Swaziland’s Sikhuphe Airport, now called the King Mswati III Airport, has yet to be granted an operating licence by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and no airlines are expected to make use of the airport for years to come, a global news agency has reported.
This was kept from the Swazi people on Friday (7 March 2014) when King Mswati officially opened the airport, which critics have dubbed his personal vanity project.
The airport has cost E3 billion (US$300 million) so far to construct and no airlines have signed up to use the airport.
In 2013 a report from IATA said Sikhuphe was widely perceived as a ‘vanity project’ because of its scale and opulence compared with the size and nature of the market it seeks to serve.
King Mswati, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, was defensive in a speech opening the airport. He recalled that many observers outside his kingdom thought building an airport in what he called ‘a jungle’ was a joke. Sikhuphe is about 80km from the Swazi capital Mbabane in a wilderness on the tip of eastern Swaziland.
The Observer on Saturday, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported, ‘The King stated unflinchingly that the airport was not a joke as some pessimists had already hinted that the country does not need such extravagance. He said the completion and commissioning of the airport had proved all doubting Thomases wrong.’
The newspaper quoted the King saying, “I recall that even members of parliament were totally against this project and dismissed the idea as a joke (emaswidi). Akusiwo emaswidi lawa bekunene (this is not a joke),” emphasised the King to a round of applause and a reverberating shout of Bayethe [hail to the King!].’
The newspaper said, ‘One thing was clear throughout the King’s address that he was extremely passionate about the project and that it was very close to his heart.’
King Mswati announced that he had decided to name the airport after himself, which many will argue confirms critics’ belief that the airport is a personal vanity project. Seven in ten of his 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 a day and his kingdom has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.
In his speech the King made many references to his belief that the airport would help Swaziland become a ‘First World’ nation by 2022.
The King added, ‘The nation will agree with me that we have all been looking forward to this day because the new airport comes with multiple benefits for the general populace. We welcome you all to this new jewel for the Kingdom of eSwatini. Such a project is not a showoff but an important development tool.’
He did not reveal that the airport does not have an operating licence from IATA. The international news agency AFP reported this, adding no airlines were expected to make use of the airport for years to come, ‘prompting concerns about the viability of the project’.
AFP reported, ‘The project is years away from being operational and has been dubbed a “white elephant” by critics.’