An Interview with Earl Irving, Former U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland

Swaziland ambassadorAmbassador (Ret.) Earl M. Irving joined the U.S. Department of State in January 1983. He served as Consul General in Melbourne, Australia (2005-2008); Political Counselor to U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States (2003-2005); and Labor Counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City (2001-2003). Irving also held the positions of Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe (1998-2001) and Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate in Recife, Brazil (1995-1998). Prior to retiring from the Senior Foreign Service, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland from 2009-2012. Irving currently serves as Senior Adviser to the Franklin Fellows Program at the Department of State. The program matches professionals, who have relevant work experience in the State Department and USAID, with unremunerated positions associated with the U.S. diplomatic mission to the United Nations.

The Politic:  Coming out of school, what led you to join the Foreign Service?

I grew up overseas. My father was a geologist and his career took him to various countries around the world. So I was born in the Philippines and lived there for three or four years before we moved to Brazil, where he managed a mining company. After that, we lived in Colombia for a number of years — I actually graduated from high school there. Virtually my entire childhood and adolescence were spent overseas, and I found I had a real liking and predisposition for [living overseas]. I found that I might best serve in that capacity as a Foreign Service Officer. Also, while I was overseas — I actually spent my junior year abroad in Moscow in the USSR and stayed there for four months — seeing how people lived in those conditions there pretty much set me on a path to working for the US government.

The Politic:  Why Swaziland in particular? What aspects of your experience or your nature predisposed you to working with this nation?

Most of us who joined the FS ended up specializing in a geographic part of the world, and mine turned out to be split between Latin America and Africa; I would say 60-40, Africa having more. Swaziland was just the ambassadorship that I was given when the time came. I had served in Zimbabwe and South Africa, so I was familiar with the sub-region in the African continent. In particular, I had worked a lot in Southern Africa, having served in Pretoria for four years during the transition from apartheid to nonracial democracy. While there, I would previously been in Swaziland, so I had an idea that it was a country that depended largely on South Africa. I understood South Africans reasonably well, which became a very useful understanding to have, because any time something went on in South Africa, it affected Swaziland.

The Politic: Speaking of the relationship between Swaziland and South Africa, Swaziland has historically been so reliant on South Africa for economic and infrastructural support that there has been talk of dissolving the borders altogether. Do you see this as a conceivable outcome in the future?

One occasionally heard, in Swaziland, talk of federating into and coming in as the tenth province, if you will, of South Africa. And you’re right: [Swazis] are very dependent on South Africa. They receive funds from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), which is a mechanism through which Pretoria gives refunds from customs and taxes to a number of small states on its borders. It was kind of a foreign aid program that they had in place to keep their border states happy and at peace. And certainly, most of the business in Swaziland is South African: any supermarkets you go into, any department store. Most foods, in fact, come from South Africa, and a lot of Swazis cross into the country for work. So it is hardly distinguishable from a South African province, except for the fact that Swazis and the royal family themselves really have no interest in becoming part of South Africa.

The Politic:  How do you see Swaziland maintaining a distinct cultural identity from South Africa?

Swaziland will maintain a distinct identity as long as the monarchy exists and as long as the thought continues that Swazis are different. They have a king and are thus culturally distinct. They see themselves as quite different from South Africa, as they part company on matters of governance. I do not believe South Africa is anxious to take in another country and all of its challenges. Both sides see their interests in maintaining the status quo. [The Swazis] have this homeland, and as long as South Africa continues to send money to their coffers, they will continue to enjoy independence.

The Politic:  Right now, this financial dependence is an issue of concern, especially in regard to a deepening fiscal crisis in Swaziland. What role, if any, do you see the United States taking in helping create a more fiscally responsible and self-sufficient Swaziland?

The fiscal crisis was one that was set off by how the government managed its budget, and they depended extraordinarily on the receipts from the SACU. About 60 percent of the government’s operating budget is attributable to money they get from South Africa, and they have been depending on that on some level for a number of years instead of creating any alternative source of income for the country. So when in 2009-2010 there was a significant drop from 6 billion to 1.9 billion rands, Swaziland found itself in a panic and basically started slowing down on paying its bills and reduced funding to certain operations of government. But they did, to the maximum extent possible, keep the civil service employed — there were no furloughs or retrenchments. So, though the situation was pretty dire the first year, by the third year they were back to around 2008 levels in terms of income they were receiving from South Africa.

