Monday, September 12, 2011


The Guardian, UK

9 September 2011


Explainer: Why are people protesting in Swaziland?

Gripped by financial crisis and in thrall to a polygamous, absolute monarch, Swaziland is the scene of growing unrest

Thousands of people have been protesting this week in Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarchy. Popular discontent has focused on King Mswati III, who has been on the throne for 25 years, and has at least a dozen wives, 27 children, and a fortune estimated at $200m.

How large are the protests?

Sikelela Dlamini, coordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, a coaltion of pro-democracy groups, said more than 3,000 people marched in the provincial town of Siteki. A further 5,000 were in a standoff with police at a bus station in Manzini. There were no reports of violence. Earlier in the week, however, police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds demanding an end to a political system that allows the king to run the country of 1.4 million people as a personal fiefdom. "Some people were beaten to a pulp," Dlamini told Reuters in neighouring South Africa.

Why are people demonstrating?

It's the economy. The current crisis for the landlocked country began in 2009 when South Africa went into recession. That triggered a collapse in revenue from a regional customs union dominated by South Africa that has historically accounted for two-thirds of Swaziland's budget. Swaziland has refused to cut spending - especially on the royal household or military - causing its budget deficit to swell to 14% of GDP, a figure comparable to Greece. In April, riot police used teargas and water cannons to quell pro-democracy demonstrations.

What is being done to address the economic problems?

The International Monetary Fund has demanded reforms to what is officially Africa's most bloated bureaucracy before it lends any money, while an emergency $340m bailout from South Africa is in question due to Swaziland's refusal to accept the need for political change. On the verge of bankrupcy, the government has been keeping itself afloat by dipping into central bank reserves and running up arrears of at least $180m, although there are fears civil servants may not be paid this month. The University of Swaziland failed to open on 8 August for the final term of the year and public hospitals have run out of medicines for patients.

What does the IMF recommend?

An IMF delegation has just spent two weeks in Swaziland, bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, to see whether it was doing enough to win the fund's seal of approval to secure foreign loans. The IMF said the government appointed by King Mswati had missed several targets to cut the budget deficit and advised it to pass a supplementary budget to cut spending, while preserving pro-poor spending, and strengthening spending controls to restore fiscal sustainability.

Does the country have political parties?

No. King Sobhuza, Mswati's father, scrapped the constitution in 1973 and banned political parties. King Mswati, who has been on the throne since 1986, rules by decree and says the country is not yet ready for multi-party politics. The kingdom's largest opposition party, the People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), was banned as a terrorist organisation in November 2008 and its president, Mario Masuku, arrested under the suppression of terrorism act. Masuku was acquitted of terrorism charges in September 2009 after his case was dropped due to lack of evidence. During last year's May Day celebrations, Pudemo member Sipho Jele was arrested and later found dead in his cell. There have been growing demands - fanned by protests in the Arab world - for greater democracy and limits on the king's power. Royalists have argued that democracy creates division, and that a monarch is a strong unifying force.

How poor is Swaziland?

Swaziland, Africa's third-largest sugar producer, is classified as a middle-income developing country, but income distribution is highly skewed and poverty in the rural areas is widespread. It also has the highest HIV and Aids infection rate in the world (26.1% HIV prevalence among 15 to 49-year-olds), with large economic and social implications. In view of the impact on agriculture of the HIV and Aids pandemic, the UN's World Food Programme provided food assistance to almost 180,000 people until 2007.

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