/ 11 October 2011

Breaking down the Swaziland protests

In a series of leaked videos obtained by Mail & Guardian, peaceful gatherings of mixed-age Swazis contrast with hints of the harsh police response that ensued. What exactly is happening in Swaziland and is a North Africa-style revolution in the air?

What was the second Global Week of Action?
The pro-democracy protests of the second Global Week of Action, which rocked major urban centres and rural areas from September 5 to September 9, were part of a tightly organised series of demonstrations uniting the democratic movements in the cities of Mbabane, Manzini, as well as the rural areas including Siteki.

The M&G has obtained footage showing how protests against the regime of King Mswati III flared up in Mbabane and across Swaziland during September’s ‘Global Week of Protests’.

More than 4 000 participants joined the Swaziland demonstrations each day, and parallel protests took place in South Africa, the UK, Denmark and Germany.

The first Global Week of Action began on April 12 in honour of the day in 1973 when King Sobhuza II instated what became the world’s longest-running state of emergency to consolidate power in his Tinkhundla system of absolute monarchy.

These peaceful protests against Sobhuza’s son Mswati III received a harsh police response and began drawing international attention to the human rights situation in Swaziland.

Who’s protesting now and why?

  • Lawyers
    In July, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi suspended Judge Thomas Masuku, who had reportedly been critical of King Mswati III. He then issued directives granting himself greater powers. Finally, he failed to address sexual harassment charges that allege he assaulted female court personnel. Lawyers began boycotting the courts August 1 and have been one of the most active demonstrating groups, protesting during the Week of Action and periodically afterwards.
  • Teachers and students
    At the beginning of the academic year, schools — which had run out of funds — stayed shuttered. “There is no money to do anything in schools. There is no electricity, no water. Nothing has been paid,” said the Principals’ Association chief Charles Bennett. Early in the protest head of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers Sibongile Mazibuko was arrested.
  • Bus drivers
    One driver was given a R6 000 fine for a traffic offence and because he was unable to pay it, he was held in jail. Bus drivers went on strike for the day and subsequently joined the movement.
  • Civil servants
    Government has proposed cutting civil servant salaries to alleviate the inflated wage expenses — 51% of the annual budget.
  • Democrats
    The Swaziland Democracy Campaign, launched in February 2010, pulled together the disparate forces of dissatisfaction. Many with the campaign want a tax on royal investment firm Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, which is used as the royal bank account.

What did the second Week of Action protests look like?
The nonviolent and, at times, jovial protests began in Mbabane outside the Reserve Bank, spreading to Manzini where protesters burned a textile image of Mswati III, and moved into the rural town of Siteki where South African labour forces arrived to lead a rally.

The police response was initially restrained, likely because:

  • With the South African bailout pending, Swaziland wanted its best face showing
  • The country is already dealing with the United Nations Human Rights Commission for alleged violations during the first round of protests
  • The sheer size of the gatherings in such a small country

But as the week drew on, police retaliation escalated. The government announced that there had been “an invasion by non-Swazis”, referring to the over 40 Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) activists who had crossed the border. The police set up roadblocks in rural towns and turned away more than 200 people from the border.

When Cosatu deputy president Zingiswa Losi rose to give a speech in Siteki towards the week’s end, police rolled in canisters of tear gas and shot both live rounds and rubber bullets at protesters. Losi and deputy head of Cosatu’s international department Zanele Matebula were both deported.

Police also lashed out at the estimated 5 700 demonstrators who had gathered in Mbabane. But instead of disbanding, the protesters linked arms and walked towards the baton-wielding police, eventually overpowering them — a surprise for both sides.

The demonstrators hailed Friday September 9 as Liberation Friday.

How much is Swaziland struggling?
Swaziland has lost 60% of revenue from the South African Customs Union — where it finds half its government revenue.

Médecins Sans Frontierès said in early September that they were almost out of HIV testing kits. Drug shortages meant many new patients were reportedly not being put on antiretrovirals (ARVs), while those who are already on ARVs were being given only one month’s supply at a time.

In Swaziland today, 70% of the population live on less than $1 a day, 40% are unemployed, and 25% have HIV. The average life expectancy is at 32.5 — the lowest in the world.

Where does South Africa fall into all this?
The ANC wants democracy in Swaziland. “We call on the government to work towards the normalisation of the political environment,” ANC spokesperson Ebrahim Ebrahim said in a statement. “[Do this] by unbanning opposition political parties, releasing activists and engaging in dialogue with opposition political and trade union leaders.”

South Africa has extended a R2.4-billion loan offer to the cash-strapped kingdom. But, frustrated by the loan conditions — which include allowing South African experts unhindered access to improve the country’s fiscal and budgetary plans and the institution of reforms to stabilise the country’s economy — Mswati reportedly sent Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini to Qatar to meet with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, another of the world’s last absolute monarchs. Rumour is that Dlamini was sent to appeal for financial help that might come without the requirements for democracy that Pretoria attached to its bail out.

So will there by a revolution?
Discussions with protesters, reporters from the Swazi Times and people on the streets of Mbabane have suggested that reform, rather than revolution, is the goal for most.

When people talk about Mswati III, the tone is similar to that which one might use to describe a naughty cousin.

As one nurse said, “Oh yes sisi he’s so stubborn, needs to learn how to listen to us, to improve the schools, and the hospitals are terrible, so we do the protests but,” and here she smiles, “we love him, you know?”