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A variety of Coca-Cola cans and bottles are displayed on a counter at a local store in West Bath, Maine, Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, in this photo illustration. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach) A variety of Coca-Cola cans and bottles are displayed on a counter at a local store in West Bath, Maine, Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, in this photo illustration. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)  

Democracy activists accuse Coca-Cola of propping up African dictator

Photo of David Martosko
David Martosko
Executive Editor

The Swaziland Democracy Campaign, a socialist-aligned movement bent on deposing Africa’s last remaining absolute monarch, accused Coca-Cola of propping up King Mswati III by paying taxes in the landlocked dictatorship.

In London, the Guardian newspaper reported Monday that the organization has called for Coca-Cola to pull out of the country immediately. The multibillion-dollar beverage giant owns a manufacturing plant there — its biggest facility in Africa — which produces the concentrated syrups that bottling companies buy to make soft drinks.

Mswati presides over a nation where the life expectancy is less than 49 years — fifth worst on the planet, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Since succeeding his father 25 years ago, he has acquired 13 wives, each of whom he chose from a crowd of thousands of bare-breasted virgins who dance before him in an annual ceremony.

Among the world’s richest dictators, Mswati has also amassed a fortune of more than $100 million while ordinary Swazis live in abject poverty and endure a 25 percent HIV-infection rate.

Political parties have been officially banned in Swaziland since 1973, leaving opposition activists with few options to oppose what they say are rampant human rights abuses by Mswati’s government and his police forces.

“Coca-Cola must know they’re doing business with the wrong people,” Swaziland Democracy Campaign coordinator Mary Pais Da Silva told the Guardian. “At the end of the day it doesn’t benefit the economy in any way. Their profits don’t help the average Swazi, while the king is getting richer by the day.”

“The king is milking the country,” Da Silva added. “This is entrenching him more and more, giving him economic strength to crush opposition. Nobody should do business with the regime in Swaziland. They should cut ties and take their business elsewhere.”

Coca-Cola told the newspaper that Mswati does not receive profits or dividends from its Swaziland operation. But some activists estimate that the company is responsible for generating as much as 40 percent of the country’s GDP.

The company admits it cannot account for how the Swazi government uses the millions of dollars it pays in taxes.

Lucky Lukhele, a Swaziland Solidarity Network spokesman, compared the current situation to the urgent global calls for Western corporations to divest themselves of South African holdings during that country’s apartheid regime a quarter-century ago.

In fact, Coca-Cola founded its Swazi operation after it abandoned South Africa in 1987.

“There is no such thing as neutral ground — you’re for or against,” Lukhele said. “The king is looting and destroying the economy. So either they support the people or they go into the dustbin of history along with the king.”

“It has become crazy in Swaziland,” he lamented. “The people are desperate. They are dying from HIV/Aids and TB as the result of the misbehavior of the king. There’s enough evidence for the international criminal court to come in.”

For its part, Coca-Cola insists that it adheres to the “highest ethical standards” and aims to be “an outstanding corporate citizen in every community we serve.”

Through a spokesperson, the company also told the Guardian that its Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, founded in 2001, contributes to the “social welfare” of ordinary Swazis “in the areas of water stewardship, health, education and entrepreneurship.”

David is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter