/ 13 April 2011

Swazi police break up protest with tear gas, batons

Swazi police fired tear gas and water cannons, beat protesters with batons and made scores of arrests on Tuesday to stop a banned march against Africa’s last absolute monarch.

Unions had called for a pro-democracy demonstration in the main city Manzini to rally against King Mswati III, who is accused of bankrupting state coffers with his luxurious lifestyle in a country beset by poverty, hunger and Aids.

Police aimed tear gas and water cannons at about 1 000 teachers and students marching to Manzini, then stormed the teachers’ union offices when the group sought refuge there.

“Police are now beating the teachers. They are throwing tear gas and beating teachers. People are running helter skelter. Police are beating us with batons,” said Smangele Mmema, spokesperson for the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, one of the main groups behind the protest movement.

At least 100 people were detained on Tuesday, including a dozen top labour and civil society leaders, said Vincent Dlamini of the main civil servants’ union.

“We have sent a strong signal. They will say they have crushed the march but they have had to brutalise people to do it,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“The people’s spirit cannot be dampened. People are now angry. Most have been assaulted for nothing. Protesters were not violent, the police were violent and people who were on the sidelines have now clearly seen the brutality.”

‘Proper procedures’
Swazi Foreign Minister Lutfo Dlamini defended the police crackdown, saying “proper procedures” had not been followed to get permission for the march.

“Government believes it is every Swazi’s right to engage in protest action. Unfortunately in this case procedures have not been followed,” he told journalists.

Dlamini said protesters had pelted police with stones and that two officers had to be hospitalised. He said he knew of no other casualties and had no information on arrests of protesters.

Police spokesperson Wendy Hleta confirmed some organisers had been held for questioning but said she did not know the number of arrests.

“We have taken some people for questioning because their names appeared on foreign media reports saying that they were going to overthrow the government,” she said.

“This is not an issue of protest but of overthrowing the government, which is a serious issue we needed to take care of.”

SA remains silent
Two AFP journalists were among six reporters for foreign media briefly detained while covering the protest, according to their organisations.

Labour unions last month staged the biggest protests seen in years in Swaziland but authorities banned Tuesday’s protest, called by a coalition of civil society and trade unions under the banner of the Labour Coordinating Council.

Police have been carrying out raids on activists since last week.

The king has not spoken publicly about the protests, but sent his top advisers to meet with union leaders last week in a failed bid to convince them to drop the protest plan.

With 13 wives and a fortune estimated at $100-million, Mswati is ranked by Forbes magazine as among the 15 richest monarchs in the world.

But nearly 70% of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day, the unemployment rate is 40%, and 25% of adults have HIV, the highest rate in the world. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world, at 32,5 years.

Unions called for the protests to mark the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties.

The protest movement has strong support from unions in neighbouring South Africa, key backers of President Jacob Zuma. Swaziland’s economy depends entirely on its larger neighbour, but South Africa’s government has remained silent on the protest. — AFP