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Economic meltdown may be just the fuse Swaziland needs

The road from Ngwenya, Swaziland’s main border post with South Africa, is tarred and smooth and bordered by lush green fields and rolling hills with giant billboards that advertise everything from traditional dancing and craft centres to white-water rafting and game drives.

In gleaming hotel lobbies, glossy brochures make much of the fact that Swaziland is Africa’s only absolute monarchy “which embraces and upholds its own unique and ancient traditions” making it a “very special place to visit”. But although King Mswati III and his 13 wives may prove a draw for holidaymakers, his undemocratic system of governance is fast losing its shine among his subjects, 69% of whom live on less than $1 a day.

In fact, Swaziland may be on the brink of fiscal collapse. A sudden drop in revenue payments from the from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), caused by a reduction in overall regional import revues following the global financial crisis and a proposed revision of the revenue-sharing formula, has left a large black hole in Swaziland’s finances.

If left unchecked, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the country’s public debt could swell to 75% of its GDP within just four years. Critics say the Sacu revenue fall is just the tip of the iceberg and that Swaziland’s real problems stem from years of financial mismanagement and overspending by King Mswati III and his 13 wives.

King Mswati III dances in front of maidens at the royal palace in Swaziland during the annual Reed Dance. The Reed Dance allows Mswati to choose a wife, if he wishes. Mswati currently has 13 wives. (Reuters)

‘Broke government’
“Our government is seriously broke,” says Bheki Makhubu, the editor of the country’s only independent publication, the monthly magazine The Nation. “We’ve been living off the Sacu revenues for a decade and even though the finance minister has been saying the money is running out, people have been ignoring him. This is not a mistake, it is poor leadership and arrogance and a refusal to face reality.”

The IMF forecasts “social upheaval” across the country if action is not taken swiftly. It could be right. Economic breakdown may be what finally forces Africa’s last absolute monarchy to open the door to democratic rule.

Even the king has begun to acknowledge publicly the country’s economic situation. At the opening of Parliament earlier this month, Mswati urged his subjects to work harder: “Each one of us should put in an extra effort so that we can double our national output. In challenging times like these, our workforce should develop a new work ethic and mind-set of not being driven by the clock, but by the amount of work that needs to be done.”

Now, with his ministries slashing up to a quarter of their budgets, wages are starting to go unpaid, street lights are being switched off, roads are unmaintained, government vehicles — including public buses — are grounded because of a lack of spare parts and petrol, and hospitals are running short of medicine. The reduction in public transport means rural women are not able to get to market, therefore selling less produce and struggling to pay their ­children’s school fees.

Salom Gamedze, a 42-year-old who lives in a traditional rural homestead in Maphungwane in the Lubombo region of eastern Swaziland, has never had electricity, sanitation or a clean water supply. Her small maize field has allowed her to make ends meet, but this year has been different. The maize harvest has been weak, her husband has no job and they could not afford to pay for an ox to plough their fields. As a result, she has been unable pay the school fees for her three teenage daughters.

Bobongile Masilela (29) sells fat cakes at a local school to survive. She lives with her husband, son and ailing grandmother (86) in Siteki. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Gamedze’s neighbour, Mamsi Matsentjwa, shares her frustrations. Her husband recently lost his job and the 47-year-old explains how their family of 12 is struggling.

“Today my husband had to take our second to last cow to market because this is the only way we can pay for our children to go to school. Soon, we’ll have no more cows left. Then what will we do?”

Matsentjwa is one of the many ordinary Swazis who have recently found their voice, with the help of the Swaziland Council of Churches (SCC). The group’s Sibongile Dlamini is currently running workshops around the country to help rural communities discuss issues such as human rights and government accountability. “When people were comfortable and nothing was touching their lives, they were saying we were radicals and that we were anti-monarchy,” Dlamini says.

“But now people are starting to say today I slept without food, what is the role of government there? I’ve been sleeping in a house where I can see the stars, what is the role of government there? I’ll go to the clinic and I won’t have drugs, what is the role of government there? Things are affecting the everyday lives of the people and they are starting to question what government is doing about it.”

Makhubu, who has seen the inside of several police cells and is currently facing legal action for his recent article on the judiciary, says most people are still too worried to speak out against the king or the government, not so much because of criminal action, but more to avoid conflict at work or in their community.
“For most people supporting the king is about making sure you get a good job so you can support your family. That is how it works — you need to say the right things to the right people to get on in this country.”

