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…

More repression in Swaziland

As reported in the Times of Swaziland, armed soldiers roamed through Mbabane today, with the clear intent of repressing any attempts to demonstrate against the regime.

In a statement issued by Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini in the afternoon, “national security agents have been instructed to protect life and property against any protest action planned anywhere as it has been declared illegal by Cabinet.”

“The public should be aware that no person, persons or organisation has made an application to march or picket in terms of the law,” the PM said.

According to Swazi Media commentary, several protest leaders have been arrested. And in a report from the M&G,

A “no tolerance” warning was issued against the protests, imposing a ban on walking in groups of three people or more.

I still have yet to see any reports of the Swazi crisis in any American media outlet.

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:, 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.

Coke, Taxes, and Dictatorship in Swaziland

First off, the coke of which I speak is the cola varietal, not the white powder. The Swaziland Democracy Campaign has accused the Coca-Cola company of propping up King Mswati III by maintaining its largest African manufacturing plant within the borders of the Kingdom.

Interestingly enough, Coke moved to Swaziland from neighboring South Africa in the face of apartheid-era divestiture calls. Now, various Swazi groups are using similar language, insisting that the company must leave the country, in the hopes of forcing similar political change (see Mail Online).

I have been writing about the struggles in Swaziland for a few months now, and I am no particular fan of Coke’s empty-calorie products, but it does provide quite a few jobs in a region with staggering unemployment, and supports various social services through its African Foundation, based in Swaziland. So what of the claims? It’s not clear that Coke is doing anything directly to support the King except paying taxes.

Activists claim that the company is simply doing business with bad people, and that seems fair enough. While denying that they are paying Mswati directly, they have hosted him in Atlanta, which is standard fare for a multi-national doing business in a small developing country. But should Coke go?

I think it’s a bit early for the company to take that potentially crippling step. Public revenues do still pay the salaries of teachers and support HIV/AIDS care. Mswati has an estimated $100 million in wealth, so I don’t think he would be personally hurt – on the contrary, to the extent that there is any separation between the individual and the state, only the latter would be bankrupted.

The democracy activists would do better to build more support from within society and from activists in South Africa before advocating removal of a major manufacturing facility.

The Silent Crisis that is Swaziland

So here are the facts on Swaziland: it’s a land-locked Southern African country with the highest HIV prevalence on Earth. About 1.1 million people live in this Kingdom country, the only fully autocratic, hereditary monarchy left on the planet. Earlier this year, profound budget shortfalls led to service cuts and requests for new loans from international agencies and South Africa.

Life expectancy is 32 years old.

from AVERT

Meanwhile, King Mswati III, in power since the age of 18, maintains a fortune inherited in trust for the Swazi nation of at least $100 million, which he has used to build multiple palaces and to maintain his private jet.

This year, as I’ve written about a few times, Swazi citizens have begun to protest, but each time, the state has deployed massive repression to keep people at home.

Yesterday, the UN news service wrote about a bleak outlook for food security in the face of archaic agriculture (no irrigation systems, planting that relies wholly on rain, very little secure land tenure) and increasingly erratic rains.

So why isn’t the international community doing more (almost anything) to come to support some type of regime change in the face of gross human rights violations and as people continue to die in waves (the population is actually declining)? Here are a few hypotheses:

1. Domestic protests aren’t loud enough – this looks nothing like the Arab protests. To be certain, there have not been massive uprisings, which might suggest that citizens are not nearly as unhappy as the Egyptians or the Syrians. Well, there is the issue that Mswati is still a hereditary monarch in an almost completely homogeneous Swazi country, so indeed, citizens do view him as a legitimate leader. Also, there is the fact that a huge proportion of the adult population is very poor and hungry, HIV-positive, or both, and may simply be too weak or too pre-occupied to protest.

2. Swaziland is in South Africa’s orbit, and South Africa is too nervous to intervene. If Swaziland were outside the sphere of a major African power – let’s say it were out in Central Africa – the U.N., U.S. or the E.U. might feel that they could and should parachute in and help out. But these Western countries most likely feel that this is South Africa’s and Southern Africa’s business, the same way the Zimbabwean quagmire has largely been delegated to the region. In this case, South Africa is not defending Mswati based on the brotherhood of liberation leaders (as is the case with Mugabe), but I imagine that there remains general sensitivity about violations of the norm of state sovereignty, particularly given South Africa’s large Swazi population. One sad irony is that if Swaziland had been incorporated into South Africa rather than becoming the sovereign nation that it is, I think the plight of Swazi citizens would be far better today (though they would have lived under the boot of apartheid for a few decades which would not have been a very good price to pay).

