Saturday, April 9, 2011


To a growing number of Swazi people, the bravery of the people in the north of their continent who have taken a stand against decades of dictatorial rule has meant only one thing: inspiration. Rowena McNaughton, CIVICUS media officer, writes.


Even the youth of the African monarchies are feeling the Egypt effect

While campaigning the international press to look to his embattled home nation, Musa Hlophe, hailed as the grandfather of the Swaziland human rights movement, surmised that if his home country, Swaziland, was a business it would be technically broke.

Since its parliament handed all power to the Swazi King 34 years ago - at the time King Sobhuza II and now King Mswati III - the tiny southern African nation has become one of the world’s most controlled countries. Already one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, King Mswati III has stretched his power so that he not only has complete power to appoint the country’s Prime Minister, members of the cabinet and judiciary, but he has also outlawed the Swazi people’s right to engage in governance or, indeed, participate in any meaningful decision making. Widespread control has meant citizens’ rights to access information, and even a free press, have been all but obliterated.

There is no protection of the right to assemble, to associate or to speak. He has absolute control over the nation’s finances. For Mandla Hlatshwayo, an attorney and founding member of the People’s United Democratic Movement, the state of human rights in the country, from which he has been forced to live in exile, is worse than in headline-grabbing Zimbabwe. “We can’t even hold a political meeting.”

But Swaziland is also a country rich in natural resources. “Of all the countries in this region its problems are not due to a lack of resources,” says Hlatshwayo. Where the problem lies is that proceeds of the sales of resources have not gone to priority projects: health and education. Over 80 per cent of the country’s wealth is held by 20 per cent of the elite. The King has seemed happy to indulge his privileged family, friends and government ministers to ensure their loyalty. Local people who once were proud of their self sufficiency are now begging for their bread under spiralling costs of living. Unemployment has fueled unrest amongst its citizens as the country groans under a 40 per cent unemployment level and its people become more and more hungry. These people are given promises but nothing they can eat.

But the real breaking point for Swazis is crippling poverty. Only 30 per cent of Swaziland’s population of around one million have access to more than $1 in spending money per day. Across the country thousands lie waiting to die from HIV-AIDS. The country has the lowest life expectancy in the world at 30 years.

The root cause

The government has been saying to its people that everything is fine. It promises first-rate highways and has pledged to make the nation a shining beacon in Africa by relying on protectionism and sticking to its tribal roots (unfortunately for many, the skewed aspirations leave a hungry populace that can be easily manipulated).

The government’s debt is about $900 million, and growing. Critics, such as Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, complain that the government ministers, mere puppets of the king, pay vast sums for ostentatious projects intended to make them look good. Joannes Mongardini, the IMF’s mission chief for Swaziland, told Swazi civil society that the government had a $50m budget addendum for a new airport project, though the country owns no aeroplanes. It has promised that next will be highways, yet Mazibuko asks: what about hospitals? “Our people are dying”.

The root of the problems that ail Swaziland is corruption. While money has been haemorrhaging from the nation there has not been one minister indicted. While 2 per cent of the country’s population die each year as a consequence of HIV-AIDS and not being able to access the correct medicine, its government is fixated on saying all is fine. According to Hlatshwayo, Swazi society “resembles one that is suffering the effects of a civil war.”

Mounting change

Yet a crushing human rights environment and dictatorial rule seem unlikely to squash the aspirations of a rising number of Swazi youth fed up with oppression. Fueled by the North African and Middle East uprisings, the youth and civil society of Swaziland are mobilising. On 12 April the voice of the people angry at suppression and hungry for bread will be heard on the streets of the nation’s capital, Mbabane, to demand change. Facebook has been the platform for change. “It’s the only legal way we can communicate”, says Pius Vilakati, one of the leaders of the protest and an exile forced to live in South Africa. Vilakati says the objective of 12 April is resolute: an end to the monarchy. “We are not going to move away from the streets until the source of dictatorship is overthrown.”

Heavy-handed response is likely, since already the police have upped their forces.

Human rights activists say the government is passing out guns to the army. Roadblocks are now commonplace and checkpoints are springing up daily. Some say it’s an ideal that only the youth have and question the effectiveness of a group hungry to taste what those in Tunisia and then Egypt achieved. Time will tell, but for Hlophe, a veteran of civil movements whose own son has joined the Facebook movement, perhaps it’s these words that best guide the future of the country: “It’s fair to say that ever since events in the Middle East and North Africa, Swaziland will never be the same.”

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