Discontent about the lavish 40/40 celebrations held in Swaziland last weekend continues to rumble.
President Ian Khama of Botswana is under fire in his own country for attending King Mswati III’s bash to mark the King’s 40th birthday and also the 40th anniversary of Swaziland’s independence from Britain.
In an editorial comment Mmegi newspaper yesterday (11 September 2008) criticised Khama because his attendance sent the ‘wrong message’ to Swaziland.
The editorial says, ‘In our view, a presidential visit is more than just a gesture of goodwill. It goes far deeper than that. The President has raised people's hopes on how he intends to deal with issues of democracy and that is why he gained our unqualified support when he moved away from the beaten track of silent diplomacy.
‘We all remember how he made us feel proud when he refused to accept the sham presidential re-run in Zimbabwe. When the rest of Africa did not want to break with tradition and throw Mugabe under the bus, Khama courageously took a principled stand against Mugabe's tyranny. When he refused to recognise Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe, we believe he was guided by this country's democratic culture.’
The editorial goes on, ‘Out of concern for democratic culture, we believe it is out of step with this culture for President Khama to have visited Swaziland at a time when the country is embroiled in serious internal conflicts bordering on the abuse of power and denial of democratic practice.
‘We are not in any way saying that Botswana should dictate to Mswati the type of political system that they should practice. Swaziland has been a monarchy for so many years and it is only the Swatis who can decide whether they are happy with the monarchy or not.
‘We would, however, not be poking our nose into the affairs of a sovereign state when we show them that we do not approve of the heavy handed way the administration deals with those who hold opposing views to those held by the administration.
‘At the time when Khama visited the country, there were widespread strikes and demonstrations in Swaziland over misuse of millions of Emalangeni on lavish trips by the monarchy. There was agitation for free political activity and unbanning of political parties. There should be increased access to anti-retroviral drugs.
‘For President Khama to visit Swaziland at a time when these internal protests were occurring might have sent the wrong message. This looked like tacit support for the administration and a 'thumbs down' to the democratic efforts in Swaziland.’
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Personally, I think now that the dust is settling on the 40/40 celebrations they are looking more and more like a public relations disaster for the King and his supporters.
As anyone who has been following the international media coverage of the event knows the King has been portrayed as a man out of touch with his people. He is seen as selfish and greedy. While he spends perhaps as much as ten million US dollars (it is impossible to get an accurate figure) on the celebration seven out of ten of his subjects earn less than one dollar a day. Six out of ten rely on international food aid and four in ten are moving from hunger to starvation. Swaziland continues to have the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.
Television stations across the world broadcast pictures of the opulence of the King’s banquet and the fancy top-of-the-range BMW cars that ferried around heads of state from across southern Africa, including the Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe. They then contrasted these scenes with pictures of ordinary destitute Swazis in their villages.
In the week before the celebrations police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters engaged in a two-day strike for democracy. In Swaziland the King rules, political parties are banned and the parliament has no real power. The King selected the present Prime Minister Themba Dlamini, even though Dlamini had not been elected to parliament.
As Swaziland heads for its national elections next Friday (19 September 2008) I hope the media scrutiny continues. The brighter the spotlight turns on King Mswati and his regime the more the world will realise the true nature of life in Swaziland.