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Swaziland's stock exchange waits for bulls - or bears

The government hopes the exchange, opened Sept. 1, will boost the economy.

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On the edge of town in a small, unimpressive conference room with two dry-erase boards on otherwise bare walls is the great hope of the country's struggling economy. This is the trading floor of Swaziland's new stock exchange.

With two licensed brokers, five listed companies, and just four stock purchases since its opening on Sept. 1, this is Africa's newest and smallest exchange.

In this tiny mountainous kingdom where most of the 1 million residents eke out a living as subsistence farmers, a stock exchange may seem like an unnecessary folly. After all, if only 15,000 households in the entire country can afford a television, who will buy stocks?

Swazi government officials, however, see things differently. They call the exchange the engine of Swaziland's future. It will not only boost this landlocked country's economy, they say, but also transform it.

Thus far, such an impact is purely wishful thinking. At 3 p.m. each working day, the two brokers and two exchange employees gather around the pine conference table to buy and sell. The sessions last less than five minutes.

"We usually end up talking about the weather," says Sipho Dlamini, one of the two exchange employees.

Historically, Swaziland has been an economic colony of South Africa, which surrounds it on three sides. For decades, Swazi men have labored in coal and gold mines there. Thousands still do, sending their meager earnings home to their wives and children.

Meanwhile, moneyed white South Africans made the reverse trek, buying huge swaths of Swazi land and establishing successful businesses. Of the five largest employers in Swaziland today, four are South African-owned. The other is American.

The new Swazi exchange, says Kokuthula Dlamini (no relation to Sipho), a Swaziland Finance Department official, will help reverse this trend by providing capital to Swazi-based businesses.

"If we can develop Swazi-owned businesses," says Michael Matimela, one of the two brokers, "that will stabilize our local businesses and strengthen our economy."

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