The king of Swaziland, Mswati III is accused by human rights activists of plundering the national treasure of his country and leaving his people in the gutter. And Coca Cola has become subject to criticism because of its extensive partnership with this and a number of other African dictators. The bottom line, again, is profit.
The beverage giant operates a big factory in Swaziland, one of the poorest countries in Africa, which is ruled by the last absolute monarch on the continent. Mswati III has visited the Coca Cola headquarters in Atlanta and negotiated new contracts for the factory. Now Coca Cola is being urged by human rights activists to withdraw completely from his country and this way stop sponsoring his regime. Which is a tricky thing, since Swati responds that Coca Cola provides the well-being of his people (it is by far the largest investor in Swaziland).
Well, I would say that this is a chance for one of the biggest corporations in the field to actually earn some "good" points among its potential customers by actually doing the right thing, as opposed to doing the thing that brings immediate profit to their shareholders and nothing beyond that. If they are to think long-term, perhaps it wouldn't hurt if they consider the possibility of taking the "good citizen" stance and earning some respect. There have been calls to Coca Cola that they should know that they are doing business with the wrong people. Which, I suspect, they already do know.
Because, when you look a little deeper, in fact any possible claim that their investment is helping the Swazi economy could not be any further from the truth. Their partnership with Swati's regime brings little to no actual benefits to the Swazi economy. The profits do not help the ordinary Swazi citizen in any way, while they are helping the dictator get richer by the day. Meanwhile he continues to drain off his country, unpunished. This accumulates more power around him and his clique, while he is continuously crushing the opposition.
If there is any moral in business, perhaps companies like Coca Cola should think about severing any relations with guys like him, and move their business elsewhere. If his regime is suffocated, perhaps his people would find themselves in a better position to overthrow it, if they so desire. This is what happened to the apartheid regime in South Africa, and if it could contribute hugely to the downfall of that regime, then it can happen in a country like Swaziland too. Not to mention that Coca Cola provides roughly 40% of Swati's state, nay, I mean private budget.
Just as some trivia, Mswati III has 13 wifes and he hosts the annual Reed Dance, where he usually picks a new bride among thousands of virgin girls who march in procession with their bare breasts in front of him. With a wealth of some 100 million dollars he is ruling Africa's second smallest country (after Gambia), Swaziland, where the majority of people live in absolute poverty, political parties are banned, and dissidents are regularly arrested, jailed and tortured.
Of course, Coca Cola keeps claiming that Mswati III does not get any dividends from their activities in Swaziland, where one of their biggest factories in Africa operates. But meanwhile investigations by human rights activists point at the opposite. The company has responded that there is no way they could track how the money is being used. The response from the human rights community is that if Coca Cola really cares about the local community as they claim, they should be able to find a more efficient way to re-direct these resources to the people of Swaziland, so that they could get real empowerment and begin to assert their democratic rights the way the people in the Middle East are doing it.
Yes, I think as far as the moral side of this issue is concerned, the parallel to South Africa under apartheid is appropriate. Many people outside South Africa supported the struggle of the South African people. There can be no such thing as a neutral position on such issues - anyone who cares to think about this problem, either leans "for" or "against". Anyone who lives within a thousand miles from Swaziland will tell you that the king is plundering the country and destroying the economy, keeping his people in the stone age. This is starting to take disastrous proportions. People are desperate. Hundreds are dying of AIDS and tuberculosis every day because of the poor living conditions and the lack of health care, and the specific sexual practices in that society. The UN has concluded that if this trend continues for the next few years, there is a real threat to the very existence of the Swazi nation. And many of these problems are a direct consequence from Mswati's actions, or lack of actions, and this warrants the intervention of the African Union, and ultimately, the International court.
In turn, Coca Cola keeps claiming that they are abiding to the "highest ethical standards" and their goal has always been to be "a good corporate citizen of every society where they work". In fact this is confirmed by the fact that they did dump South Africa back in 1987 due to the apartheid regime, and opted to move to Swaziland because of their stance on the issue. So it's not like they do not have a record of taking the right stance on political issues. What is being asked from them is to do it again, and show some consistency.
Coca Cola still denies the claims that their primary motivation for staying in Swaziland during all this time has been the sugar-cane that is grown everywhere across the country. They claim their raw material does not contain sugar. They deny the claims that the king personally owns shares at the local factory, and they promise that Mswati III does not get any dividends and profits from Conco Swaziland (the name of the factory). And that Conco, just like all other raw-material processing factories, are 100% Coca Cola property.
However, when they were asked in what way the king is using the tax income from Coca Cola's activity, and whether he is not embezzling these resources, the company has of course declared that Coca Cola, just like any other tax-payer, is in no position to know and/or decide what the taxes it pays would be used for. Because they do not want to mess into the political agenda of the countries where they do business. Coca Cola claims their reputation rests upon the quality of their products alone, and the good production practices, and the safety of their workers and the observance of international law and the laws of every host country - and nothing beyond that. But, like I explained above, this has not been the pattern that this and other companies have established over the years.
What is left for Coca Cola is to take the right decision one more time, and prove that corporations can be good citizens too, capable of contributing at least a little to a more just world. Because there are too many Swati-s around the world, and they are able to thrive exactly because some people think that "money doesn't stink", therefore it is OK to give it to them no matter if they are evil murderers or crooks. But it does. Money stinks. The question is if you want to sniff it, or you would choose to hold your nose.