Challenge and repression in Swaziland

Understandably, many Swazi citizens are not happy with the current state of affairs: weak and declining economy; world’s worst AIDS epidemic; falling government revenue from customs union; greedy king flying private jets. Same old story gets worse, but political mobilization does seems to be on the rise.

The 9000 members of the national teachers union began to strike in late June when the government refused to increase their salaries to half of the current inflation rate. Along with the more general pro-democracy protests that I’ve written about previously, this type of mass action is not standard fare in Swaziland. According to one report,

“It is unusual for whole schools to empty and children taking to the streets like this. I’ve never seen anything like this that is so widespread. This is not the Swazi [practice] to be confrontational or disrespectful to police and authority, and you can see these children are very frustrated and angry,” — Felicia Simelane, a seamstress whose shop provided a bird’s eye view of a confrontation between police, students and teachers in Manzini.

And the nurses union is planning to join the teachers, at least for a temporary show of solidarity.

In turn, earlier this week the government responded by cutting striking teachers salaries by 33 percentand with teargas and violent repression.

I continue to be amazed by the lack of international media attention to this story. That bad stuff happens in Africa is perhaps not always “news,” but this level of organized challenge to the monarchy strikes me as somewhat extraordinary. But I’m not a news editor, and luckily scholars aren’t judged by how many papers we sell or numbers of clicks to our stories. I have not heard that “Swaziland protest” is trending on twitter or facebook…

Avoiding a twitter revolution in Swaziland

Various scholars and analysts will continue to debate the role of social media within the Arab Spring. But Swaziland’s King Mswati III isn’t taking any chances: According to the M&G, he’s planning to ban criticism on facebook and twitter. I am guessing that the little kingdom state probably doesn’t have the capacity to track down its cyber-critics. But perhaps the relationship between Mswati and the largely South Africa-based mobile and internet providers is cozier than I assume it to be?

At the moment, the Swaziland facebook page is replete with nasty critiques: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Swaziland/48672481450, and renewed calls for protest on April 12.

Note to autocrats: don’t bother proposing a ban on free speech unless you can actually carry it out!

Swaziland Students to Protest tomorrow

Not willing to let the Swazi economic and political crisis to persist unchallenged, the Swaziland National Union of Students has planned demonstrations for tomorrow (Weds, March 21). Among other things, they will protest a 60 percent cut in government allowances. M&G and Newstime Africa report that students feel the allowance cuts will make higher education unattainable for many poor families. Further, scholarship money will no longer be distributed to students who belong to political parties, as political parties are illegal in Swaziland. Other future protests are likely to include an April 12th marking of the anniversary of the 1973 decree outlawing political parties in the country.

Swazi situation worsens

The situation in Swaziland continues to worsen — although the South African government was willing to bail out the landlocked monarchy, pro-democracy protestors in both countries are complaining about the lack of insistence of stronger controls on human rights reforms associated with its recent loan.

As a result, the King is looking to places like Qatar and Kuwait to get out of the current financial bind. Meanwhile, citizens (subjects) are seriously suffering, as the UN News Service (IRIN) reports:

The impact of the current financial crisis is severe and according to the World Food Programme, annual production of the staple maize since 2000 has gradually dropped – from an average of 100,000 tons to about 70,000 tons – a consequence of erratic weather, high input and fuel costs, HIV/AIDS and the declining use of “improved agricultural practices”.

Stocks of antiretrovirals have become alarmingly low and were reportedly standing at one month’s supply. Swaziland has the world’s highest prevalence, with one in four Swazis aged 15-49 HIV-positive and about 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

This is another catastrophe in the making. I am not sure why Zuma is not taking a harder line on Mswati — he is not in the club of independence leaders (i.e. Mugabe), and there is no currency gained from supporting him. Why not use some political leverage to open the country, and earn serious political capital at home and abroad?