It is 6am in rural Mliba in central Swaziland, and Melody Thwala and her seven-year-old granddaughter Thandi are busy with their daily task of harvesting wild `umbhidvo’ weeds before Thandi goes to school. Thwala will use what they have gathered to make a spinach-like dish to supplement the family’s one daily meal.
“My grandchildren have a meal at school and this is a relief to me. At our home we have only one evening meal,” said Thwala, a widow who lives with her unmarried daughter and four grandchildren.
According to a report by the UN Country Team in Swaziland, released on 16 March, a fiscal crisis which started early in 2011 has put an additional strain on poor households like Thwala’s and worsened poverty in a country which already had high rates of unemployment and food insecurity and the highest HIV rate in the world.
The report, based on a November 2011 survey of 1,334 households, found that poor households have had to adopt extreme measures to cope with reduced incomes resulting from job losses and wage cuts, as well as higher food and fuel prices and reduced access to social services. About half of rural households and one third of urban households have cut their number of meals or meal portions and in more than one out of four rural households, meals were skipped for the entire day.
“In rural areas and especially among female-headed households, coping mechanisms are supplemented by other budget management methods, such as gathering of wild food and harvesting immature food,” write the authors, who warn that the crisis threatens to halt or reverse progress Swaziland had made in reaching the Millennium Development Goals in health, education and food security.
Swazis usually eat their `umbhidvo’ with maize meal, the national staple food which is grown in almost every garden and farm. But a year of low rainfall reduced the usual yield from Thwala’s maize garden by half and she cannot afford to buy maize meal.
“That is why our meals are one a day,” said Thwala, adding that the family had been forced to sell a cow which had provided them with milk.
Cutting back on food and selling household assets were found to be two common coping mechanisms among households which experienced economic “shocks”, the most common of which were rising food prices and reduced labour income.
“Starting from an already weak situation, food security seems to have deteriorated as households have been coping with the consequences of the fiscal crisis combined with the rising food price,” notes the assessment.
A significant drop in revenue from the Southern African Customs Union in the wake of the global economic slowdown helped precipitate Swaziland’s financial meltdown over the past year, but according to Sibusiso Hlatshwayo, an independent financial consultant in Mbabane, the capital, this was not the only factor.
“Government’s spending choices on vanity projects that have been criticized by the IMF [International Monetary Fund] have not changed, and the government’s unaffordable public service employee rolls that are the highest in Africa per capita have not been cut back. Secondly, Swaziland’s economy was shrinking long before the global recession; large, decades-old businesses have been relocating from the country and there is no new investment,” he said, adding that the government’s lack of money to pay its suppliers had resulted in small companies going out of business, putting more people out of work.
The financial crisis has also hit social services with grants to the elderly which had helped women like Thwala support their families suspended, and the government no longer paying school fees for many orphaned and vulnerable children, including two of Thwala’s grandchildren.
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative and acting UN resident coordinator in Swaziland Jama Gulaid pointed out that the financial crisis had also led to an acute shortage of fuel for government vehicles. “If vehicles are grounded for lack of fuel, how does one deliver outreach services and or conduct field supervision?” he said.
A spokesperson at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare confirmed that its officers had had to curtail visits to impoverished households in remote, rural areas.
Children moved to cheaper schools
The report suggests that households living in rural areas have been harder-hit by the crisis than those in urban areas, and that female-headed households and those with members living with HIV were most likely to resort to cutting educational expenditure. Among these households, almost one fifth had withdrawn children from school, and more than 10 percent had moved children to lower quality schools.
Samantha Zwane, a single mother of two children, has held the same job of receptionist for 10 years, but her rare pay increases have not kept up with the ever-escalating costs of food, electricity, bus transport and other supplies.
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“I had to choose between moving from a three-room to a two-room flat, even if it meant we would have to all sleep together in a room, or enrolling my daughter and son in a cheaper school. The only flat I could find was far away and it would mean higher commuting costs [so] I had to change the children’s school,” she said.
While the grim economic situation is prompting people to make necessary if painful decisions, so far they are managing to cope. Starvation is not yet a problem although malnutrition is widespread and is leading to an unreported crisis of stunting in children’s growth, according to UNICEF.
“Nutrition is a challenging area for most countries in East and Southern Africa, including Swaziland,” said Gulaid. “Yes, external shocks worsen the situation but there are many contributory factors. We need multiple strategies to address child malnutrition and everyone must do more - the government, households/communities, development partners and the private sector.”
The survey concludes with several recommendations for improving public financial management, increasing employment and setting up social welfare services which would better prepare households for occasional economic downturns.