Calls for donations to King Mswati III's birthday have pro-democracy groups and the international media up in arms.
Calls for contributions to help to pay for King Mswati III’s birthday party next week have sparked anger among pro-democracy campaigners, who have accused the monarch of insensitivity and disregard for his poverty-stricken people.
Mswati, who has been in power for 25 years, turns 44 on Thursday and, as custom dictates, there will be several large events to mark the day that is seen as a highlight on the national calendar alongside the reed dance and incwala kingship ceremony.
But Home Affairs Minister Prince Gcokoma told a Swazi newspaper that the country’s “precarious financial status” meant there was no budget to pay for a celebration. He appealed to local businesses and chiefs to make “meaningful contributions towards making the celebrations a massive success”.
Business panders to Mswati
Several local businesspeople have been publicly reported to have donated cattle and cash to the fund and there are claims that some traditional chiefs in the Shiselweni region, home to the King Sobhuza II Memorial Stadium that is hosting the event, have been asking for cash contributions of R30 from members of the community.
Preaching to an Easter congregation, Mswati appeared to endorse calls for donations when he said: “People tend to cry when they have to make sacrifices, but I would like to urge you to make sacrifices like Jesus Christ, who left heaven and came to Earth to die for our sins.”
The story was picked up by the international media last week, adding to the bad publicity now being heaped on the king and his government, which many label a dictatorship because of its undemocratic system of governance that bans political parties.
The People’s United Democratic Movement condemned Gcokoma’s call and said the party should be cancelled and the money spent on building a hospital instead.
“While the king, chiefs and their hangers-on will be dining and wining, orphans, old aged, disabled and the majority of young, unemployed people will be scavenging for the next meal,” the banned opposition party said in a statement.
Mary Pais da Silva from the Swaziland Democracy Campaign told the Mail & Guardian: “There’s a lot of anger about this. You are looking at a country that is teetering on the brink of an economic crisis and then you have someone hellbent on celebrating his birthday, not even paying the bill himself but getting the ordinary Swazis to contribute.
“He can have a party with his family if he wants, but I think he should leave the nation out of it.”
Mandla Hlatshwayo, a former adviser to the king but now a democracy campaigner living in exile in South Africa, said: “The Swazi traditional authorities are extremely insensitive to expect the poor to fund the king’s birthday.” He noted that the timing was particularly bad, just weeks after the introduction of a 14% sales tax that was introduced to try to balance the kingdom’s precarious finances, which have been left weakened by a sharp drop in revenues from the regional customs union.
In a letter published in the Swazi Observer newspaper last Thursday, government spokesperson Percy Simelane denied that the king had asked the public to contribute towards his birthday.
Donations are the norm
Simelane said it was part of traditional culture for the business community, chiefs and individual persons to “voluntarily contribute in many ways to national events such as the king’s birthday celebrations”.
But Da Silva lamented that Swazi traditional culture was often used as a subtle form of blackmail against the people and that voluntary contributions were never really voluntary.
“People will be forced to donate, because if you don’t it is interpreted as disrespecting the king and businesses and individuals can suffer as a result,” she said.
Hlatshwayo added that the call to “contribute” was common in Swaziland and often came in the form of providing free labour to weed or plough the king’s fields.
The International Labour Organisation had previously expressed concerns about the practice, he said, but most Swazis were too scared to disobey orders in case they were evicted from their land.
Much of the population resides in rural homesteads on what is called “Swazi national land” and are under the strict supervision of local chiefs who, according to a ruling in the country’s high court last month, are at liberty to evict their subjects if they disrespect authority.
Responding earlier this week to the criticism against himself and his government, Mswati made an appeal to his deeply religious nation and said: “We hear people talking a lot of things about Swaziland. We will only pray for them. One day they will see the light.”
He added: “Swaziland is indeed the pulpit of Africa — no one can touch this country as long as we have God on our side.”