A king at bay
Africa’s last absolute monarchy may be falling apart
THE government has run out of cash, and no one seems willing to lend it any without radical reforms which Mswati III, Swaziland’s king, seems loth even to consider. But the pressure is mounting. Civil servants, faced with wage cuts of 10%, are threatening to strike. Schools, deprived of state subsidies, may have to close. In a country with the world’s highest incidence of HIV/AIDS, clinics are running out of antiretroviral drugs for want of funds. Government suppliers, owed millions of dollars in arrears, have begun to demand cash on delivery, which the government cannot produce. The 43-year-old king has even cancelled this year’s celebrations to mark his 25 years on the throne.
This is the worst crisis that little Swaziland, locked into the north-east corner of South Africa, has suffered since independence from Britain in 1968. Most of its revenue comes from a regional customs union dominated by South Africa. But last year, thanks to an economic slowdown, this income, really a disguised subsidy, fell by almost two-thirds. As government spending usually accounts for nearly half of Swaziland’s GDP, this has clobbered the economy. Thousands of businesses went bust as the government slashed spending.
Unemployment rose sharply, with some 40% of working-age people already without jobs. Of Swaziland’s 1.2m people, nearly three-quarters live on less than $2 a day.
Earlier this year the World Bank offered to help bail the country out—on condition of certain reforms. The government agreed to halve its budget deficit with tax rises and austerity measures, including public-sector job losses. As it has met almost none of these conditions, international loans have been withheld. Because it is not a democracy, Swaziland fails to qualify for budget aid from donors such as the European Union. So the king has had to go cap in hand to his rich neighbour, South Africa.
As a Zulu traditionalist and polygamist like the king, President Jacob Zuma might have been willing quietly to oblige. Moreover, he is formally engaged to one of Mswati’s nieces. But the pro-democracy uprising in the Arab world has increased the pressure on Mr Zuma, at home and abroad, to treat despots in his own part of the globe more sternly.
His own political future may even depend on it. In the run-up to next year’s conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), held every five years, when all the party’s leaders come up for re-election, he is anxious to keep on side such powerful critics as the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the ANC Youth League, both of which strongly support Swaziland’s pro-democracy movement.
Swazi opposition leaders, who see the economic crisis as a blessing in disguise, have begged Mr Zuma not to hand their embattled monarch any cash unless he promises sweeping democratic as well as fiscal reforms. At a meeting with the king in mid-July, he is understood to have laid down some minimal conditions, including a modicum of political reforms, in return for the $220m-300m Swaziland is believed to have requested. With his back to the wall, the king is pondering his options.