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The Call Of The African Kingdom

Roberto Russo gave up a comfortable life in Australia to set up business in Swaziland. While the country comes with a desirous lifestyle, it has its limitations.

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After a decade studying and working in Australia, Swazi-born Roberto Russo had just been granted citizenship when he took a phone call from his father in Swaziland. The telephone conversation was to change his life’s trajectory overnight.

“I never thought of coming back to Swaziland. I was happy in Perth. But when my old man said to me he was thinking about selling the business I thought ‘what is the worst that can happen?’ I can always go back to Australia. I have not looked back,” says the 35-year-old Russo.

The lay of the land for entrepreneurs in Swaziland and Australia are poles apart. Australia is an open democratic society with a large middle class customer base, government support for emerging businesses, and perched on the doorstep of Asia’s huge and burgeoning economies.

Swaziland is an undemocratic feudal society ruled by sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III. It has a population of 1.3 million, the majority living in poverty, unemployed or practising subsistence agriculture, and a government actively favoring international and local corporations at the expense of small and medium enterprises.

To compound its reputation as an entrepreneurial backwater, Swaziland’s tentative claim to being a stepping stone between the economies of South Africa and Mozambique is wishful thinking at best.

In reality, the construction of world class road infrastructure between the industrial and business hubs of Johannesburg and the port city of Maputo has left Swaziland out of the loop. The South African city of Mbombela boomed at Swaziland’s expense by servicing the trade route.

Swaziland’s national economy is habitually mismanaged for the benefit of Mswati and his expansive royal household and was one of the factors resulting in the country flirting with a financial meltdown in the wake of the global recession in 2008. A lifeline of a $335-million loan from neighboring South Africa was refused as the fine print included political reforms. Financial oblivion was only averted after the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), discovered that Swaziland, as a customs union member, was eligible for an $88 million windfall in 2012 and it came with no strings attached.

The financial crisis was caused by a drop of more than 50% in SACU receipts as a consequence of the recession and squeezed Swaziland’s public sector wage bill that accounts for about 18% of the approximately $4 billion GDP – the highest ratio on the continent.

Russo was clearly looking through a different lens at the business opportunities that existed when he decided to return home in the midst of the country’s financial crisis and swing for the entrepreneurial fences. In the eight years since buying out his father, his businesses have grown eightfold to record a $10 million annual turnover. Russo’s stable includes a paint manufacturer, tool supplier and advertising firm.

Swaziland’s proximity to Mozambique has proved an advantage against Russo’s South African competitors.

“We export seven to eight tons of paint daily to Mozambique. Purely on geography we are able to load two trucks in the morning and make delivery and they are back by 5PM,” he says.

Sandwiched between two countries allows for different business strategies for each, while also benefitting from lower water, electricity and labor costs. Mozambique provides for bulk paint sales, while the South African market offers a niche that sidesteps the competition from South Africa’s thousands of paint manufacturers.

The company supplies specialized paints to a Johannesburg-based architectural firm, including insect repellant paint for malarial areas and paint that can be applied in wet weather.

“We are small enough to be able to custom-make our product to fit client needs… the bigger guys would ask ‘look, how big is the project?’ and it would not be worth their while,” he says.

“One of the downsides of being such a small, isolated country is that you get comfortable at what you are doing, even though you do it well. It’s important to attend tradeshows and ensure we remain current, to give us a competitive advantage.”

Technical staff recruitment can also be difficult.

“There is only a small pool of paint chemists that you can get hold of in southern Africa… but people are quite naive. People in South Africa think that Swaziland is a small little farm town. People that do know the lifestyle we live in Swaziland would come at the drop of hat.”

Swaziland’s formal economy is dominated by corporates, from telecoms to sugar producers. At its center, and controlled by King Mswati III and his coterie, is the opaque Tibiyo TakaNgwane, meaning  wealth of the nation, fund that has shares in many foreign and local corporates operating across diverse sectors.

