About 3 000 workers are on strike at Ubombo Sugar, stopping the production of most of Swaziland's main export earner. Photo: Supplied

Mbabane - A Violent strike has closed down much of Swaziland’s sugar industry, stopping production of the country’s top export revenue earner.

Arson attacks destroyed about 170 hectars of cane under cultivation at 11 farms last week. The farms belong to Illovo Sugar’s Ubombo Sugar in the eastern sugar belt.

The firm estimates the loss at R5 million, apart from losses incurred as a result of the work stoppage, now in its second week, by 3 000 employees.

“We have learnt the lessons from our brothers in South Africa, at Marikana. We must fight injustice even at the cost of our lives,” Thulani Simelane, a striking worker, said.

The Swaziland Agricultural Plantations Workers Union (Sapawu) seeks a 14 percent pay increase, which would raise basic salaries from R1 500 to R1 710 a month. Ubombo Sugar has offered a 7.5 percent hike.

“Workers on Swaziland’s sugar plantations are among the most heavily exploited sections of the working class,” the Communist Party of Swaziland said in support of the strikers.

Ubombo has applied for a court order to rein in violent strikers.

Sapawu secretary-general Archie Sayed sought to calm workers, addressing them before negotiations on Friday with Ubombo management.

“We are not here to fight but to ask for our money. Show some respect and stop being violent,” Sayed said.

“Management informed us that the company made a profit of R257 million this year, which means we are doing our job correctly. We are making money for the company.”

The government sent the ministers of agriculture and commerce, the labour commissioner and the commissioner of police to meet Ubombo management and to plead for calm from workers.

The Communist Party of Swaziland, which is not permitted to operate openly in the country, blamed the king, Mswati III, for exploiting the sugar workers.

“Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, the corporate conglomerate supposedly held in trust for the Swazi nation by King Mswati, owns 40 percent of shares in Ubombo. Mswati’s… control of enterprises that should be generating dividends for the Swazi people accounts for the major part of his massive… income,” the party said.

Swaziland provides 8 percent of total EU sugar imports under a duty-free and quota-free arrangement.

Sugar exports rose from 11.1 million tons in 2006 to over 30 million tons last year.

However, the European Commission has recommended the end of the preferential trade agreement in order to boost continental production and lower domestic prices. In response, some African exporters have asked for the quotas to expire in 2020 to allow time to establish substitute export markets.

“After consultations and negotiations, it is now very likely that the production quota will be maintained until October 2017,” ambassador Hans Duynhouwer, the head of the delegation of the EU to Swaziland, said in an address to the Swazi sugar industry.

EU funding is leading the way towards sugar industry reform in Swaziland. About 10 percent of the e1.25 billion (R18.1bn) Sugar Accompanying Measures Programme is earmarked for the country.

“The funding helps the sugar sector to prepare for the future, and then stakeholders will have to assume the financial responsibility for ensuring a competitive industry. The expansion of sugar under smallholders is a key feature of the country’s national adaptation strategy,” Duynhouwer said.

About 70 percent of Swazis reside as subsistence farmers on communal land. Years of initiatives to commercialise these smallholdings have failed because land dwellers are not given title deeds to their farms.

“The EU money will not be a substitute for land reform. Swaziland’s land system is feudal, and land reform is required or smallholder farmers cannot meaningfully contribute to the sugar industry,” said Samuel Dlamini, an agricultural consultant in Manzini.