Swazi women challenge King Mswati

Hard on the heels of the signing of the gender protocol at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state summit, Swazi women have challenged King Mswati III on the monarchy’s lavish lifestyle in the face of abject poverty and disease.

The protocol calls for 50% representation of women in all levels of government by 2015 and urges member states to put in place legislative measures guaranteeing gender-sensitive political and policy structures.

The protocol also calls for gender-specific approaches to treatment and prevention of HIV/Aids, which the more than 1 000 demonstrators, mainly women and people living with HIV/Aids, demanded in petitions to the Minister of Finance, Majozi Sithole, and Prime Minister Themba Dlamini.

The march was triggered by a recent trip to the Middle East by eight of King Mswati’s 13 wives who left the country with their children, bodyguards, aides and maids by private jet for an undisclosed mission on August 15.

The government remained mum on both the nature of this controversial trip and the source of its funding, but there is a widespread speculation that the Emakhosikati (the king’s wives) were on a shopping spree in Dubai ahead of the double celebration on September 6 of the king’s 40th birthday and four decades of Swaziland’s independence.

On the same day the Emakhosikati left, a separate private plane took King Mswati and Inkhosikati LaDube to the SADC summit in Johannesburg. After the summit, the king himself flew to the Middle East. He only returned to the country on August 27, a day after his other wives.

Neglect of women’s rights
Women’s rights groups led by Swaziland Positive Living for Life (Swapol) called on demonstrators to march to the Ministry of Finance and the prime minister’s office wearing black as a sign of mourning.

Criticising the march, Traditional Prime Minister Jim Gama said the protest was against the Swazi culture and an act by disrespectful women who had taken the fight for women a bit too far.

“Even when women are aggrieved, according to our culture, men have to speak on their behalf,” said Gama.

It was the first time the country witnessed women challenging the king directly and calling on the government to address the issue of his lavish lifestyle at the expense of the taxpayer.

In the event, few women demonstrators turned up in black. But Swapol director Siphiwe Hlophe said while traditionalists, who include Gama, Prince Jahamnyama and Chief Magudvulela, successfully intimidated many people from wearing black, the large turnout drove the point home.

“As women, we have the right to freedom of expression, life, treatment and care, which is what we are calling for through this march,” said Hlophe.

She is not the only one with this opinion.

One of the marchers was Patrick Mngometulu, an HIV-positive volunteer at Imphilo Isachubeka Support Group. “I’m here with my wife and two children because I hope this march is going to touch government’s heart,” he said. He came all the way from Shiselweni, about 148km from Mbabane. “Besides the fact that we take ARVs [antiretrovirals] on an empty stomach, the tablets are now rationed.”

Mngometulu said a number of his peers have stopped taking ARVs because they feel that the rationing of the tablets is a sign that eventually they will run out. As a result, disclosed Mngometulu, about 10 members of the support group have relapsed and are very sick.

Thuli Dlamini (29), who lives at Msunduza in Mbabane, said with the recent 60% hike in bus fares, visiting the Mbabane Government Hospital twice a month has become impossible.

“We used to get 60 tablets to last us the whole month, but now that has been halved because we are told that the ARVs are not enough to give the month’s supply,” she said.

According to Hlophe, 95% of participants in the march were taking ARVs.

Fed up
“Enough is enough” read some of the protest placards.

The ostentatious lifestyle of the king in contrast to an under-funded health system and the fact that two-thirds of Swaziland’s one million people live on food donations is one reason why people from many corners of the kingdom decided to march against King Mswati.

Demonstrators highlighted the plight of the ordinary Swazi who is faced with a deteriorating health and education system, poverty and food insecurity.

The institution of the monarchy takes 5,3% of the $1,3-billion national budget. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare is allocated 10,6%, far below the 15% level called for in the Abuja Declaration on health spending.

“While the country is affected by a number of socio-economic challenges, we find it inappropriate for government to finance some activities that are neither priority nor of interest such as the trip that has been undertaken by Emakhosikati to His Majesty the King, children, aides, bodyguards and their maids,” Hlophe said, while handing over the petition to chief security officer Patin Nxumalo, who stood in for the prime minister.

Estimating the cost of controversial trip at $4-million, Hlophe said Swaziland continues to occupy the unenviable position of having the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, with women bearing the brunt of the scourge.

She reminded the head of government that the Constitution compels the government to introduce free primary education next year.

“However, we have not seen any concerted efforts by government to build more classrooms to accommodate the number of children into school, no increase in the uptake of teachers to cater for the increased number of children in schools, and we have no additional budget for school equipment and materials to cater for the high number of children,” Hlophe said.

On the other hand, the Minister of Finance, Majozi Sithole, was reminded of the contents of his 2008 budget speech where he highlighted the high prevalence of HIV/Aids—26% of the reproductive age group of 15 to 49 is infected with the virus; 69% of the population lives on less than 50 cents a day; and failing health services and poor purchasing and delivery of drugs including ARVs.

“We would be less concerned about this particular trip if it was not funded by the Central Bank, which is money from the taxpayer,” said Hlophe. “What is depressing is that it is the same minister who allocated and approved the funds for the trip of the nine wives, their children, bodyguards and relatives who have left the country to various international destinations.”

The government was given 24 hours to respond to the concerns raised in the petitions. But if what government press secretary Percy Simelane and Traditional PM Gama said was anything to go by, the country’s authorities remained unmoved. Simelane said the government would look at the concerns and, if they were genuine, try to address them.

“If what they are complaining about is reversible, then we can reverse and, if we can’t reverse it, government will see what can be done so that it doesn’t happen again,” said Simelane.

He was quick to point out, though, that sometimes people are misinformed and take to the streets only to discover later that they are fighting for a wrong cause. The government has made no further comment on the issue.

Gama, on the other hand, claimed all these economic and social ills in the country have always been there and were not caused by the recent trip by Emakhosikati.—IPS

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