17 May 2011
The Madness of King Mswati III
Written by Annie Renard in Mbabane
While the Swazi king planned his jubilee, dissent was brewing via Facebook, resulting in an attempt to unseat the monarch
The North African-styled uprising designed to unseat Mswati on 12 April came from an unexpected quarter: the internet. Swaziland is more often seen as a traditionalist enclave than a hotbed of cyber-revolutionaries. However, its opposition in exile has become adept at using the internet to further its aims. Unsurprisingly, the police brutally shut down the brief attempt at an uprising.
Mswati has often dealt with unrest – his riot police beat and deported activists during the last round of protests in 2010. The difference this time is that the money has dried up, leaving the king vulnerable to scrutiny from the outside and dissent from within.
What rattled Swaziland’s elite more than the threat of an uprising was a Facebook page dedicated to publishing royal gossip. Writing under the name Gangada Masilela, the cyber-journalist responsible became public enemy number one.
Used to keeping the traditional press on a tight leash using ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, Swazi authorities have found themselves at a loss when it comes to policing cyberspace. The organisation behind the ‘12 April Uprising’, the banned Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), says the gossip site is a part of its strategy to destabilise the government. Based at South Africa’s COSATU House, the SSN also claims to have sources inside the royal court that are feeding it information.
On 25 April, pomp and ceremony marked King Mswati’s ‘Silver Jubilee’, but never, in his quarter century on the throne, has the beleaguered monarch seen his kingdom so volatile. Swaziland’s main source of income, Southern African Customs Union receipts, slumped by 11% of GDP last year. Although the IMF and others had long warned Swazi leaders to plan for this eventuality, it appears that the government had no such plans. By the IMF’s estimates, the country has been accumulating arrears since last September. While months of state electricity bills went upaid, plunging schools and government offices into darkness, reports that army rations had run out prompted Mswati and the government to swing into action.
Civil society critics warned that the ‘Silver Jubilee’ would be in poor taste given that civil servants were being asked to accept a 4.5% wage cut. The IMF recommended that the government slash the state’s wage bill by 5% if Swaziland hoped to bring the deficit down to single figures and to be eligible for loans from the African Development Bank and the World Bank.
Finance minister Majozi Sithole’s admission that between E40m-80m ($6m-$12m) a month is vanishing from state coffers due to corruption, prompted unions to get out their calculators: at that rate the savings from salary cuts would be used up in under a year. Dismissing a 10% pay-cut for cabinet ministers as a publicity stunt, unions and civil society groups took to the streets to call on the government to resign.
Meanwhile, the tide is turning against Mswati in neighbouring South Africa, the country Swaziland depends upon economically. Both the African National Congress Youth League and Congress of South African Trade Unions threw their weight behind the opposition’s protests and are putting pressure on President Jacob Zuma to rein in his royal neighbour.
This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of The Africa Report
(Not to be confused with an article with the same title that appeared on al Jazeera’s website on 26 April 2011. http://swazimedia.blogspot.com/2011/04/madness-of-king-mswati.html )