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Sunday, 19 December 2010

SWAZILAND: A KINGDOM IN CRISIS

Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) has devoted the latest edition (Winter 2010) of its quarterly magazine ACTSA News to a ‘Focus on Swaziland’.


Here is one of the articles, SWAZILAND: A NATION IN CRISIS, that summarises the extent of the economic meltdown brought on by the chronic mismanagement of the Swazi Government; the crisis in public services, the inequalities in the kingdom headed by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, and the fight for human rights.


Until recently the Swazi regime has successfully managed not only to hide the country’s gross inequality and lack of rights, but has also hidden and failed to act on a growing financial crisis which threatens to bankrupt the nation.


For many years the economy has been reliant on external sources. During the apartheid years Swaziland benefited from investment from companies unwilling or unable to operate in South Africa or war torn Mozambique. More recently, the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) has provided two thirds of government revenue.


The global recession, recent reform of SACU and most of all financial mismanagement have produced a massive but predictable black hole in the Swazi economy which, until recently, has virtually been ignored. Following major criticisms from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), members of the Royal Family and Government have attempted to address the problem by approaching other countries in the hope of obtaining a loan - so far with no success.


In their desperation to obtain approval for a loan, at the end of an IMF delegation to the country Swaziland’s Finance Minister Majozi Sithole announced new tax rules, the privatisation of some public services and plans to cut 7,000 public sector jobs. The IMF’s encouragement for cuts to jobs and services in a country where 40 per cent are already unemployed will inevitably increase the number living in hardship, and trade unions have criticised the measures.


The majority of the Swazi population live under the harshest of conditions. Almost 70 percent live on less than a dollar a day and over a quarter are reliant on food aid. Swaziland has an HIV rate of 26.1 percent (the highest in the world), the consequences of which are horrendous: life expectancy has plummeted to 47 years, and 30 per cent of children are either orphaned or are living with a critically ill parent.


Much of the nation’s wealth lies in the hands of a tiny minority. The Royal Family and its entourage continue to benefit from a massive slice of the national budget, generous contributions from business and industry and the vast Tibyo fund; an undisclosed amount held ‘in trust’ by the King for the people of Swaziland, but only ever used to support a very select minority. $6 million in government funds is lost every month through corruption and, while the country’s semi-feudal agricultural system helps to prop up wealthy landowners, those who farm the land remain in poverty.


One area unlikely to see substantial cuts is the country’s security forces.


The vast military might of this tiny nation and its huge police force lead many to ask what threat the nation faces when it hasn’t seen a war in over a century. This vast force is more focused on keeping order within the country rather than defending it from any external threat.


The Government has promised not to make cuts to education and health, but both areas start from an already low funding base, and cuts to higher education were made in January this year [2010]. In March 2009 Swaziland’s High Court ordered the Government to adhere to its constitutional commitment and provide free education to primary school children, but the legal order did not demand any actual action. A further court case resulted in the judge ruling that the provision of free education was dependent on resources, not a commitment in the constitution.


Despite its problems little is invested in the nation’s health. Leaking roofs, unreliable water supplies, a lack of beds and ‘burnout’ among nurses are commonplace in hospitals and clinics.


According to Sophia Mukasa Monico, Country Coordinator for UNAIDS in Swaziland, these appalling conditions are keeping patients away: “Women are refusing to come to some clinics and hospitals because of the poor environment and the attitude of the health workers.”


Swaziland may call itself a democracy but in reality bears little resemblance to one. The country’s power lies firmly in the hands of the King and those he appoints: the Government and local chiefs, who have extensive powers over their communities, including controls over land and the right to education. This contributes towards a climate in which people feel highly restricted and unable to speak out.


Freedom and rights in Swaziland have become so bad that the country now ranks lower than Zimbabwe and DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] on the respected Mo Ibrahim Index for participation and human rights. The repressive Suppression of Terrorism Act is used liberally to brandish anyone who speaks out as a terrorist and is regularly used to harass, arrest and torture dissenting voices. In a country where political parties are banned and the main opposition has been declared terrorist, trade unions often fill the resultant void by providing a space where political dialogue can take place. The Government is attempting to limit even this by pushing ahead with a Public Services Bill which would prevent state employees from discussing anything deemed ‘political’.


Despite this, and against all odds, voices of dissent in Swaziland are increasing. Many in Swaziland find it difficult to fathom why the international community is so reluctant to take up their plight.


One factor is a Government which uses every opportunity to portray a completely inaccurate picture of the country.


Tourists see a nation which projects itself as successfully marrying modern affluence with cultural traditions. Those who arrive from South Africa will be surprised at the impressive highway, lined with luxurious houses.


Announcements at Matsapha International Airport proudly inform passengers of the US $150 million project to build a new [Sikhuphe] airport. As they visit the cultural village or experience the infamous Reed Dance, in which young virgin women dance for the King so he can choose his next wife, tourists will remain oblivious to the poverty and inequality that lies behind this facade of affluence and culture.


Much of the media is strictly controlled by the Government. Radio and television are largely under the control of the state, the Observer Group of newspapers is controlled by the Royal Family and the Times of Swaziland Group, although independent, practices extremely strict self censorship.


Issues which many would consider to be in the national interest are often blocked in the interest of national security or to protect the country’s image. In October the Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, announced the creation of a law which would require newspaper columnists to seek permission before writing critically about the Government.


Attempts have even been made to restrict foreign coverage of sensitive issues in Swaziland.


After decades of silence there is a growing global movement working to highlight the dire situation in Swaziland.


The Swaziland Democracy Campaign, with chapters in both Swaziland and South Africa, is building momentum for a regional and international campaign for democracy and rights.


Voices within the United Nations and in particular the International Labour Organisation are slowly growing stronger but are consistently met with procrastination from a government desperate to hold on to the status quo, which hides behind the country’s rich and unique culture.


The world is waking up to the political and economic crisis is Swaziland, but it is doing so far too slowly. With few natural resources, a small population and because it is often overshadowed by its regional neighbours, the situation can far too easily be overlooked by international governments. As well as pressure from within, if Swaziland is to see any fundamental and positive change in the near future, it will take many voices from across the globe to speak out about the plight of the Swazi people and ensure that international governments stop ignoring the growing political and economic crisis.

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