3. Swaziland is a homogeneous country. I am betting that if Swaziland were an ethnically diverse country, the outrageous pattern of rule would likely be described as some type of ethnic oppression and the situation would have caught the imagination of more outside powers and news media.

4. Swaziland is small and contains few valuable resources.

Admittedly, outside powers are between a bit of a rock and a hard place. The most promising initiative for political change appeared when the South African labor confederation, COSATU, began to get involved. But the resources committed appear to have been small, and there has not been much progress. Shortages of ARV drugs may lead some HIV activists to protest,  but I fear that the general enthusiasm around and empathy for AIDS activism is simply not what it once was.

Swaziland on verge of implosion?

When I last wrote about the state of the Swazi economy, the government was scrambling to stay afloat. The situation has continued to deteriorate and the Mail & Guardian reports that a recent IMF mission deems the current crisis has reached a “critical stage.” Although the government recently pulled together enough money to pay government employees this month, next month’s pay checks are in serious jeopardy, and some private companies that rely on government contracts have already begun to lay off workers.

King Mswati continues to blame outsiders for his country’s woes. South Africa offered to provide a R2.4 billion (~$290 million) loan several months ago, but no money has been transferred because Mswati has yet to agree to the conditions of the loan, which include political and economic reforms. Swaziland has thus far refused to a wage cut for government workers as well, which the IMF considers a necessary step.

The financial troubles are exacerbating the challenge of responding to the country’s AIDS pandemic — the world’s worst — and various reports highlight that the country is facing shortages of HIV/AIDS supplies. PEPFAR has provided emergency funds for first-line ARVs, but in a nation where nearly one in four people are HIV-positive, gaps in critical health care will only exacerbate the dire economic situation.

This previously stable, middle-income country is looking more and more like a train about to go off a cliff.

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?

South African Unions join Swazi Democracy Protests

This week almost 50 members of South Africa’s largest labor organization, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU),  joined pro-democracy protests in Swaziland (Sowetan). Following SA’s recent bailout of the Swazi government, interest has grown in the political situation of the tiny kingdom neighbor. And for all sorts of good reasons, organized labor has a vested interest in similar rights being afforded citizens in all countries in the region. (NB: A great book on the strategies and impact of transnational activists is Keck and Sikkink’s Activists Beyond Borders.)


Meanwhile, a Swaziland-based human rights blog reports that King Mswati has cut mobile phone communications for the planned week of protests.

I still have not seen any coverage of the story in any American news outlets. It has been several months since pressure began to mount on the king, and I doubt he has the firepower to seriously contain waves of mass action, should they erupt. His real strength lies with his legitimacy as the traditional ruler of the Swazi nation in a largely homogeneous country.

Should South Africa bail out Swaziland?

Should democratic governments that value human rights and civil liberties provide financial assistance to autocracies in times of dire need? It’s a catch-22: If they don’t, citizens may suffer because of possible reductions in services and financial stability. If they do, they may prop up that government at a time when it is likely to be most vulnerable to political challenges. Similar questions faced Western governments in the dying days of apartheid when the issue concerned divestment.

Now the shoe is on the other foot as South Africa is bailing out King Mswati III’s government, just as he continues to lead an unrepentantly luxurious lifestyle while maintaining an autocratic government that severely curtails political freedoms. Some South Africans want to “starve the beast.” Others point out that if they don’t “engage,”  China or some other country surely will provide the resources and South Africa will lose its political leverage.

See new story: Swazi loan ‘like giving money to a drunk wife-beater’ – News – Mail & Guardian Online.

It’s a difficult call, but lately I am wondering if the “tough love” option isn’t exercised often enough, and we really don’t know how well it would work. I don’t want to be glib — the Swazi government says it is grateful for South Africa’s loan so it can fund public schools and ARV treatment for its huge HIV-positive population. And even short-term reductions of those services would be disastrous. But Africa’s only absolute monarchy is much less likely to fall if good governments provide favorable financial support and especially without clear conditions for reform.