Living on the Coke side of life in Swaziland

Published on Pambazuka News, by Peter Keenworthy, June 22, 2011.

Next time you crack open a Coke to quench your thirst, spare a thought for the sugar cane workers in Swaziland. Peter Kenworthy investigates the operations of the Coca-Cola Company in the repressive monarchy.

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 sugar cane fields in Swaziland, who harvest the sugar cane 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.

LET THEM DRINK COKE: … //

… THE POVERTY-STRICKEN SUGAR CANE WORKERS:

That this ‘solid relationship’ meant to make ‘a positive difference in the communities’ in which Coca-Cola operates did not extend to embattled sugar cane workers became only too obvious when in September 2010 I visited a sugar cane field in Eastern Swaziland.

‘Cutting cane is backbreaking work, and accidents are common,’ states a 2004 Human Rights Watch report on sugar cane workers. ‘Of all forms of agricultural work, sugar cane is the most hazardous.’ This certainly also applies to Swaziland, according to the sugar cane workers.

The area that I visited, Vuvulane, is managed by the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms (VIF) but the sugar cane fields are under the auspices of the Swaziland Water and Agricultural Development Enterprise and the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation, who 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-Colas 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, who 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 sugar cane 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 21 May 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 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 sugar cane 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 Chairman 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.

DEMANDING SOCIO-ECONOMIC JUSTICE: … (full long text).

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