By Peter Kenworthy
“Swaziland has many things in common with what is happening in North Africa. Mass demonstrations have planned for April 12, and are set to continue until there has been a change of system in Swaziland,” Danish NGO Africa Contact’s Morten Nielsen told DR, the national Danish broadcasting cooperation, yesterday (31 March 2011).
Morten Nielsen, who has worked with democratisation in Swaziland for many years, was invited in the studio to discuss why he believes that Swaziland might be the next African country to experience a change of regime as the result of a popular uprising.
“Swaziland is an absolute monarchy”, Nielsen told listeners, “and on paper it is a middle income country like Egypt and South Africa. But 80% of all Swaziland’s assets are owned by a very small group of people. And because it is an absolute monarchy, all power is concentrated in the hands of the king. Swaziland is run as a farm. As the king owns all land, all crops, and all companies in Swaziland, he also in effect owns the people. He decides where they may live, whether or not they can attend school, what work they are allowed to do, etc.”
But Morten Nielsen believes that a new, well-educated generation have been inspired by the popular uprisings in North Africa, as well as hard-pressed by their own increasingly desperate situation, to try and change the system.
“Swaziland has many things in common with what is going on in North Africa,” he says. “Between 40 and 50% of young people are unemployed in Swaziland, and many of them are actually well-educated but cannot find a job. So these well-educated youths are desperate, and at the same time Swaziland is strapped for cash. The government cannot afford to pay pensions for the elderly anymore, they cannot pay the salaries, and the military is running out of food. So in many ways the country is falling apart.”
And even though mass demonstrations are by no means unheard of in Swaziland, though demonstrators are often on the receiving end of police brutality and are given long prison sentences, Morten Nielsen believes that the new generation has learnt a lesson from both the older generations and from the new ways of organising popular uprisings in North Africa.
“I believe that the new generation of Swazis see things differently. They have learnt much from North Africa, amongst other things not to only depend upon a few leaders, but instead have many, to ensure that the police cannot shut them down by arresting a small number of people. This is why the responsibility for the April events is shared amongst thousands of people.”
But the dissatisfaction with the current regime is something that is shared by most Swazis, says Morten Nielsen. “More and more people in Swaziland are standing up and saying ‘we want to get rid of the absolute monarchy and replace it with multi-party democracy.’ Not because this will necessarily solve all the country’s economical problems, but because the present system has clearly failed. This is obvious to all.”