But the right things are tough to say in a bad economy. In a bid to balance the books the finance ministry recently announced it would slash 7 000 jobs from its bloated public sector (the second-largest in sub-Saharan Africa after Lesotho) and reduce non-essential public spending.

Many parents cannot afford the school fees to send their children to Ezulwini Catholic Primary School. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Unemployment and poverty
Vincent Dlamini, the general secretary of the Swaziland National Public Services and Allied Workers’ Union (Napsawu), says the policy will increase unemployment (already estimated at 46%), add to poverty and place impossible pressure on already overstretched public services. He says the government’s policy could backfire in civil society’s favour.

“The problem in Swaziland, is yes, economic, but fundamentally it’s about the manner in which we are governed,” he says. “In the past people would say they didn’t want to talk out because they might lose their job or not get their salary, but now that the government has no money, they feel that they have less to lose.”

In the context of what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it might seem easy to be optimistic about Swaziland’s future. But just as Zimbabwe’s financial meltdown was unable to unseat President Robert Mugabe, there are no guarantees for the Swazi people. And some warn that although the king must go, there is no credible alternative to rule the country.

Regardless of how far they will go, the wheels of change are definitely starting to turn in Swaziland. As well as opening up its usually secretive budget books to the IMF, which is working with the finance ministry on a staff-monitored programme with a view to a cash loan in the longer term, the government recently secured a $26.9-million credit from the World Bank to strengthen local government service delivery.

Teams from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have also made several visits to investigate complaints about violations of ILO conventions regarding freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The ILO’s Pretoria director, Vic Van Vuuren, says he believes the country is moving in the right direction.

“The labour Acts restricted the implementation of these conventions. We talked about that and they have since changed clauses in the law to accommodate our concerns. It was encouraging,” Van Vuuren said.

General secretary of Napsawu Vincent Dlamini believes the most recent policy by government to cut jobs will backfire. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Working with government
The ILO is also trying to work with the government to reform its controversial Suppression of Terror Act. Under the 2008 legislation, any criticism of the king or government is treated as an act of terror, a law that has been liberally applied to human rights activists and union members.

Labour activist Sipho Jele, who was arrested for wearing a People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) T-shirt at a May Day workers’ rally last year, died in police custody amid allegations of torture, although official reports said he hanged himself. An inquest into his death is still taking place and an update is expected in coming weeks.

Among those following Jele’s case closely is the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), which is based in Johannesburg at the headquarters of the South African Community Party.

Recently, a group from SSN, made up mostly of exiled Swazis, staged a noisy picket line outside the Swazi consulate in Johannesburg to deliver a memorandum of demands that included scrapping the terrorism Act and the establishment of a multiparty democracy. Several members wore Pudemo T-shirts bearing Sipho Jele’s photograph, which would not have gone unnoticed by the Swazi consul, who listened to the shouted demands before taking the memorandum and scuttling away.

Meanwhile, the South African government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) both appear mute on many of the issues facing Swaziland.

Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela wrote in a email response to the Mail & Guardian that while the “South African government is aware of reports of alleged human rights violations including allegations against the Swazi security establishment— the current political situation in the Kingdom of Swaziland is not on the agenda”, adding that South Africa “cannot take unilateral initiatives outside of the framework of SADC”.

The response will come as no surprise to Musa Hlope, the coordinator of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, an umbrella group of civil society organisations. He says he has long given up on groups like the SADC.

“There was a time when we believed that the SADC and its leadership could come to our rescue, but we don’t believe that it’s possible now,” Hlope says. “What we do believe in, though, is that if the people, the ordinary people, can take to the streets and pressure their governments to look at Swaziland, then something can happen. But governments on their own are a lost cause. You can look at what they did with Zimbabwe and we are nothing compared to Zimbabwe.” For Napsawu’s Dlamini it’s going to take much more than talks. It’s going to take a complete mind shift.

“The government has marketed Swaziland as a tourist destination and cultural heaven, so all people ask me about when I’m outside Swaziland is how many wives the king has and when the girls are going to be dancing,” he says. “We need to give the other side of Swaziland, in which people are not able to express themselves and have a government of their own choice.”

Matsentjwa admits she was afraid to go to the civil society discussions at first, but that has begun to change. “I have realised that if I don’t say something, then who is there to say something on my behalf? These workshops have been eye-opening. They have given us the capacity to discuss issues that needed discussing.”

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