21 July 2011
Schools hardest hit by Swazi debt crisis
Lingering uncertainly outside the school gate, Patience Kunene has no idea how she will find the money to be allowed back in.
“The principal promised to beat us if we come to class without fees,” she said.
Like thousands of Aids orphans in Swaziland, where one in four adults has HIV, Patience has become another victim of a deepening economic crisis that has left the tiny African kingdom unable to pay its bills.
She and more than 100 000 other children rely on government grants to get through school, but the kingdom is running months behind.
“We have delayed payment because of lack of funding,” said Khangeziwe Mabuza, principal secretary of the deputy prime minister's office. She said she hopes to be able to pay half of the arrears by mid-August.
Swaziland is struggling to pay for the day-to-day running of the country, while waiting to see if neighbouring South Africa will grant a bailout that international lenders have declined.
The country is draining its foreign reserves just to pay teachers and other civil servants, while King Mswati III - Africa's last absolute monarch - is criticised for his lavish lifestyle, including separate palaces for his 13 wives and luxury overseas trips.
Primary schools are particularly badly hit. The government had promised to roll out free education in primary schools, but many schools are still waiting for payments.
“We had expected them to pay earlier this term, but they say there is no money,” Charles Bennett, chairman of Swaziland's Association of Principals, told AFP.
Without the free primary school programme, 97-year-old Daniel Mabuza cannot afford to send his 11 young grandchildren to school. Bent double with age, Mabuza was the only one left to take care of them when their parents died.
He rises at dawn to prepare their breakfast in a mud hut they share with chickens. He relies on a government old age grant of $28 (20 euros) a month.
“Sometimes we do not have food,” he says. Mabuza is not alone. The World Bank estimates that 70 percent of Swazis live on less than one dollar a day.
Getting services to Swaziland's poorest is increasingly difficult for the cash-strapped government.
In June (2011) government announced its fuel reserves had run so low that priority would be given to filling up vehicles from health services, police and the army. Row upon row of government vehicles sit rusting at the depot because there is no money left to service them.
Finance Minister Majozi Sithole has repeatedly promised that education would not be affected by the financial crisis, but the fuel shortage has left many schools without water.
Running water is a luxury in Swaziland, and many schools rely on water deliveries by government to fill cisterns during the dry season that lasts from May to September.
“Water is a huge problem. We rely on rainwater. We used to get water from tankers but they have stopped. They have not come since May,” principal Isaiah Mkhaliphi told AFP.
His school, Nhlotjeni Primary in the southern town of Sibovu, is accessible only by a rutted, dusty road.
“We don't have water for cooking or washing. We do not have toilets.”
“Every day the children have to beg the neighbours for water,” added teacher Nongcebo Dlamini.
Although she lives on the school premises without running water or electricity, Dlamini's main worry is that government will follow through on threats to cut teachers' already modest salaries. - AFP