Coke, Taxes, and Dictatorship in Swaziland

First off, the coke of which I speak is the cola varietal, not the white powder. The Swaziland Democracy Campaign has accused the Coca-Cola company of propping up King Mswati III by maintaining its largest African manufacturing plant within the borders of the Kingdom.

Interestingly enough, Coke moved to Swaziland from neighboring South Africa in the face of apartheid-era divestiture calls. Now, various Swazi groups are using similar language, insisting that the company must leave the country, in the hopes of forcing similar political change (see Mail Online).

I have been writing about the struggles in Swaziland for a few months now, and I am no particular fan of Coke’s empty-calorie products, but it does provide quite a few jobs in a region with staggering unemployment, and supports various social services through its African Foundation, based in Swaziland. So what of the claims? It’s not clear that Coke is doing anything directly to support the King except paying taxes.

Activists claim that the company is simply doing business with bad people, and that seems fair enough. While denying that they are paying Mswati directly, they have hosted him in Atlanta, which is standard fare for a multi-national doing business in a small developing country. But should Coke go?

I think it’s a bit early for the company to take that potentially crippling step. Public revenues do still pay the salaries of teachers and support HIV/AIDS care. Mswati has an estimated $100 million in wealth, so I don’t think he would be personally hurt – on the contrary, to the extent that there is any separation between the individual and the state, only the latter would be bankrupted.

The democracy activists would do better to build more support from within society and from activists in South Africa before advocating removal of a major manufacturing facility.