30 July 2007

Swaziland: Country King Faces Trouble Amid Protests Over Lack of Reforms

Nairobi — Swaziland, Africa's last obsolete monarch is ripe for a revolution following widespread pro-democracy protests that brought the tiny kingdom to a standstill.

The capital Mbabane ground to a halt last week as thousands of workers took to the streets - in what has been described as the biggest demonstration in a decade - pushing for multiparty democracy. Led by unionists, the protesters demanded an end to monarchical rule and the lifting of a ban on political parties imposed in 1973.

There is enough groundswell for political change in a country with the world's highest HIV and Aids rate, 70 per cent unemployment and an authoritarian monarch.

"In the last two decades there has been democratic change in Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa but Swaziland has remained a sore thumb in Southern Africa," said Mr Mzingeli Dlamini of the University of Swaziland. "It is an island of dictatorship." King Mswati III has ruled the former British colony since 1986 and is upholding the tradition of his father, King Sobhuza II, who reigned for almost 61 years, and had scores of wives.

Political parties are banned and the king appoints 10 of the 65 members of Parliament as well as the prime minister. King Mswati III can veto any law passed by the legislature and frequently rules by decree. Two years ago, the country's first constitution was drafted and signed by the king but it essentially maintains the status quo with King Mswati III retaining ultimate power.

But the monarch was last week shaken by spontaneous demonstrations in Mbabane and the second largest city of Mbabane as pro-democracy activists rally for change ahead of next year's General Election.

The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) in a rare show of solidarity mobilised close to 5,000 workers to take to the streets.

"It's about time that the people of Swaziland realise that they made a big mistake by making the king an absolute monarch," Mr Jan Sithole, the secretary-general of the SFTU was quoted as having told the strikers in Mbabane.

He added: "If the situation does not change, such protests will become the order of the day because 70 per cent of the people in the country live below the poverty datum line, while only 10 per cent of the ruling elite enjoy the wealth."

Mr Sithole said the trade union movement planned to stage two-day work stoppages every month until the king agrees to hold multiparty elections under polls planned for October 2008. The government has insisted that it was not shaken by the protests.

Government spokesman Percy Simelane said the demonstrations were 'nothing compared' to those of 1996 by pro-democracy activists that led to the complete shutdown of the country's industries. Mr Simelane said the strikers were going the wrong way to demand reforms.

"We as government have been saying all along that these people are out of order, they have to amend the Constitution if they want to have multi-party elections."

He said: "If they want to change the Constitution to suit multi-party elections, they must lobby Parliament because only Parliament can do that, so they must lobby parliamentarians that were elected," he said.

Police said at least two police officers had been assaulted by the strikers, while four shops had been vandalised and one vehicle was damaged. A person was arrested.

Mr Moses Mathebula, a political analyst, said the heavy handed response by riot police who battled the protesters on the streets showed a government that was very worried about growing resentment.

"They will always say the strikes do not have any impact and the people are happy but I believe secretly the king now believes that his hold on power is under serious threat." Mr Mathebula said.

"There are signs that there will be radical changes soon, but eventually King Mswati III will be forced to move with the times. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) seems to be determined to whip errant states into line as shown by its response to the Zimbabwe crisis and it's a matter of time before the radar focuses on Swaziland," Mr Mathebula added.

However, the activists do not want the monarch to be overthrown and instead want the king to 'reign but not to rule'. The British educated King Mswati III's position also entitles him to pick a wife very year during an annual reed dance. Mr Dlamini said: "People are angry because they feel Swaziland is not moving with the times."

"In a country with the highest HIV/Aids rate in the world a king can still marry 13 wives. If we had a multiparty democracy, we could have a parliament that questions these transgressions."

The growing discontent, however, does not mean the king does have supporters. Among those fighting for the maintenance of the status quo, the traditional monarchists say [it's] the system best suited to keep the mountain kingdom intact.

"This is a unique country because people share the same culture," said Mr Dominic Tsabedze. "A multi-party democracy has its own challenges and this is not time for Swaziland to experiment with any system of governance because we have many challenges to tackle such as Aids and poverty."

Swaziland, a landlocked country, is surrounded by Mozambique and South Africa. About 40 per cent of its adult population is infected with HIV and 70 per cent of the 1.1 million people live on less than one million a day.

The United Nations has singled out Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe as some the countries facing starvation between now and next year's harvest, with over 400 000 people in need of urgent of food aid.

Despite the sea of poverty, King Mswati III leads a lavish lifestyle of fast cars and multiple wives. His several children reportedly attend schools in expensive British institutions.

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