bolekaja

Swazis call for change

In rebellion on March 28, 2011 at 6:48 am

Louise Redvers, Mail & Gaurdian

A groundswell of anti-government feeling, including calls for an uprising next month, has gripped Swaziland after more than 8000 people staged a demonstration last week demanding that Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini and his Cabinet resign.

The march – the largest of its kind since the country’s general strike in 1997 and comprising about 6000 teachers — brought the capital of Mbabane to a standstill and sent a strong message to King Mswati III that his subjects want change. Now there is talk of a major uprising taking place on April 12, the anniversary of the controversial 1973 decree that outlawed political parties and made Swaziland the autocracy it is today.

Maxwell Dlamini, president of the Swaziland National Union of Students, one of the few organisations to identify itself publicly with the April 12 campaign, which began anonymously on Facebook, said the plan was to stage “an Egyptian-style occupation of Mbabane”.

“We chose this date because it was when our freedoms were taken away from us; now we want to have those freedoms back,” Dlamini said. “We’re planning the biggest demonstration possible and we’ll occupy the streets of Mbabane until our demands are met, this government resigns and we have democracy for the people of Swaziland.”

Events in North Africa may offer a model, but the country’s own economic crisis is the immediate catalyst. A 40% drop in revenue payments from the Southern African Customs Union has plunged the landlocked country into a fiscal crisis, with the central government deficit on course to reach 13% of gross domestic product by April.

In a country where 40% of citizens are unemployed, 69% live in poverty and one in four between the ages of 15 and 49 years are HIV positive, the shrinking of public services is keenly felt.

The government, led by Mswati, is now actively engaged in crisis talks with the International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank in a bid to secure an emergency loan to plug the widening deficit. Muzi Masuku, Swaziland programme manager for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, said Swazis were starting to feel the pinch financially.

“There has long been a tradition among labour movements and students to challenge the government, but not so much among ordinary people,” he said. “But now, with the economic situation, more people are starting to connect their problems to governance and there is growing support for change.” Masuku said people in rural areas were starting to voice their concerns, which was something new in a country where most fear challenging the government.

Organised by the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, last Friday’s march was officially authorised and passed peacefully, with no arrests of protesters.

CONTINUES BELOW

This is unusual for a country in which public demonstrations are usually marked by violent clashes with the police, but is probably due to Swaziland’s current efforts to lose its International Labour Organisation “special paragraph” status.

The teachers’ association opposes the salary cuts proposed by the International Monetary Fund, which wants to reduce the country’s inflated wage bill. At 46% of expenditure, it is among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Association president Sibongile Mazibuko said her members were not willing to take a pay cut and would do “everything within our powers” to avoid it.

“This government has known for a long time it was in financial trouble and did nothing about it. It continues building a new airport that we don’t need and fails to counter the corruption that is draining public money,” she said.

“The prime minister and his Cabinet have failed the people of Swaziland and our goal is to force them out of office.” Mazibuko said she was still undecided about whether the association would join the April 12 event, but said it was planning “something extremely big”. Her caution around April 12 echoed that of others who have doubts about the motives of the organising group, which appears to be steered from Johannesburg by the Swaziland Solidarity Network, which is run from the South African Communist Party’s offices.

Musa Hlophe, coordinator of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, said: “The April 12 event is getting a lot of publicity in South Africa, but I think it still needs to win the hearts and minds of people in Swaziland.

It can’t just be a one-off event — it needs to be something that engages the Swazi people in a responsible way so that feeling can be sustained in the ­longer term.” This week several Swazi senators urged the government to take precautionary action.

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