Landlocked Swaziland is dreaming of becoming a maritime power

Durban, Port of Richards Bay, Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam, Lagos… Africa is not short on monolithic seaports. These huge harbours act as vital access points for global trade and have become a key symbol of many developing nations’ aspirations for sovereignty and modernity.

And now, a new player is intent on entering the game. Last month, the government of Swaziland gave its full support to a project announced by a business consortium to construct a new seaport. Announcing the endorsement was Gideon Dlamini, the Swazi Minister of Commerce, Industry and Trade.

“At government level, we are fully behind the project and we are giving it undivided support,” Dlamini told the Swaziland Times. “The project owners have conducted presentations to Cabinet and we interrogated it and found that it is a wonderful one. Following Cabinet’s realisation that the project is good and viable, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini subsequently tasked the different concerned ministries to start working together with the project owners straight away.”

There’s just one problem – Swaziland has no coastline.

But the business billionaire behind the project hasn’t been put off by this trifling matter – Moses Motsa intends to dig a 26 kilometre-long canal from the Indian Ocean south of Matupo, west across Mozambique to the town of Mlawula in North East Swaziland. The plan is for the canal to lead to a harbour vast enough to berth four ships simultaneously, on 15 to 20 hectares of land, at a cost of R30 billion.

Though it doesn’t take the sharpest of cartographers to discern that at its nearest point, Swaziland is still in excess of 70 kilometres from the sea, rendering the proposed 26 kilometre plan rather pointless. Moses may have been able to part the Red Sea, but it appears he is not best qualified to build a canal.

Mozambique’s national news agency, AIM, pointed out that this gross miscalculation isn’t the only thing discrediting Moses Motsa’s proposal. “Furthermore, as anyone who has driven from Maputo to Swaziland can testify, the land rises steeply… Canals are fine for transporting goods over flat terrain – but if there are hills in the way, locks must be built, dramatically increasing the costs. Building a canal with a system of locks capable of holding ocean-going vessels would be a massive engineering undertaking.”

Some have raised further concerns over the reasoning behind Swaziland’s maritime canal, questioning the need for a sovereign seaport when 70% of exports and 90% of imports are to and from neighbouring South Africa.

But landlocked countries are at a serious disadvantage to nations blessed with coastline. Being landlocked makes a country dependent on the goodwill of neighbours between itself and the sea. Swaziland isn’t alone in this respect; ill-thought-through colonial boundary-drawings have shaped an African continent with a much higher proportion (29%) of nations with no coasts than any other global region. The Swazi government are well within their rights to pursue the national interest by connecting the nation to the sea. The port will allow Swaziland to diversify its trading partners, thus reducing reliance on and dependancy to a single foreign state in the form of South Africa.

But if Moses Motsa and Gideon Dlamini want their plan to be taken seriously, they’ll have to recognise the difference between a major national infrastructure project and a pie in the sky dream.

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