Protests in the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland have taken a brief pause, but not before sending a warning sign to the country’s monarch, King Mswati III, that sustained civilian protests are not just a North African affair.
Protesters in the southern African nation are calling for the king – Africa’s last absolute monarch – to allow multiparty democracy and to reconsider salary cuts to civil servants. The king himself has not responded publicly, but a heavy crackdown by his Army and police – including preemptive arrests of labor leaders, journalists, and student activists, as well as the use of tear gas and water cannons on the streets – is a clear signal that the Swazi royal family is not ready to cede power yet.
On Wednesday, the third day of protests, leaders of labor unions, teachers unions, and student groups told reporters that they would pause and announce their strategy later. But the Swaziland Support Network (SSN) called on Swazi citizens to stand up to the repression.
“You can choose, if you want to, to end the protests and in the process send a clear a message to your government that ... the best way to deal with protests is clubs and tear gas,” said the activist group SSN in a statement. “The alternative is fighting back.”
As a nation of 1.3 million people living in a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa, Swaziland is a country easily forgotten. But the incredible gap between rich in poor make the country ripe for turmoil, if not revolution.
Rich in timber and iron ore, Swaziland produces decent revenues for the country’s chief beneficiary, the Swazi royal family. Some 5 percent of Swaziland's resources are consumed by King Swati and his 13 wives and numerous children, all of this in a country with the highest HIV infection rate in the world, and where 70 percent of the population live on $1 a day.
Three days of protests does not make a Jasmine Revolution, of course. But the fact that the protests have lasted this long suggests that deep-seated and widespread discontent are rapidly transforming into a democracy movement that isn’t afraid of a few beat-downs.
“The Swazi government has shown its true colors to the world – it is repressive and authoritarian and only interested in its own survival,” said Deprose Muchena, acting Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), in a statement on Thursday.
Mr. Muchena called on Swaziland’s neighbors in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) economic group to condemn Swaziland’s violence, and to pressure Swaziland’s government to loosen its tight control of political power. “SADC cannot afford to stay silent. It must act now to reign in the Swazi government,” he said in a statement.
The economic inequality of Swaziland dates back to independence in 1968, when the royal family inherited a British colonial-era “royal fund,” into which all proceeds of mining and sugar and timber grown on royal estates accrue to the royal family itself, not to the state. As a result of this system, King Mswati is the 15th richest monarch in the world, according to Forbes Magazine, with a personal fortune of $200 million – even while his people remain among the poorest.
The inequality of Swaziland society becomes even more stark when one looks at the demographic statistics.
Life expectancy is now at 31.88 years, a fact explained by the high prevalence of HIV, at 33 percent. Thirty percent of all children are orphaned or vulnerable due to living with a critically ill parent, yet only 6 percent of the national budget is allocated to health and 2.4 percent to social services.
Swaziland is considered a middle-income country, due to the relative prosperity of its national economy and its relatively small population. Yet 25 percent of the population live on food aid donations, and unemployment is estimated at over 40 percent.
Now, as labor union leaders contemplate their next move, government officials say that the protests are over.
"It's all over," Foreign Affairs Minister Lutfo Dlamini said at a press conference in Mbabane on Wednesday. "There is no protest. It's over. Today there was nothing.”
Mr. Dlamini justified the use of force by police and the use of the Army to control the streets.
"We have been threatened as a nation by outsiders that there will be an uprising,” Dlamini said. “We needed to guarantee the safety of all Swazis and that is why we have these roadblocks. We are not trying to inconvenience anybody.”