Several hundred Swazis, including people with HIV, marched on August 21 to highlight the need to prioritise funding to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country.
The protesters had been spurred by reports that eight of King Mswati’s 13 wives had taken a trip to the Middle East and Asia.
The king’s office at Lozitha Palace would not reveal the nature of the trip, but the Swazi media noted that the wives were taking advantage of the school holidays to travel with their children.
“This is the first time commoners have risen up to say, ‘Enough!’ The country’s resources must not just be used by royalty. What about the masses?” said Amanda Dlamini, one of the marchers.
“King Mswati declared Aids a national emergency, and said if nothing is done there will be no Swaziland. But we are dying, and they [the royal family] are flying.”
Two-thirds of Swaziland’s people live in chronic poverty, according to the UN Development Programme, and 26% of adults are HIV-positive, giving Swaziland the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.
After the worst-ever harvest in 2007, production improved in 2008 but is still below the national requirement, while the global food and fuel crisis has further contributed to the chronic food insecurity.
“I was dismayed when I learnt that not only had the wives travelled, but their bodyguards, maids and children were flown too,” said protest organiser Siphiwe Hlope, director of Swazis for Positive Living, an Aids support organisation.
“There are many problems that are engulfing the country and, as we speak, there is a shortage of not only antiretroviral drugs but other drugs in our hospitals. The elderly do not get their pensions, but public funds are used for the queens’ travel,” said Hlope.
The first-ever march to protest against royal activities drew attacks from royal and government officials. Government spokesperson Percy Simelane and traditional Prime Minister Jim Gama condemned the marchers’ plan to wear black as an affront to traditional mourning customs.
“Women do not take to the streets! Do they have permission from their husbands to do this?” Gama said to reporters.
Without revealing how the queens’ trips were financed, King Mswati’s older brother, Prince Jahmnyama Dlamini, said, “People always think that the royalty uses taxpayers’ money at all times; the royal family has its own properties and [is wealthy].”
The march moved through downtown Mbabane at a slow pace to accommodate HIV-positive marchers, while some women lay down on the pavement to demonstrate starvation.
Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, was detained by police and could not participate.
Sithole said a major workers’ demonstration was planned for September 3, three days before King Mswati’s 40th birthday celebration, which has been declared a national holiday and will be marked by publicly financed celebrations.
The daily Times of Swaziland newspaper commented on August 22: “How the king wants to move this country forward, either through power-sharing or absolute control, will determine if the monarchy has another 40 years to celebrate.”