On Sunday (December 17, 2017) we woke up to the good news that the President of the United States of America Donald Trump had re-admitted Swaziland into the list of countries that are eligible to trade benefits under the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA).
We had lost our eligibility in 2015 when then US President Barrack Obama signed us out of AGOA eligibility, because we were found to have not done enough in respect of certain laws, especially freedom of peaceful assemble and freedom of expression as espoused in our Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008.
Other critical issues that we needed to deal with were as follows; full passage of amendments to the Industrial Relations Act (that dealt with the registration of federations); full passage of amendments to the STA; full passage of amendments to the Public Order Act; full passage of amendments to Section 40 and 97 of the IRA relating to civil; and criminal liability to union leaders during protest action; establishing a code of conduct for the police during public protests.
As a country that aspires to be amongst the First World economies by 2022 we need access to all the world markets.
The past 24 months have been hectic for our economy and we lost a sizeable chunk in terms of foreign currency, jobs were lost and thousands of people whose businesses relied on the textile and other products eligible under AGOA suffered.
It has been a painful experience and we thank God that despite the challenges the country continued to hold together. It is in this vein that we have to applaud the leadership of His Majesty King Mswati III who used everything within his sphere of influence that the country regains the AGOA market.
He ensured that all means available were explored to ensure that we comply with the AGOA benchmarks. His office, working together with the Attorney General and Cabinet pushed through the necessary amendments; hence today we can rejoice that we have got the US market back.
We need to thank companies like Tex Ray, Ray Li in particular for being a faithful investor, despite the challenges of losing the AGOA market remained to be a true friend and never left us.
He remained hopeful that if Swaziland works on the benchmarks, he was still committed to continuing his operations in the country.
We will need to thank the other textile companies as well, who have remained in the country and explored other markets.
As a country we have learnt bitterly that the agreements we sign do get to hurt us if we deviate from their core objectives.
Government has learnt, I hope, whilst there will always be those elements calling for regime change; we need to always act in the manner that is not going to hurt our development objectives.
With the amendments we have seen improved working relations between unions and government; protest marches have been peaceful and clearly the lessons we have learned have not gone to waste.
The other critical development that we need to recognie and appreciate is that despite the country’s losing AGOA market, the two countries continued to maintain cordial relationships.
We may have been hurt by the US Government’s position to withdraw AGOA eligibility but in other areas like health, through PEPFAR and other programmes we have maintained good relationships.
In the health sector for instance, through the support of the US government we have made significant strides in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
The other element that we need to appreciate is that whilst the US has been steadfast in the full compliance with the benchmarks such a position was based on the full enjoyment of democratic values and never been about regime change.
We have seen signs or tendencies with some when at our point of need wanted to push a certain agenda which was not in concert with the aspirations of the entire populace.
Change of whatever form is best achieved when the society grows into it and not one that is shoved down some people’s throats.
The two years of intensive engagement with the Legislature, the Executive and improved attitude of the Judiciary displayed a character of a Nation that was willing to change.
We hope going forward we will be more open about the areas where we don’t agree with our partners and work together amicable to arrive at a solution that works for both of us.
Lastly, still on AGOA we need to fully explore the benefits of this opportunity and ensure that Swazis also take keen interests.
In fact, AGOA is more about empowering our citizens and we hope we will improve some aspects of it by ensuring that Swazis don’t only become efficient in provident manual work but also are involved in the technical side of things. Today we have Swazis who can speak fluent Mandarin and that means it will be not difficult to get them into senior critical positions within this field. We need to have a timeline in place of when we expect a certain number of Swazis running this sector.
Also at the centre of this sector is agriculture, so we need to do a lot to ensure that the yarn and cotton used in most of the textile factories is sourced within the country. Let the re-admission of Swaziland under AGOA be the stimulus needed to realise an economic up-turn.