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Swazi students hit the streets to demand democracy

Students in Swaziland demanding democracy and scholarships marched in the capital, their small numbers illustrating the difficulties of igniting a reform movement in sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

The peaceful protest was originally scheduled last week, then postponed as organisers struggled to get it off the ground. On Monday, it drew about 1 000 people, who were closely watched by about 200 riot police and other officers, some in armoured vehicles. Last year, police used water cannons, tear gas, beatings and arrests to put down larger demonstrations.

At one point Monday, the president of the Swaziland National Union of Students, Maxwell Dlamini, tried to address the crowd. Police moved toward him, apparently to arrest him, and other students gathered to prevent him being taken away. Dlamini is free on bail pending trial on previous terror charges. The United States has said the kingdom’s terror laws, adopted in 2009, have been used “to silence dissent and ban certain political organisations”.

Swaziland has been in a financial crisis that government officials blame on declining customs revenue. Government critics say the problem is corruption and misspending.

Swaziland has cut spending on tuition subsidies and school supplies and has taken other steps to rein in its budget.

Monday, protesters carried signs reading “Our time for democracy is now.” Other signs criticised the minister of labour and social security, who is responsible for granting scholarships to university students.

Swaziland’s pro-democracy movement has tried to channel anger over the economy into a campaign for political reform, but many Swazis revere the monarchy, even if they agree the current monarch, King Mswati III, is living lavishly while most citizens live in poverty.

In the past, protesters have called for a new Cabinet to serve the king rather than for the toppling of the monarchy.

Mswati is accused of repressing human rights and harassing and jailing pro-democracy activists in this tiny kingdom wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. Political parties and meetings are banned, and the National Assembly is subservient to the king.

Zakhele Mabuza, spokesperson for the People’s United Democratic Movement, said Monday that organising protests is especially difficult in the rural areas where most Swazis live. There, he said, pro-democracy activists are accused of being “un-Swazi” and failing to respect the kingdom’s cultural traditions.

Mabuza added the violence the government used to put down protests last year has made it difficult to organise other protests. He also pointed to laws banning political parties, the influence of the state-owned media, and the difficulty of using social media in a country where many people aren’t connected.

The main audience for social media platforms created by Swazi activists has been among Swazis and sympathisers living outside Swaziland. Mabuza noted that that at least has the power to embarrass the government, noting that earlier this month, the prime minister told parliament he was drawing up laws to provide for ways to punish those who used social media platforms to criticise the king.

“It’s an indication that the regime is unprepared to democratise,” Mabuza said.

But he said groups like his would keep trying to educate Swazis about change, and keep trying to bring them together for protests.

“Maybe when they are together, united, demanding in one voice, things might change for they better,” he said.” — Sapa-AP

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