Salom Gamedze greeted me with a gentle smile. She was thinner than I remembered and even more softly spoken than when we met more than a year ago during my first trip to Swaziland.
Speaking in siSwati through an interpreter, Gamedze told how she and others in the tiny village of Maphungwane in eastern Swaziland were hungry and desperate.
“The situation is very bad,” she sighed. “Last night we went to bed without any food and this morning I went to the fields where we had been working to get money, but I didn’t get any because they said they didn’t have any.”
The mother of six, who lives in a remote rural homestead, said her husband had not had a steady job for seven years and the family could not pay the school fees for their three teenage children. Her two oldest daughters have found jobs as domestic workers in the capital, Mbabane, 120km away, but they earn only R600 a month each and cannot afford to send money back home.
Gamedze’s face brightened as she told me about a labour broker she had heard about who said he could find people work in South Africa.
Her husband wanted to sign up, she said, but — and smile faded — the family could not afford R100 for the taxi trip to Mbabane where the agent was based.
Forty-three-year-old Gamedze is among the 70% of Swaziland’s population of one million people who live in poverty.
Surviving on social grants
For generations her family has got by through a combination of subsistence farming and government food parcels. But the harvest has not been good for several years and the international charities that came to Swaziland at the height of its HIV crisis are pulling out because of a lack of donor money and are no longer helping as much as they used to.
With the government now steeped in an economic crisis because of a sharp fall in revenues from the regional customs union, the food parcels have also dried up, grants for the elderly are not coming and people are hungry.
The first time I met Gamedze she was reluctant to talk about politics or the monarchy, but this time she did not hold back.
“I agree that our government has got a challenge, but the government should be thinking of the people first and helping us,” she said. “There is a lot of corruption happening in our government.
For instance, we hear of funds being established in the name of the poor, but in the end they don’t assist the poor people.”
She added, cautiously: “Personally, I think it is problematic having a king. There are so many funds coming in from the international community to Swaziland, but because he has a huge family and all those relations, some of the things don’t trickle down to us who are poor.”
Sibongile Dlamini, of the Swaziland Council of Churches, said the country had changed a great deal in the past year and Swazis, who had long been conditioned by the monarchy and the traditional chief structure known as tinkhundla not to question but to accept, were starting to find a new voice.
“I think last year the problems were only starting [and] people still had hope that the situation was going to improve,” she said. “But with the time passing we are seeing that the situation is getting worse and people don’t have enough food on their tables.
“And I think the message that is coming through now is quite clear — people want something different, even though they cannot put their finger on what that is. They want a change because they are suffering.
“The government needs to hear what these people are saying and I have words of caution — that a hungry man is an angry man.”
Labour unions fight against job losses
In the past year there has been a series of anti-government demonstrations, many led by the labour unions that are opposing plans for job cuts. They argue that money could be saved by reducing corruption and slush funds for King Mswati III and his 13 wives.
More marches are planned for the weeks to come: teachers are angry that the government is not meeting its commitment to provide free primary education for orphaned and vulnerable children.
Veteran journalist Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation, a monthly magazine commenting on politics in Swaziland, said he had experienced people becoming increasingly disgruntled. He felt they were losing hope in the country and its government.
“I have been the king’s critic for many years and people who used to say that I hated the king are now saying that maybe I have a point; it’s just that they hadn’t seen it before.
“So there is definitely this slow realisation and, more than anything, people are afraid of what’s going to happen to us. Normally, Swazis would say, well, the king has an answer, but he’s increasingly showing that he doesn’t have the answers.”
Makhubu, who could face prison if he is found guilty of a contempt of court charge relating to an article he wrote about the country’s judiciary, added: “All the indicators say that the economic situation is going to get even worse this year, so it will be interesting to see how people react. I wouldn’t say you’re going to see a revolution yet, but I think there is definitely going to be a shift in mind-set.”
‘The time for acceptance is over’
Swaziland is an absolute monarchy in which political parties are banned, the media is censored and few people dare to speak out against the government.
The country has been ruled by King Mswati III for 25 years. As head of state he appoints the prime minister, Cabinet ministers and a portion of the country’s Parliament.
Traditionalists argue that the system, known as tinkhundla, works well for Swaziland and that, as a sovereign state, it should be allowed to dictate its own path.
But pro-democracy campaigners such as Archbishop Meshack Mabuza argue that tinkhundla‘s lack of accountability means the country is not being governed in the interests of the majority and the economic crisis is a symptom of weak governance.
Mabuza, the Anglican archbishop of Swaziland, said: ‘Tinkhundla has failed Swaziland. People with different interests defend the system, but I can tell you, as a Swazi, it has failed.
“Tinkhundla is a political ideology that means absolute rule and a one-party state. There has been a cultural indoctrination which says that … wisdom should flow from authority, yours is just to accept without question — and I am saying the time for that is long over. The time has come for people to be recognised as humans, dignified and capable of thinking and determining their future.”
But not everyone shares the archbishop’s views. Paul Friedlander, a businessman who has close connections to Mswati, said democracy was not the answer. “Everybody wants to have a vote, but at the end of the day it has to be about efficiency,” he said.
“I believe Swaziland has gone further forward than most countries on this continent in terms of infrastructure and institutions. I’m not going to say there can’t be improvements, but by and large we have a good country that works well.”