrastructure such as sanitation, tarred roads, potable water and energy supply, and communication technology.
In Eswatini, SMEs and the informal sector employ 70% of the workforce. CSR can have a significant impact on the development of entrepreneurships and SMEs, and both are key to socio-economic recovery and wealth creation. Established SMEs, in turn, can also foster entrepreneurship development. In a country with a general unemployment rate of 24%, and youth unemployment at 46%, all of this would be a lifeline.
Sustainable initiatives aimed at equipping young people for gainful employment, and restoring equality and dignity, can empower the people to take control of their socio-economic future. As a part of the business world, they will be able to leverage their influence for good and help shape the country by driving social justice.