A command made by Swaziland’s autocratic King Mswati III that schools must not charge parents top-up fees is about to be overturned following years of confusion.
And, Swazi Government ministers and the media in the kingdom are rewriting history to erase the King’s part in the chaos.
In February 2014, in a speech opening Parliament King Mswati, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, made the directive to abolish top-up fees even though the government he hand-picked did not have a plan to implement it.
In Swaziland, the King’s word is a proclamation. Once he speaks nobody is allowed to question him.
In his 2014 speech the King said, ‘We must encourage the development of local facilities and the improvement of the quality of our education to match the standards of foreign countries. It is not enough, however, to just educate our children to become job seekers.’
Top-up fees allowed principals to charge parents more than the basic school fee. This allowed schools to be able to fund many basic activities. Principals complained that the money paid by government was too meagre to run the schools and a majority of them opted for top-up fees to make up for the shortage.
Within months reports were circulating in the kingdom that most schools had been forced to suspend activities including participation in sports and music competitions. It was estimated these extra-mural activities had halved when compared to recent years.
The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported in 2015 that some principals had resorted to selling sweets on behalf of their schools to raise additional funds.
It reported, ‘Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA) President Mduduzi Bhembe confirmed the sad situation and lamented the fact that the growth of the country’s education system was taking a nosedive.’
In February 2016, school principals who defied the ban were warned they could go to jail. The Swazi Education and Training Minister Phineas Magagula said this after the Kingdom’s High Court confirmed the King’s edict that no school should charge parents top-up fees.
The Swazi Observer reported at the time that Magagula said by charging top-up fees the principals were, ‘failing to comply with His Majesty King Mswati III’s order that such should not be paid and that no child should be deprived of education’.
Now, media in Swaziland are reporting that the Swazi Cabinet has decided to put forward a law to allow to-up fees to be charged.
The Times of Swaziland, the only independent daily newspaper in the kingdom, reported on Friday (17 February 2017), ‘Stakeholders are searching for answers to the question of how to charge top-up fees yet they (top-up fees) are legal in terms of Section 12 of the Free Primary Education Act of 2010.’
It added, ‘Phineas Magagula, the Minister of Education and Training, had submitted a proposal to cabinet to reintroduce the additional fees which schools charged over and above government grants.’
The King’s role in the top-up fee saga is being ignored. On 29 December 2016, the Swazi Observer, a newspaper described by the Media Institute of Southern Africa in a report on press freedom in Swaziland as a ‘pure propaganda machine for the royal family’, reported Magagula had submitted a proposal to cabinet to reintroduce the top-up fees.
It reported, ‘Education Minister Dr. Phineas Magagula yesterday said the decision to enforce a no top-up fee policy was not taken by an individual line minister, in this particular case being himself, but was a collective cabinet decision.
‘Any changes with regard to the implementation of the policy, Dr. Magagula said, would as such have to be taken by cabinet.’