Tibiyo was envisioned as a national empowerment vehicle and was established by Mswati’s father King Sobhuza II after independence in 1968. From its small beginnings, where every Swazi man was required to donate to it, usually a cow, the fund has grown to an estimated $2 billion. Like Mswati, whose personal fortune was put at $200 million by FORBES in 2008, the fund is exempt from tax, as well as civil and criminal scrutiny.

The fund’s rapid expansion is attributed to many factors, including eviction of small-scale farmers without compensation to grab some of the country’s best agricultural lands for the fund’s sugar interests and the government’s favoritism for contracts, tenders and beneficial regulations to foreign and local corporates the fund has stakes in.

Swaziland has the trappings of a democracy, but is not recognized as one. Mswati and his royal household, government and the state have become all but indivisible.

A small business owner based in Manzini with an annual turnover of R10 million ($770,000), who declined to be identified, says “If you fly too high, you are going to come short if you come up against businesses with government interests.”

“The main driver of business in Swaziland is the government. Pretty much everyone is dependent or indirectly dependent on government,” he says.

Lynette Fraser, Russo’s 38-year-old sister, established her own water bottling business, Viva Beverages, through purifying municipal water using reverse osmosis. She sells about 100,000 500ml bottles monthly and is able to compete with her South African competitors through lower transport costs. There was a business spike recently for sales of her five liter water bottles, after the capital Mbabane experienced debilitating water shortages, where Matsapha did not.

In recent years, she says there is a growing number of entrepreneurs opening businesses, where in the past “a lot of people would go to Johannesburg because the opportunities are just so vast.”

Excluding sugar production, about 90% of Swaziland’s economic activity occurs in the Mbabane, Matsapha, Manzini corridor and entrepreneurs recognize the benefits of businesses being concentrated within easy reach of each other.

But government business involvement remains a debilitating factor. Founder and Managing Director of the internet service provider Real Image, Ali Resting, has wrestled with government for deregulation of the sector, especially a legislative clause giving Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC) exclusive rights for importing bandwidth, resulting in hugely inflated and uncompetitive internet costs stifling investment.

“The first question investors ask is if connectivity is reasonably priced? …It does deter investors if they are spending huge amounts of money towards connectivity, when they shouldn’t have to,” says Resting.

Deregulation would not only act as a lure for companies to invest in Swaziland, it would also benefit connectivity in the region.

“There is an opportunity for Swaziland to become a transit location between Johannesburg, Durban and Mozambique by using it as a conduit for fiber infrastructure. If you can position yourselves to have the shortest route, because the internet is distance sensitive, it makes more sense to go through Swaziland… it’s a huge opportunity,” says Resting.

For entrepreneurs in Swaziland, opportunities seem to be limited to the government.

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation

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Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.


As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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How LinkedIn Is Looking To Help Close The Ever-Growing Skills Gap

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As the job market has evolved, so too have the skills required of seekers. But when 75% of human resources professionals say a skills shortage has made recruiting particularly challenging in recent months, it would appear as though the workforce hasn’t quite kept pace. Now LinkedIn is stepping in to help close the gap.

On Tuesday, the professional social network announced the launch of a “Skills Assessments” tool, through which users can put their knowledge to the test. Those who pass are given the opportunity to display a badge that reads “passed” next to the skill on their profile pages, a validation of sorts that LinkedIn hopes will encourage skills development among its users and help better match potential employees with the right employers.  

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“We see an evolving labor market and much more sophistication in how recruiters and hiring managers look for skills. … We also see a changing learning market,” says Hari Srinivasan, senior director of product management at LinkedIn Learning. “The combination of those two made us excited about changing our opportunity marketplace to make the hiring side and the learning side work better together.”

So how exactly does it work? Let’s say a user wants to showcase her proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Rather than simply listing “Excel” in the skills section of her profile, she can take a multiple-choice test to demonstrate the extent to which she is an expert.

If she aces the test, not only will a badge verifying her aptitude will appear on her profile, but she will be more likely to surface in searches by recruiters, who can search for candidates by skill in the same way they might do so by college or employer. If she fails, she can take the test again, but she’ll have to wait a few months—plenty of time to develop her skillset.   

