New York Times
12 April 2011
Police Officers In Swaziland Squash Rally For Democracy
JOHANNESBURG — The police in Swaziland, the last absolute monarchy in Africa, squelched a long-planned pro-democracy rally on Tuesday, firing water cannons and tear gas into crowds in Manzini, the nation’s largest city.
Organizers had dubbed the protest “the April 12 Uprising,” recalling the day, 38 years ago, when King Sobhuza II had abandoned the country’s British-style Constitution and rid himself of the inconvenience of political parties.
His son, Mswati III, is now king. Some things have changed, some not. The old king had more than 70 wives, the new one 14. Mswati III is one of the world’s richest monarchs, and he provides most of his spouses with their own retinue, a palace and a new BMW; two-thirds of his 1.2 million subjects live on less than $1 a day. They have the world’s highest H.I.V. infection rate.
There is again a Constitution, instituted in 2006, though not one assuring political freedom. A pro-democracy movement has existed for decades, but it has had more fits than starts. Many of its leaders are routinely jailed, and on Tuesday, this was done peremptorily with the morning arrests of the trade unionists at the vanguard of the rally.
What followed then were blunt tactics of crowd dispersal. People standing in groups of more than two or three were clubbed by police officers, witnesses said. Buses full of protesters were stopped at roadblocks and turned back.
“Some people were taken away in big trucks, and they were dumped way out in the bush where there is no transportation,” said Mary da Silva, a lawyer and coordinator of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign.
Ms. da Silva herself was briefly arrested, seized while giving an interview to a journalist. “Basically, what they are doing is kidnapping activists,” she said in a telephone interview. “There are roadblocks all over the place. No one can get into Manzini. And those of us here, we are under constant threat. They punched me in the stomach.”
The Rev. Pius Magagula, project manager for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, said, “The police tried to block people behind a gate, and then when the people fought their way out and went to the bus terminal, the police pounced on them like nobody’s business.”
The bare-knuckle tactics were successful against a crowd of about 2,000, according to Father Magagula, who was also contacted by phone.
“The police used water cannons and then the swinging batons,” he said. “It was bad, very bad.”
A police spokeswoman, Wendy Hleta, told The Associated Press that officials had been concerned about threats to overthrow the government. Force was used only after provocation, she said.
“The situation almost got out of control,” Ms. Hleta said about a gathering of hundreds of teachers at a training site. The police “were compelled to shoot tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd.”
The government is sure to draw international criticism. The United States Embassy in Mbabane, the capital, issued a statement expressing concern about efforts “to prevent the peaceful assembly of labor and opposition groups.”
Swaziland, a mountainous and generally peaceful place, is wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. Its chief source of revenue has been its share of import duties from the multicountry Southern African Customs Union.
But the group’s distribution formula was recently revised, and Swaziland’s $741 million share was cut to $281 million. The government announced an austerity program. Every ministry had to cut its budget by as much as 25 percent. Thousands of public workers were furloughed. Street lights were turned off.
The dismal economy has heightened political discontent. Tuesday’s rally follows a protest last month when 2,000 people marched to the prime minister’s office. King Mswati III disapprovingly took note of the demonstration.
He told his people to “work harder and sacrifice more.”