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November 26, 2012

Swaziland King Faces Growing Unrest

by Emilie Iob

Growing protests have rocked the Kingdom of Swaziland recently. The protests are being led by young people, who say they want democracy for their country.  

Facing a packed crowd of protesters, Swazi student leader Maxwell Dlamini gave another speech to the cheers of the crowd. It is one of the many protests that have taken place over past months in Swaziland. Students and teachers have been protesting new education measures, though Dlamini said the grievances are wider.

“These protests are not an isolation of a critical demand, which is a constitutional multiparty democracy in Swaziland," said Dlamini.

Seeking democracy

Swaziland is a small kingdom land-locked by South Africa and has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. It is Africa’s last absolute monarchy with the king holding all powers. It also is one of the poorest countries in the world, where 40 percent of the population is unemployed, more than 70% live under the poverty line and one out of four people are HIV positive.

Dlamini said the key to development in Swaziland is democratization.

“The bigger problems that are in Swaziland can actually be addressed by a democratic government which will allow each and every citizen to actually participate in the decision-making processes of the country," said Dlamini. "Those governments have to pursue policies that will benefit the majority of the country, unlike the current system which actually perpetrates corruption and nepotism. It serves the interest of the monarchy and their friends, while the majority of the people are left out of the processes of development and empowerment.”

Outrage over indulgences

Anger has been growing for years in Swaziland over what is seen by many as the King's extravagant lifestyle. He has more than a dozen wives, holds an annual dance of tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins from which he can select another wife, and has a personal fortune estimated at about $100 million.

Political parties and activists are routinely arrested. Earlier this year, as another protest was being put down, Mswati asked international donors to help contribute to his birthday celebrations. He also asked his subjects to donate cows to contribute to the feast - further angering many.  

Rhoda Mdzingase Mkhabela comes out slowly of the shack where she lives with her family before collapsing on a branch outside, due to exhaustion. The 74-year-old is tired. She said her living conditions have worsened her already fragile health.

She said she was expelled a few months ago from her concrete house on land she owns, where she had been living for the last 60 years, in what appears to be a government development deal.

She survives today with $33 given to her every three month by the government. The money has to support her and a grandchild.  

She said she does not trust the current government, sees nothing positive in Swaziland and would leave the country if she could.
Activists say property rights in Swaziland benefit the wealthy and powerful.  

VOA's efforts to contact the Swazi government on its policies and popular discontent went unanswered and the Ministry of Information refused to take calls.

Traditional stranglehold

Noel Kututwa, Southern Africa director for Amnesty International, said recent protests have done little to loosen Mswati's hold on power.   

"It is very difficult to assess the extent in which the king to be in power and continue to have the absolute and the firm grip, but it is correct to say that the government is still in control," said Kututwa. "The government is still brutally repressing any protest or any uprising, and they are using force to make sure that the Swazi people remain silent. "

Kututwa said he believes this might change, though, as civil society begins to act despite threats.  

“What has changed has probably been the fact that the civil society has become more organized. There are more and more protests, networks outside Swaziland. And Swazi civil society is also working with other civil societies in Southern Africa to bring attention to the human right issues within the country," he said. "Their lobbying is becoming more targeted, they are being able to raise issues on Swaziland and each time something happens in the country, that is being reported, and the international community is taking attention.”
 
It remains unclear whether that growing activism among civil society organizations will have any effect on the situation in Swaziland. A few weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund released a report stating the country was in serious financial trouble. The IMF recommended reforms - especially land reform and cutting heavy spending on the security forces. In an angry response, Swaziland's government called the report wrong and pessimistic saying it would only discourage efforts at reform.