There was some talk that they would enter into an arrangement with the IMF. [Swaziland] essentially halted that because the IMF wanted them to exercise a prudent transparence of financial operation, and because there was a political imperative to allow greater participation in government, which the government had no interest in allowing. So as far as I understand it, the leadership in Swaziland is fine the way things are, and they’re looking for investors from countries that don’t have the same restrictions that we have in terms of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. There is peace and it is stable, so things are on the rise now. The government does not see it as such a state of crisis, and the population still has a high respect for the monarchy and are fatalistic about their lot.

The Politic: How has the Kingdom of Swaziland sustained its political framework as the only remaining absolute monarchy in South Africa? How has monarchy worked for Swaziland in ways that it has failed for other nations?

A pro-democracy protest in Swaziland
A pro-democracy protest in Swaziland

The institution of the monarchy is over 400 years old, and they have had an unbroken line of kings since then. They have managed to more or less hold on to this bit of territory that is the present-day Swaziland because it is a small country a bit isolated by mountains. So in that sense it was easier to protect; early on it would have been difficult to reach the infrastructure that exists today.

But also, the kings that ruled Swaziland in the past were very good diplomats. They understood that there were stronger forces surrounding them, and they made peace or managed to do what they needed to do to survive. And so when the Boers ruled South Africa, Swaziland asked the British to help keep them a separate entity. The British came in as a protectorate – not as colonialists — and there was a degree of internal self-rule. After independence, the monarchy further received credit for the British relinquishing control.

Since then, the King [Mswati III], the royal family, and his advisors have managed to keep their legitimacy and support from their populace, and there is the belief that the best way for Swaziland is to keep what they have at the moment. They point to South Africa as a state all but enveloped in chaos because of democracy. They love to bring images of people throwing rocks or shouting — their criticism of the presidential system there is that it is virtually playing out as an anarchy — whereas in Swaziland there is peace and prosperity. Well, maybe not so much prosperity, but peace, and “we want that over what they have across the border.” Those who disagree have not really found a way to live under the circumstances and have voted with their feet — by moving to South Africa and the surrounding provinces, which have a substantial number of Swazi inhabitants, and settling in towns such as Nelspruit in Mpumalanga province. South Africa is Swaziland’s great pressure valve. Basically, if you disagree, you leave.

The Politic:  In some of her current interviews, current Ambassador Makila James stresses that one of the United States’ goals in Swaziland is to increase democratic governance. In light of the fact that support for the current system remains strong in the community, how can the U.S. strike a balance between the fundamental ideals it maintains and the will of the people of Swaziland?

I would disagree with an assumption that the people reject democracy, because there has never been a Gallup poll, a true referendum, on whether people want to continue with the monarchy or have another system of government. But Swazis are by and large a very peaceful folk. They are very patient people who have the ability to really bear a lot of pain and suffering with dignity, so we do not know for sure if it is cultural or true agreement with the status quo. Most people think that they do not have any means to change the situation, and most people are not really aware of what their rights are as guaranteed by the constitution. It is not really something that’s taught in schools, that is talked about in public much. Certainly, there is a very dedicated cadre of people in society who wants to change things. But we have worked with them, and, again, because there are no easy ways to measure popular opinion, we don’t know how representative that is. But we keep the flames alive in talking to people who share our values.

The Politic: Going along with what you’ve said about most Swazis not being familiar with their rights, there seems to be a growing human rights concern over the direction the country’s taking. As Ambassador to Swaziland, how did you promote quintessential American ideals, such as freedom of expression and rule of law?

I did a lot of public speaking, and I always tried to keep some aspect to that effect in my talks. I told the people that the assistance we were providing to Swaziland was for the people of Swaziland from the people of the United States. I talked about how in America, we work, we pay our taxes, and we believe that the government is accountable to the people. And that’s something that we believe in helping others to achieve as well.

We also sponsored a number of NGO’s to come and to work on democracy promotion with groups in Swaziland. They taught people negotiation skills and set up in parliament more effective record keeping with a view of bolstering and promoting institutions. We used the embassy for a discussion forum. We opened it to the government and to opposition and had some very interesting talks on a weekly basis when we were there. After a while, we had senior people from the government and from the King’s advisory council come to explain and try to bridge some misunderstandings. We still do that, and we believe that ultimately we will succeed — probably in the longer term, but you have to tend that garden.

The Politic: Would you say there is a person, experience, or event in Swaziland that has greatly influenced your policies?

The democratic forces that exist in Swaziland at the moment are small and underfunded or downright penurious, but there is certainly a great deal of conviction. However, it is fairly easy for the government to sow confusion and keep the lid on these groups, because the government is so much stronger and so much more able to control the people. [The government] cannot control the activists, but it can definitely scare off their potential followers.

