Remarks by Ambassador Lisa Peterson: Commemorating the 242nd U.S. Independence Day

Prince Hlangusemphi, Representative of His Majesty the King;
Emakhosikati, Your Royal Highnesses;
Honorable Chiefs; Royal Councilors;
Honorable Ministers;
Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Honorable Members of Parliament;
Honorable Members of the Judiciary;
Members of the Media;
Distinguished Guests;

Lishonile and welcome to all.

1968 was a momentous year.  In the U.S., the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the first manned Apollo space mission took place, and Boeing introduced the 747 airliner.  It was also the year that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and a year of protests against the war in Viet Nam.  On the global stage, the last territory in Africa for which Great Britain maintained responsibility gained its independence.

Since September 6, 1968, when the United States officially recognized Swaziland’s independence, our two countries have upheld a mutual commitment to develop and expand an ongoing partnership.

A policy paper from a few years after independence outlined our interests and recommended courses of action in Swaziland. These included a strong focus on agricultural and economic development, expanding leadership and training opportunities for promising young emaSwati, continuing the Peace Corps program that started shortly after independence, and encouraging U.S. business investments.

There are many milestones within fifty years of friendship. Tomorrow, our Peace Corps team and their partners will commemorate the tenth anniversary of “Walk the Nation” and fifteen years of Peace Corps’ renewed presence in Eswatini. The more than 1,700 Volunteers who have served over the course of four decades have touched the lives of emaSwati in countless ways. They add tangible value to their rural communities, whether they are building libraries, developing programs for special needs children, or training nurses on the HIV/AIDS response.  In partnership with NERCHA, “Walk the Nation” spread a message of hope, awareness, and dignity for people living with HIV and AIDS.  This time around, we are encouraging people, especially youth, to know their status and, if they are HIV positive, embrace treatment.  This walk in many ways symbolizes the last mile we all must cover toward epidemic control.

If Peace Corps symbolizes the longevity of our relationship, then PEPFAR represents the depth of our investment.  When PEPFAR was launched 15 years ago, entire families and communities were falling ill. Today, death and despair have been overwhelmingly replaced with life and hope, thanks in part to the nearly 480 million dollars we have invested in restoring the health and well-being of emaSwati. With ever improving treatments for HIV, people are living long, fulfilling lives while reducing their likelihood of passing on the virus to others. Eswatini made international headlines last year when the country’s second HIV incidence measurement survey revealed that the rate of new infections had been cut by 44 percent.  This success was possible because of the incredible partnership between PEPFAR and the Government of the Kingdom of Eswatini.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act has similarly been a critical element of our relationship. Since January this year, Eswatini is once again a beneficiary of AGOA thanks to the passage of amendments to the Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Industrial Relations Act, as well as a completely new Public Order Act that is being cited as a model for other countries in the region.  Protecting citizens’ freedom to form associations, to assemble in a public square, and to express opinions – even if they are currently unpopular – lays the foundation for greater innovation and diversity of thought, which is what Eswatini will need to achieve its national development goals.

These freedoms have been on display in the advocacy around the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill, which, after robust parliamentary and public debate, is now waiting only on the King’s signature to become law and better protect the citizens of this country.

Building on these advances, we have this year been able to turn the government’s attention to the Millennium Challenge Account, which offers the possibility of large-scale development projects.   Key actors in government have quickly grasped the potential in this program and mobilized a fully-fledged government steering committee to focus on achieving eligibility.

While we remain driven by the future prospects of Eswatini fulfilling its potential, I am sobered by the past.  In the British parliamentary debate of the Swaziland Independence Bill, one MP noted that, “…the whole object of independence is to give a people the opportunity to master their own environment and to solve their own problems – with as much help … as they can get from their friends, and so to move towards economic, as well as political, independence.”  The U.S. Government counts itself among those friends, but our goals in Eswatini today look remarkably similar to our first post-independence policy paper.

In 1997, Eswatini laid out a national development strategy that was supposed to carry the country to the top 10 percent of the medium human development group of countries by 2022.  That deadline is now only four years away.

Eswatini is currently in the midst of a fiscal crisis that will surely push any hope of reaching this goal several more years down the road.  There are factors over which the country had little control, not least of which was the incredible toll of HIV on Eswatini’s most precious resource – its people.  But there are also many choices that have pulled the country back from its own stated development goals.

Government has known for years that it needs to reduce the size of the civil service, decrease overall expenditures, and pursue policies that will foster economic growth.  Instead, the public service wage bill has grown by 85 percent in the last five years.  Government officials and oversized delegations are traveling in first or business class and spending days, sometimes weeks, in luxury hotels, using funds from public coffers.  King Sobhuza sounded a warning against such behavior saying, “The Roman Empire collapsed because of too much attachment to luxury, and also because of the complacency of its people.”  We should all strive to heed his advice.

Some in government have recognized the severity of the fiscal crisis and are moving to institute much-needed changes.

It will be imperative that those in leadership positions do everything possible to claw Eswatini out of this fiscal hole.   The HIV/AIDS response, along with a host of other socioeconomic and health challenges, is gravely undermined by this fiscal crisis. And while we want to help, our resources are finite, and many countries beyond Eswatini have foreign assistance needs as well.  How do we continue to justify helping out in the health sector while bad spending decisions are being made elsewhere in government?  The necessary changes will require extraordinary political willpower, fiscal transparency at all levels, and greater regulatory oversight.

The incoming parliament and Cabinet will have a daunting task in setting the Swati economy back on track, but they will also be uniquely positioned to shape Eswatini’s trajectory over the next five years. This is a moment of both incredible challenge and incredible opportunity for Eswatini.  Part of the challenge is that more than half your population is under the age of 24 and the decisions government makes now will determine what kind of future these young people will have.  But these young people are also an opportunity, because they have the potential to bring astonishing energy and new ways of thinking to the hardships the country is facing.  The next five years are going to require a tremendous balancing act to address the challenge and harness the opportunity.

In the United States, 1968 was a pivotal year in striking a similar balance. In April of that year, just months before his own assassination, Robert Kennedy delivered the news about Dr. Martin Luther King’s death to a crowd of black Americans during a presidential campaign stop in Indiana. In this moment of deep despair, Kennedy had the delicate task of balancing anger with compassion, disappointment with hope, and fear with understanding. He called on everyone to ask themselves “what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”  He was speaking in part about the path forward on race relations, but he was also speaking of compassion and justice toward all who suffer in our country.

The question about who we are and where we want to go continues to evolve.  It is different from what it was when the United States was founded 242 years ago, and from what emaSwati imagined during the transition of power in 1968. Likewise, our partnership with Eswatini will go through many iterations that can enrich and strengthen the foundation we’ve built together. So while we applaud the milestones we have reached to break the cycle of HIV transmission and restart AGOA, we recognize that effectively carrying our partnership forward requires a new course. With the dawn of a new parliament, incoming leaders must take charge of Eswatini’s future and set the pace for urgent and bold action. Those who vote them into power have an equal responsibility to hold them accountable to their words.

We will continue to look for ways to partner with government and citizens to effectively follow through on the strategies that must be put forward.  And I hope that in 50 years’ time, one of my successors will be celebrating the centennial of our countries’ partnership and speaking of Eswatini’s incredible accomplishments.