When he launched his – sorry Swaziland’s – brand new airport, King Mswati III was determined to make a clear point to all the detractors who had criticised the project over the years. So in front of the assembled praise-singers and TV cameras, Swaziland’s absolute monarch announced that the ‘state-of-the-art’ facility would be known as the King Mswati III International Airport.
It was a move that caught most people by surprise. It also underlined his complete confidence in the new airport (otherwise known as Swaziland’s biggest white elephant). But it also ties him directly to its future success – or failure.
And there are still many serious questions about the sustainability of the airport, including when will it open for business, how will it lure additional airlines to use its services, how will it compete with the airports in Johannesburg and Maputo, and will it ever get close to its full capacity of 360,000 passengers each year – which is more than 5 times as many as currently used by the existing airport at Matsapha.
The Regional Director of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Meshesha Belayneh, says that Swaziland still needs to follow due process before the ICAO can issue a licence for the new airport. But the launch was never going to be a time for providing detailed answers to these kinds of practical questions. It was a time to praise the airport as a critical step in the transformation of Swaziland into a first world country by 2022 – and an opportunity to laud the vision of his majesty.
Instead of explaining how the airport will deliver the desired results, speaker after speaker at the launch party, including the Prime Minister, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, showered the King with praises.
“I am sure that no one will be more thrilled than His Majesty since the airport will play a crucially important part in meeting His Majesty’s vision of a higher level in national development and taking the kingdom towards achieving first world status,” said Dlamini.
While the King’s critics find the idea of transforming Swaziland into a developed state and economic powerhouse within eight years laughable, especially given the fact that almost 2/3rds of the population still live below the poverty line, Mswati can now point to the (long overdue) airport as proof that the country is moving in the right direction – regardless of whether the airport ever attracts the desired traffic or justifies its vast costs.
Declaring that “all roads lead to the first world”, Mswati went on to announce that a new town would be built close to the airport to facilitate development in the surrounding area, which happens to be around 40 kilometres from the commercial capital, Manzini, which (sensibly) hosts the existing Matsapha airport.
Indeed, Mswati even used the launch to mock some of his critics. Recalling a documentary on Swaziland during which the presenter said the King was “building an airport in the middle of a jungle”, Mswati said it was clear that some people were out to knock the country and its achievements.
“He came here and took pictures of cattle and said these roam around leaving cow dung in the forest and wondered if there would ever be an airport in such a jungle,” said Mswati. And when some of his advisors came to see him to express their concern about the bad publicity the airport was getting because of the documentary, the King claimed to have told them not to worry because it was free marketing.
He also took the opportunity to urge his subjects – otherwise known as citizens of Swaziland – to be open-minded and refrain from looking down upon themselves if they were serious about Swaziland becoming a first world country.
But the reality is that Swazis are not ‘looking down on themselves’. They have not yet been convinced about the need for a new airport – and won’t be until some of their key questions are answered, particularly as they have footed the substantial bill for its construction. For example, there is only one airline operating from Matsapha and, despite some crazy claims, the government has now confirmed an additional one has signed up King Mswati III International Airport, however its name is still unknown.
South Africa-based aviation industry analyst and managing director of Plane Talking, Linden Birns, said the availability of sufficient quantities of jet fuel and, most importantly, the costs associated with this would be a major factor behind any airline’s decision to use the facility – and therefore for the economic feasibility of the airport as a whole.
“Of course, without sufficient traffic volumes the airport will not be able to recover the cost of construction or deliver a return on investment to Swaziland,” said Birns.
But the King was never going to let issues like this spoil his party. By finishing its construction, he has proved some of his detractors wrong since many people believed that it would never be finished. But here are many other criticism and questions to answer – and no sign that they will be at the moment. For now, the King Mswati III International Airport – as its name suggests – will continue to be viewed by most Swazis as the monarch’s biggest vanity project rather than (as he clearly believes) his crowning glory.ShareThis