Swazi loan ‘like giving money to a drunk wife-beater’

Swazi pro-democracy campaigners on Thursday urged South Africa not to give their country financial assistance without imposing conditions aimed at steering the troubled kingdom towards negotiations for a transitional government.

One campaigner likened offering a financial bailout to the beleaguered kingdom to giving money to a drunken wife-beater.

A delegation of union leaders and activists, as well as politicians from two banned political parties, travelled to South Africa to personally lobby against the handout, which is believed to be in the region of R1.2-billion.

After addressing reporters in Johannesburg they were due to meet members of the South African Communist Party and other government officials, and visit a number of Western embassies.

Mario Masuku, the leader of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), said: “We need a commitment from our head of state and government, that they are prepared to work towards a democratic process in Swaziland.”

“We want all political parties unbanned and all political prisoners released,” said Masuku. “We want the scrapping of the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act; and we want to work towards setting up a transitional government moving in the long term, towards a new constitution and, eventually, free elections.”

“We appreciate this is a long-term goal and it will not happen overnight, but we need a commitment to this process,” she added.

On the question of whether they would retain a constitutional monarchy or do away with the throne altogether, Masuku said that would be for the people of Swaziland to decide.

Swaziland has approached South Africa, cap in hand, after a 60% drop in its revenues from the regional customs union (Sacu) plunged it into a financial crisis that has seen wages go unpaid and public services grind to a halt.

Attempts to access funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) stalled after Swaziland failed to carry out the fiscal reforms specified in the institutions’ lending conditions.

SA comes clean
Two weeks ago, South Africa’s ministry of international relations and cooperation finally confirmed — after much speculation — that Swaziland had asked it for financial assistance. On Wednesday, minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters this was still being considered.

Although she stopped short of revealing any conditions a loan might have, the minister said: “The South African government has urged all relevant parties in the kingdom to begin a political dialogue with a view to speedily and peacefully resolving all the challenges facing the country.”

She added: “The government will also have to improve its governance and fiscal management system. A strengthened foreign direct investment portfolio would also help to mitigate the financial crisis.”

Veteran democracy campaigner Musa Hlophe, who heads the Swaziland Coalition for Concerned Civil Organisations (SCCCO), said poor financial management and economic policy were as much to blame for Swaziland’s downfall as its non-democratic system of governance, where the king has absolute power.

“If Swaziland were a company it would have been bankrupt by now, because of how it has been managed,” he said.

Quid pro quo
Offering a financial bailout to Swaziland “is like giving money to a drunken wife-beater”, said Hlophe, and he urged South Africans who had been helped by the Swazi people during the days of apartheid to use this opportunity to bring regime change to his country.

This week’s delegation to South Africa comes after months of unrest in Swaziland, where labour unions and teachers have been calling for the prime minister to resign, and striking over plans to cut the wages of civil servant.

On April 12, the anniversary of a 1973 decree banning political parties in Swaziland, the Swazi police came under fire for heavy-handed tactics and their use of tear gas and water cannons to put down anti-government demonstrations, during which several journalists were arrested.

Hlophe said the SCCCO was calling for peaceful reform and transition but warned that there was a risk that the situation could get worse should the government continued to refuse to engage.

He also added that while Swaziland had diplomatic ties with Taiwan, one of its key sources of foreign direct investment, through textile factories, he had heard that the government was considering approaching China to secure financial backing.

“If South Africa does not give Swaziland this bailout then it may seek solace elsewhere, and that could mean turning to China. It is a wild card but it is possible.”

Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy, ruled over by King Mswati III, who has 13 wives and maintains luxurious lifestyle.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of his subjects live in poverty, 40% are unemployed and one in four are HIV-positive, the highest rate in the world.

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