Last Friday, thousands of protestors filled the streets of Swaziland’s main cities to express their “rage at a system that has for years bled their country dry through the greed and rampant accumulation of the royal family and its friends”.
Protestors brought the capital, Mbabane, to a standstill with the largest demonstrations Swaziland has seen in years. The main organisers of the demonstrations were teachers, students, trade unions and civil servants, who are opposing a cut in civil servants' pay advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and demanding a change of government in light of Swaziland’s troubled financial situation. Placards read, “Why cut salaries, cut corrupt governments” and “Down with tyrants”. The protests were seen as trial run for further action scheduled for April 12and were backed by trade unions in the surrounding country of South Africa, as well as the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League.
Critical to the uprising is that while austerity measures are being introduced which hit the poorest in society, the royal family - backed by a substantial fortune and renowned for its ostentatious displays of wealth - is slated for an increase in its budget. Protestors are drawing attention to a lack of democratic freedoms in the country, where political parties are banned, mass demonstrations are outlawed and criticising the monarchy is a taboo.
Swaziland, an absolute monarchy, has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. He succeeded his father, King Sobhuza, whose reign is the longest on record. A 38-year-old decree banning political parties combined with a tight grip on civil society has limited opposition movements and political space. Mario Masuku, head of banned opposition party People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), is reported as telling crowds "Swaziland cannot remain an island of dictatorship in the sea of democracy". However, last year pro-democracy demonstrations attracted hundreds, rather than thousands of people. The current protests have been partially inspired by examples of uprisings in North Africa, but more importantly by the austerity measures recently announced in Swaziland.
The protests were sparked by the national budget, which was presented in February but has not been widely publicised. Last year, the country experienced near-financial meltdown following a 60% drop in income from the Southern African Customs Union, which has typically accounted for two-thirds of the fiscal budget. The Swazi government is attempting to loan money from the IMF, which is insisting on reduced public spending as a condition for a loan. Austerity measures introduced by the budget are part of the government’s Fiscal Adjustment Roadmap, a recovery plan backed by the IMF.
The budget introduced a number of austerity measures which have been a focal point for demonstrators. Salary increases of 4.5% for civil servants in April 2010 have been blamed by the government for the financial crisis, and were reversed. Swazi Finance Minister Majozi Sithole argued that “Civil servants have to make a decision between getting a reduced salary or 100 percent of their wages and get zero by the end of the year”.
“Down with the Celebrations”
Opposition protestors argue that widespread corruption and overspending by the royal family are responsible for the financial crisis. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that corruption in Swaziland costs up to 40 million Euros (about $56,830,000) monthly. This year also marks King Mswati’s 25th year in power, and lavish celebrations are being planned to mark the occasion. Some protestors focused on this extravagant spending, with placards reading “Down with the celebrations”.
While the austerity budget legislated that government departments should cut spending by 20%, the Royal Family’s budget has increased by 23%. King Mswati also has his personal fortune to rely on, estimated by Forbes Magazine at $200 million. The King is renowned for spending huge amounts of money on lavish celebrations for himself and building new royal palaces for his 14 wives, as well as providing them with luxury motor vehicles.
The King’s response was to tell state media that people should "work harder and sacrifice more," instead of protesting against the country's economic downturn. Unsurprisingly, this was dismissed as laughable in light of royal family spending. The secretary general of the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union, the country’s largest public workers organisation is reported as saying that “This is a system just for the elite and the royal family and as long as it is in place there is no way we are going to heal the economic wounds we are suffering from at the moment".
A key demand of protestors was the nationalization of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane (TTN). At independence, control over mineral wealth and royalties was vested in the nation rather than the government. The royal family set up TTN up to manage these to complement the government’s development plan. It has become a major corporation and key player in Swaziland's economy, but it is a controversial institution: while it ostensibly acts in the national interest, it is answerable only to the monarchy and does not pay any taxes. The IMF has suggested that taxing TTN would make a difference to the government’s fiscal health, but the royal family derives much of its revenue from the activities of the corporation, so taxation or nationalism are likely to be met with fierce resistance.
Economic reform is necessary: government spending remains well above revenue. However, the proposed government budget hits Swaziland’s poor the hardest, and they will struggle to “sacrifice more”, as the King suggests. While the World Bank lists Swaziland as a lower middle income country, 70% of the population live below the $1 a day poverty line. Unemployment rates are about 40%, and Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world - reasonably conservative estimates suggest 26% of adults are infected with the virus. Further, the country has also suffered from several severe droughts over the past decade. The austerity measures suggested by the budget will only increase the economic hardship most of the Swazi population face, and alienate them further from their extravagant royal family.
Major protests are scheduled for April 12, the anniversary of the date when political parties were banned by royal decree in 1973. A Facebook group called “The April 12 Uprising!!!” has promised that “all hell will break loose” . The Swazi cabinet has claimed to be concerned about false rumours circulating the social networking site, and have urged police to monitor the site. Finance Minister Sithole told journalists “we are not anticipating what is happening in North Africa to come here … however, the army is there to avoid such situations.”