Protests in Swaziland amid govt crackdown

Swazi police fired tear gas to disperse activists who held anti-government protests for a second day on Wednesday, despite a call to stop the action after a police crackdown.

Union leaders said they had suspended their protest against King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, to re-strategise as fresh arrests and a heavy police presence in the main city blocked activists from rallying.

Hundreds of teachers at first refused to end the protest and police fired tear gas to remove them from an office where they were staging a sit-in.

But the stand-off ended after several hours, said Muzi Masuku, a spokesperson for the Open Society non-governmental organisation, which helped mediate in the crisis.

Masuku told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that police eventually agreed to let the teacher’s trade union (Snat) transport them either to their homes or to a church in Manzini where they would spend the night.

The protesters want the free-spending king to loosen his grip on power and allow multi-party democracy, and are also angry at government proposals to slash salaries for civil servants amid a severe budget crisis.

Unions called for the protests on Tuesday to mark the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties in a country where 70% of the people live in dire poverty and 25% of adults have HIV, the world’s highest rate.

Detained
On Tuesday, police also fired tear gas and water cannons, beat protesters with batons and arrested activists to break up the protest, according to organisers.

At least 100 people were detained, including top labour and civil society leaders, unions said.

“The state has responded with extreme brutality and people feel unsafe. Many of our people are in police cells,” said Vincent Dlamini, general secretary of the National Association of Public Servants and Allied Workers Union.

But most top union leaders who had been detained have since been released, said Dlamini, who was held from Sunday to Tuesday.

Two protest leaders were detained on Wednesday, with one held under house arrest, according to Sipho Kunene, leader of the Swaziland Federation of Labour.

Police patrolled Manzini on Wednesday, arresting people in groups, including four teachers who were speaking to an AFP journalist in a cafe.

“We are not used to seeing so many soldiers. People are afraid of walking to town. I am afraid this is going to affect business,” said one Manzini resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Neighbours
Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini, a staunch royalist, has banned the protest which began as a Facebook campaign modelled on uprisings in North Africa.

Police began setting up roadblocks late last week and have raided the homes of activists.

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.

Life expectancy is the lowest in the world, at 32,5 years.

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 Congress of South African Trade Unions 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. — Sapa-AFP

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