6 October 2011
Action for Swaziland
By Jack Storry
Swaziland is small, beautiful country in southern Africa bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. However, it is also Africa’s only absolute monarchy and a country that is currently griped in economic crisis.
King Mswati has ruled Swaziland since 1986 and shows no sign of loosening his grip on power. Political parties in Swaziland are banned and pro-democracy activists face harassment and violence on a regular basis. But despite the oppressive tactics of the regime, the pro-democracy movement in Swaziland is growing.
I visited the country at the start of September with Action for Southern Africa (the successor to the UK Anti-Apartheid Movement), shortly after the pro-democracy movement held its national week of action, and met with numerous groups from the pro-democracy movement. I heard from those groups how thousands of people had come out onto the streets to call for democracy and to protest against King Mswati’s rule.
Despite the protests being peaceful King Mswati’s security forces responded by firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, beating protesters and arresting those they considered to be ringleaders. This kind of response is not a one off – protests in April were met with an even more brutal response. There are also numerous pro-democracy activists who have been imprisoned by the government, some for over a year, and Amnesty International recognises that widespread human rights abuses are taking place in Swaziland.
However, on my visit I also heard a feeling that the tide is starting to turn against the ruling elite. Not only have pro-democracy activists stepped up protests over the last year but the general population is becoming far more disillusioned with King Mswati’s rule due to the economic crisis that is gripping the country, while the ruling elite continue to live in absolute luxury.
Despite King Mswati having a personal wealth of over $200m the finances of Swaziland are in a dire state. The economic crisis has got so bad in Swaziland that the University of Swaziland was unable to open at the start of term and many students have had their grants, the only thing that enables them to attend university in many cases, cut. Many schools have also failed to open, pension payments have been delayed, state workers are unsure if they will be paid on time and the health service is reportedly at breaking point with shortages of many everyday drugs.
Swaziland also has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world. While some steps have been taken in recent years to improve access to antiretroviral treatment, largely thanks to the Global Fund, all of this good work threatens to be undone by the economic crisis. Medecins Sans Frontieres reported in early September that testing kits were ‘almost dry’ and that it was becoming difficult to track the progress of patients on therapy and those carrying the virus.
Reports indicate that the Swazi government recently bought £500,000 worth of antiretroviral drugs but NGOs say the government needs to buy £3m worth of drugs per month to keep up with demand. Indeed, the shortages are so acute that new patients are not being put on ARVs, current patients are only being given a month’s worth of ARVs instead of the three months they are supposed to receive, and many of the ARVs that patients are being given are close to their expiry dates.
So what can we do in the UK to help those in Swaziland who are fighting for a fairer future for their country? We can start by putting pressure on the Swazi government by supporting groups like Action for Southern Africa who have been vocal campaigners on Swaziland for several years. They currently have an e-action here with the NUS that calls for the release of two pro-democracy activists, including Swaziland NUS President Maxwell Dlamini, who have been imprisoned by the Swazi government.
Jack Storry is a Labour activist and Progress member from the West Midlands, UK, and tweets @JackStorry