An absolute monarch, a bloated state payroll, corruption and a looming financial crisis. Swaziland urgently needs change
21 April 2011
How long can Swaziland resist reform?
As waves of protest, rebellion and revolution are changing the order in north Africa, whispers of change are shaking institutions in the south.
Swaziland, a small, land-locked country, is sandwiched uncomfortably between South Africa, the regional powerhouse, and Mozambique, whose aspirations continue to soar following several years of rapid economic growth. Despite its new constitution, the kingdom of Swaziland is ruled by one of the world's last absolute monarchs: King Mswati III, who celebrated his 43rd birthday on Tuesday (19 April 2011).
Famed in the west for his practice of polygamy, the king and his father before him, Sobhuza II, have maintained a state of emergency that began in 1973 after the second national election brought three opposition MPs into parliament. Though the monarchy is supported by most people in the country, Mswati remains a controversial figure among a small, but growing, minority. "We love our king, we just don't love the way he abuses our money," a Swazi friend once explained to me.
This is not surprising: 63% of Swaziland's population lives in poverty. Despite its middle income-country status, Swaziland tops a number of unwelcome charts, with the world's highest rates of HIV and Aids (over 25%) and TB, and some of the highest rates of inequality and infant mortality. Average life expectancy is just over 30 years, the lowest in the world.
Economic growth has slowed considerably in the past decade, corruption is rife and the government continues to push half of its resources into sustaining a bloated civil service payroll – estimated by the IMF to be 18% of GDP, one of the highest proportions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Until recently, around 60% of total government revenue came from the South African Customs Union. But since 2009-10, receipts from Sacu have fallen dramatically – by around two-thirds in 2010-11, cutting total government revenue by around 40%. Despite this, politicians increased their allowances significantly through the infamous finance circular No 1, leading unions to forgo the proposed public sector salary freeze and force the government to implement a 4.5% salary increase for 2010-11.
As the fiscal situation worsened, the government approached the IMF to provide advice on fiscal adjustment. But the IMF programme came with strong conditions, including increasing taxes and domestic borrowing, and cutting the public sector payroll by 5%. In a demonstration of commitment, cabinet ministers agreed to cut their salaries by 10% from this month and asked other politicians and the civil service to follow. The gesture was mute without revoking the controversial finance circular, and all parties remain locked in negotiations.
Around this time, two voices emerged. A Facebook group appeared, calling for support for an "uprising" on 12 April – the anniversary of Sobhuza's decree banning political parties in 1973, and a popular date for pro-democracy protests. Responding separately to the greed and ineptitude demonstrated by politicians, unions staged a peaceful protest in March, presenting a petition to the government with five specific requests, which included revoking circular No 1 and bringing the king's holding company into the tax system. The ultimatum was 12 April.
The crackdown by the government was sharp and the rhetoric harsh. Union leaders were arrested along with over 160 protesters on the day of the rally in Manzini (the country's largest city). The aftermath was more muted – aside from police barricading the national teachers association into their headquarters – with both the government and protesters claiming victory. This wasn't an uprising, but a question remains regarding what is around the corner.
The popularity of the so-called uprising in the international media has brought greater attention to the political hardships facing Swaziland. The African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party, has advised Swaziland to lift the ban on political parties. Representatives from the US and the EU have issued statements on political freedoms and human rights.
So as the king prepares to attend the royal wedding in London next week, he does so presumably knowing that, in 2011-12, to avoid a financial crisis, his government will have to find ways to plug a budget deficit of around $500m (almost 8% of GDP). Reserves are low, the domestic banks appear to have curbed lending to the state, and all donor budget support will be dependent on the government meeting IMF conditions.
Reform is needed. Without it, hospitals, schools run the risk of underfunding and eventually salaries may not be paid – a tough environment when you are also trying to sustain a police state. Fiscal and economic change is coming to Swaziland, it remains to be seen whether political change will follow.
John Woods is a pseudonym