However, there were people to inspire me like Sibongile Mazibuko, who is the woman president of the teachers’ union there. She is very outspoken, very strong, and led the teachers on a number of marches and demands that made the government sit up and listen. She is wonderful — a woman of real courage — so we nominated her for Secretary Clinton’s International Woman of Courage Award. And though she did not win it, she was one of the twelve finalists.

The Politic: Looking back on your career, what was the largest challenge you faced working as an ambassador or with the Foreign Service in general?

One of the big challenges I faced was trying to “understand the other guy:” to see where my counterparts in government were coming from, to understand what their interests were, and to try to figure out how we could come to some kind of common ground to advance our agenda. It was very difficult to talk to people in the government of Swaziland about opening up political space for the opposition, but I did. Not sure what kind of hearing I got, but we tried. In terms of, for example, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which was the biggest issue on our plate and the one to which we devoted most of our resources, we tried to understand how the government did or didn’t work in providing service to the people on the ground. We were constantly advising them to decentralize and make services more available to the population at large, and we tried to bolster institutions. We believed that strong, efficient and liberal institutions were in the interest of everyone, but there was always the suspicion on the other side that we were trying to do more than cure people. So yes, understanding and putting plans into effect was one of our biggest challenges.

The Politic: In the HIV/AIDS pandemic, how effective were the measures the U.S. took? What worked?

I would say that the measures we did take were largely successful. HIV/AIDS is a problem that has been with Swaziland for at least 25 or 30 years, its extent being the dubious distinction that Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. We do not have American doctors or industries there but are rather working with Swazi institutions to serve the population. We have contributed money for purchasing medication, depending on what viruses prevailed. We helped bolster the Swazis’ ability to combat tuberculosis, which is often paired with HIV. We have provided training over the years, and we have raised people’s consciousness that this is a disease — they know how you can get it and what they can do about it. And the Swazis have tried a number of public information campaigns. Some were more successful than others, but at least today people know how you get it and how you can avoid getting it.

The odd and counterintuitive fact we have learned is that the prevalence, which in 2007 was estimated at 26 percent, is now apparently over 30 percent of the population infected. But that is not bad news. That means that there are people who were infected who are alive today, so in some sense people have come to the realization that tracking HIV is not necessarily precise. But a lot of work still has to be done. You have to understand the culture, what is culturally acceptable, and how you can work within that culture in order to help people survive the pandemic. We are still there. It is a program that reached about 40 million dollars a year, which, in a country with about a population of one million people, is a substantial investment.

The Politic: Stepping back, while it looks like the United States’ endeavors in this respect were largely successful, are there other areas in which you find we were not so successful?

King Mswati III with a royal contingent
King Mswati III with a royal contingent

The process of launching a campaign to get people to understand that they have some say over their health, and over their fate, is one that has tried to launch and has been in some ways successful and some ways not. For example, we rolled out a 12-month campaign to try and circumcise up to 150,000 males, because circumcision is actually a very good preventative measure against HIV/AIDS. We did not have as many people taking up the opportunity as we would hoped, even though we’d marketed this very aggressively. The Swazis actually used to circumcise back in the 19th century, but the British put an end to the practice and the memory of it is kind of lost in time. The King tried to resurrect it with our encouragement, but there is still some resistance. We might have done better in taking the time to study the culture a little more and see how we could have used some people that we did not use — like churches and traditional healers. We were not so well-informed.

The Politic: Was this lack of information an issue in areas other than health policy? Outside of medicine, what were the areas in which you felt that we as a country had failed to meet our obligations?

With Swaziland, getting support from American business would have been something we could have done more aggressively. But we cannot really direct Americans to invest in a place that they don’t see as providing a proper return. It is one area where I wish we could have done more.

The Politic: As a whole, how do you think America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

We are doing fine in most places. Obviously there are places in the world in which we have huge differences, but by and large we have a very good cadre of Foreign Service Officers who are doing very good work in most of the world. The Secretary of State has come out and has brought great energy to the post and a sophisticated understanding of foreign policy and the job, and I expect we will be seeing good things in the months and years to come. It is complicated because American foreign policy has so many players that it is not easy for one person or one institution in particular to produce change. I think, again, that the current administration is doing a fine job of looking at where American power can best be applied in trying to save lives. So personally, I am satisfied.

Embassy of the United States to Swaziland:

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Published by Amy Chang

Amy Chang is an Associate Editor of The Politic from Hockessin, Delaware. Contact her at

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