The tool has been in beta mode since March, and while just 2 million people have used it—a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s 630 million members—early results seem promising. According to LinkedIn, members who’ve completed skills assessments have been nearly 30% more likely to land jobs than their counterparts who did not take the tests.

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“This has been a really good way for members to represent what they know, what they are good at,” says Emrecan Dogan, LinkedIn group product manager.

While new to LinkedIn, the practice of assessing candidates’ skills has been a standard among hiring managers for decades. But when research commissioned by LinkedIn revealed that 69% of employees feel that skills have become more important to recruiters than education, LinkedIn felt as though this was the time to give job seekers the opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.

As important as the hard skills that members can put to the test through LinkedIn’s new tool may be, Dawn Fay, senior district president at recruiting firm Robert Half, encourages those on both side of the job search not to forget the importance of soft skills. “You wouldn’t want to rule somebody in or out just based on how they did on one particular skill assessment,” she says.

“Have another data point that you can use, question people about how they did on something and see if it’s something that can feed into the puzzle to find out if somebody is going to be a good fit.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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Why The High Number Of Employees Quitting Reveals A Strong Job Market

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While recession fears may be looming in the minds of some, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the economy and job market may actually be strengthening.

The quits rate—or the percentage of all employees who quit during a given month—rose to 2.4% in July, according to the BLS’s Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover report, released Tuesday. That translates to 3.6 million people who voluntarily left their jobs in July.

This is the highest the quits rate has been since April 2001, just five months after the Labor Department began tracking it. According to Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, the quits rate tends to be a reflection of the state of the economy.

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“The level of the quits rate really is a sign of how strong the labor market is,” he says. “If you look at the quits rate over time, it really drops quite a bit when the labor market gets weak. During the recession it was quite low, and now it’s picked up.”

The monthly jobs report, released last week, revealed that the economy gained 130,000 jobs in August, which is 20,000 less than expected, and just a few weeks earlier, the BLS issued a correction stating that it had overestimated by 501,000 how many jobs had been added to the market in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. Yet despite all that, employees still seem to have confidence in the job market.Today In: Leadership

The quits level, according to the BLS, increased in the private sector by 127,000 for July but was little changed in government. Healthcare and social assistance saw an uptick in departures to the tune of 54,000 workers, while the federal government saw a rise of 3,000.

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The July quits rate in construction was 2.4%, while the number in trade, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality were 2.6%, 3.1% and 4.8%, respectively. Bunker of Indeed says that the industries that tend to see the highest rate of departuresare those where pay is relatively low, such as leisure and hospitality. An unknown is whether employees are quitting these jobs to go to a new industry or whether they’re leaving for another job in the same industry. Either could be the case, says Bunker.

In a recently published article on the industries seeing the most worker departures, Bunker attributes the uptick to two factors—the strong labor market and faster wage growth in the industries concerned: “A stronger labor market means employers must fill more openings from the ranks of the already employed, who have to quit their jobs, instead of hiring jobless workers. Similarly, faster wage growth in an industry signals workers that opportunities abound and they might get higher pay by taking a new job.”

Even so, recession fears still dominate headlines. According to Bunker, the data shows that when a recession hits, employers pull back on hiring and workers don’t have the opportunity to find new jobs. Thus, workers feel less confident and are less likely to quit.

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“As the labor market gets stronger, there’s more opportunities for workers who already have jobs. So they quit to go to new jobs or they quit in the hopes of getting new jobs again,” Bunker says. He also notes that recession fears may have little to do with the job market, instead stemming from what is happening in the financial markets, international relations or Washington, D.C.

So what does the BLS report say about the job market? “Taking this report as a whole, it’s indicating that the labor market is still quite strong, but then we lost momentum,” Bunker says. While workers are quitting their jobs, he says that employers are pulling back on the pace at which they’re adding jobs. “While things are quite good right now and workers are taking advantage of that,” he notes, “those opportunities moving forward might be fewer and fewer if the trend keeps up.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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