Swazi activists vowed to stage new protests on Wednesday against King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, after a day of mass arrests, teargas and water cannons against their backers.
“We have planned to go ahead today [Wednesday] despite what happened yesterday,” said Mduduzi Gina, secretary general of Swaziland’s Federation of Trade Unions.
“We will just continue and if what happened yesterday continues, then we will not be in control of that,” said Gina.
On Tuesday, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse about 1 000 teachers and students marching to the main city of Manzini, then stormed the teachers’ union offices when the group sought refuge there.
At least 100 people were detained, including dozens of top labour and civil society leaders, according to union leaders.
The protesters want Mswati to loosen his grip on power and allow multi-party democracy, but are also angry at government proposals to slash salaries for civil servants amid a severe budget crisis.
Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini, a staunch royalist, has banned the protest, which began as a Facebook campaign modelled on uprisings in North Africa.
‘We will encourage protests’
Gina said activists would again try to protest in Manzini, despite the heavy presence of armed police through the night and into Wednesday morning.
Police began setting up roadblocks late last week and have raided the homes of activists.
Most top union leaders who had been detained have now been released, according to Maxwell Dlamini, president of the Swaziland National Union of Students, who was held from Sunday to Tuesday.
“We encourage people to stage protests wherever they are. It is difficult to get into Manzini or any city these days. We will see how we are adapting to the new situation, but we will continue,” said Dlamini.
He said students would also join the protests despite “intimidation at campuses”, adding that one university had been closed.
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.
South African comment
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 on Tuesday to mark the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties.
Tiny Swaziland is wedged between Mozambique and South Africa. Its economy depends entirely upon South Africa, which finances most of the Swazi government’s income through a regional customs union that sees Pretoria lavish money on its smaller neighbours.
South Africa’s largest labour federation Cosatu has vocally taken up the Swazi protesters’ cause, holding a solidarity rally on Tuesday at a key border post.
South African President Jacob Zuma, currently in China for a summit of major emerging powers, has yet to comment on the unrest. — AFP