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MTN’s role in eSwatini blackout – the limit on private sector/government cooperation

If a government ‘exercises its powers in a way that the business provider finds unacceptable, the business provider should indeed withdraw from the country’: Prof Jannie Rossouw – head: School of Economic and Business Sciences, Wits.


DUDU RAMELA: Let’s check in on our neighbours now. In news from eSwatini, South African cellphone giant MTN has been receiving a lot of backlash, with a court battle looming. This after it switched off internet services in eSwatini in line with a directive from the government of that country, and questions have been raised about good governance from a business and state perspective. We now speak to Professor Jannie Rossouw, head of economic and business science at Wits University about this.

Prof, thank you very much for your time this evening. Perhaps let’s start with what it is that you understand to be going on here.

Prof JANNIE ROSSOUW: Good evening Dudu. Good evening to the listeners. For people who don’t follow the news equally, we have to point out that eSwatini was previously known as Swaziland, in the eastern part of South Africa. We have King Mswati III, and in eSwatini some people are now challenging the powers of the authorities and the king over the kingdom of eSwatini, arguing that the king is not allowing democracy to develop and that the king is misusing the resources of the government of the country.

DUDU RAMELA: I’d like us to explore the responsibility of both business and the state in this scenario. Since the uprising of the youth in that country, internet services have been shut down. With MTN receiving so much backlash, is it warranted? Was it good governance on MTN’s part to say, “Well, we play by the rules of the host”.

Prof JANNIE ROSSOUW: Well, inevitably in every country you have to play according to the rules of that country, or else you end up in a situation like we have in South Africa now, where Mr Zuma has been sent to jail by the highest court in the country, and Mr Zuma is refusing to go to jail.

So if you have various parties in the country not playing according to the rules of the game, you end up with a constitutional crisis like we have in South Africa with Mr Zuma now. So MTN must play according to the laws of the country, in this case eSwatini, and the licensed agreements in terms of the contracts it has in eSwatini to render a service. If MTN does not do that, the whole situation will end up in lawlessness.

DUDU RAMELA: Granted that what we are seeing in eSwatini, especially in terms of this uprising, is new – we’re not talking about a country like Sudan, for instance, or Mali, where there is instability – we haven’t seen scenes like this before. What is it that companies need to do on their end in terms of doing business responsibly and choosing a country that they go into, no matter how lucrative it may be. What responsibility do they have towards the people of that country?

Prof JANNIE ROSSOUW: People in Swaziland are entitled to communication services, they are entitled to cellphone services. These service providers render their services and without these service providers the people of eSwatini will not have internet services, will not have cellphone services. So from that perspective MTN is rendering a service, people for the service of course, and the service might be the impetus, as you said. But in every instance, these services are rendered according to the legislation of the respective government, and in accordance with the licensing agreement of the respective government. And if the government exercises its powers in a way that the business provider finds unacceptable, the business provider should indeed withdraw from the country. The downside of that however is, like in eSwatini, people will end up with internet services until such time as a different service provider can take up that slack in the market.

DUDU RAMELA: As you rightfully mentioned in the beginning, eSwatini is a monarchy, apparently the last standing one on the continent at that. Can we call what is happening there good governance? And what is it that countries need to do in their attracting of investors and their responsibility toward their civilians? What do they need to do to ensure a balance there?

Prof JANNIE ROSSOUW: Well, the answer I’m going to give you also applies to South Africa. You have to have to have rules of law, you have to have people subject themselves to the rule of law. You have to have a responsible government that acts in the best interests of all the people in the country.

But unfortunately in South Africa the rule of law is currently under threat and we’ve had a very irresponsible Zuma administration in South Africa. It was not the government, it was a gang of robbers that masqueraded as a government and robbed the country blind.

In the case of eSwatini you have a king who feels like all the resources of the government and the country are his personal resources that he can use as he sees fit, rather than use these resources for the advancement of his country and in the best interests of the people in the country.

Of course, as we know throughout history, monarchies have had to [submit to] democracies, and this is a democratisation process that has taken place in eSwatini. You cannot have an absolute monarch running a country as if it’s personal fiefdom. That is not acceptable in terms of basic human rights.

DUDU RAMELA: We’re talking about a country of less than two million people in terms of population. It’s got so much potential. Run properly, some argue very well that this could be the Singapore of the African continent. Is there something to be said about that?

Prof JANNIE ROSSOUW: Yes, of course. We can look at the example of Botswana, also a country of around two million people. That’s been run very responsibly since independence in the 1960s – incidentally one year before eSwatini stopped being the British protectorate of Swaziland. Botswana has been run very responsibly, really effectively. It is today one the bigger performing economies on the African continent; and the same can be true for eSwatini, incidentally also for Lesotho if you have a responsible government.

Unfortunately I have to add the same is true for South Africa. If we had responsible government, rather than the Zuma administration during the last decade, South Africans would have been 25% richer than they are today. So yes, I fully agree. It is not true only for eSwatini, but also true for South Africa.

DUDU RAMELA: I’m just curious to find out, prof, if you can help us. With all these interest groups that are intending to take this to court, where would this matter be heard, and would they have a case?

Prof JANNIE ROSSOUW: Well, this matter would be heard in eSwatini in terms of the legislation and laws and contractual agreements in force in eSwatini. eSwatini has its own independent judiciary, own independent legal system, and the court will decide the case based on the facts presented to it. So it’s difficult for me to prejudge a court case. It will follow due course in eSwatini independently from, for instance, South Africa.

DUDU RAMELA: Thank you very much for helping us make sense of all of that. Professor Jannie Rossouw is the head of the School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits University.

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