/ 20 January 2012

Swazi unions determined to pile pressure on Mswati

Swazi union leaders have warned they will continue to take to the streets in protest unless the government backs down over planned salary cuts and ignores calls for democratic reform.

Africa’s last absolute monarchy was brought to a halt several times last year when labour groups joined forces with pro-democracy activists to call for changes such as the unbanning of political parties and the release of political prisoners.

Their cause was driven in part by an economic crisis triggered by the fallout in revenue from the South African Customs Union and subsequent calls from the International Monetary Fund to cut spending by reducing the country’s enormous public wage bill.

Vincent Dlamini, the secretary general of the Swaziland National Public Servants and Allied Workers’ Union, brushed off recent claims by the government that the delivery of a R7-billion payment from the customs union would solve the country’s financial problems.

“The issues are the still the same, the economic crisis is still happening and they still want to cut salaries and make retrenchments,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

“That figure is only a projection and it is only coming at the end of March,” he said. “Moreover, if the region does not perform to expectation we will receive less. But even if we do get the full R7-billion we know the government has run up a lot of debt in the past year, so it will need to pay that off first.”

Sibongile Mazibuko, the president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, said talks with the government were scheduled and no industrial action had been planned for the immediate future, but warned: “If the deadlock is not resolved, we shall take to the streets.” Dlamini said that it was important that the pro-democracy movement continued to exert “sufficient and co-ordinated pressure” on the government and maintained the momentum it had achieved last year.

“Because of the economic problems in this country a lot of people started to question our governance,” he said. “It is important to maintain that pressure on the authorities because if we don’t use this opportunity and the economy recovers we will have lost our chance for change.”

Last week, Swaziland’s monarch of 25 years, King Mswati III, emerged from a month-long traditional seclusion to greet one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Swaziland’s media reported that its government was planning to import crude oil from the West African country, but economists have laughed off the idea, saying the landlocked kingdom has neither the cash to buy the oil, nor the means or capacity to refine it.

In August, Pretoria — claiming that it wanted to prevent Swaziland from becoming a South African problem through Zimbabwe-style mass migration — stepped up with the offer of a R2.4-billion bailout, but only on condition that the government agreed to some political reforms and engagement with civil society.

However, in spite of Mswati’s initial proud boast that the country’s crisis was over thanks to the loan that he appeared to have personally brokered with long-time friend President Jacob Zuma, it soon emerged the monarch and his advisers were reluctant to accept South Africa’s conditions.

Six months on, no money has been transferred and negotiations appear to have stalled indefinitely.

In November the country was on the brink of a full-scale uprising when Finance Minister Majozi Sithole admitted that the government did not have enough money to pay public servants’ salaries.

At the eleventh hour, however, the government announced it had secured sufficient funding, although it declined to say where it came from.

There has been wide but unconfirmed speculation about the source of the loan, including suggestions that companies in which Mswati himself has shares may be involved, thus earning the monarch interest through the bailing out of his
own kingdom.