Swaziland: King Mswati’s security forces suppress April protests

Desperate economic situation exacerbated by world capitalist crisis

At the time of writing, Swaziland’s planned 12 April protests, inspired by the ‘Jasmine revolutions’ of Tunisia and Egypt, has been suppressed. King Mswati III’s regime has reacted with a vicious crackdown, arresting leading activists of labour unions and federations, student and youth organisations, as well as journalists. Military and police blocked entry to the main urban centres and hunted down participants in Tuesday’s mass action in Manzini and Mbabane, injuring several protesters. The clampdown comes after the planned action was banned on the eve of the protests amid widespread intimidation. Many were arrested on the streets, to foil efforts to assemble on Freedom Square, in Manzini. Trade unionists were arrested en masse, or have disappeared. Offices of major trade unions were surrounded. On 13 April, the Swaziland National Teachers’ Union (SNAT) was placed under police and military siege, with hundreds of activists locked inside. At the time of writing, workers and youth were determined to continue their protests. Although the regime’s preemptive actions have, for now, postponed mass opposition protests, there is a qualitative change in the struggle to end the dictatorship of the house of Mswati III, in this tiny kingdom, on South Africa’s doorstep.

Hit by global economic crisis

The basis for a Swazi mass uprising is the ongoing crisis of world capitalism. The already desperate economic situation has been exacerbated by a 60% decline in income from SACU (Southern African Customs Union –a revenue sharing scheme through which South Africa (SA) effectively subsidises the economies of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland) because of lower trade volumes due to the global economic crisis. The monarchy’s nervousness has also been compounded by the SA government’s recent demand for a renegotiation of the SACU terms. This would see SA winning and all other states losing, with Swaziland’s income falling from R4,3bn to R1,3bn. Money received through SACU has masked the structural problems of the Swazi economy, with artificial ‘prosperity’ and in the context of very low levels of economic activity. Added to this, is the decline in the country’s main export earnings from sugar and wood pulp, following a 17% fall in the price of sugar in the European Union and the closure of Sappi’s Swaziland paper plant in January 2010.

IMF-imposed wage cuts

With a budget deficit of 13 percent, the royal government has effectively been under administration by the IMF for the past six months. IMF-led cutbacks to government expenditure have resulted in a general slow-down in economic activity, as the feeble private sector is largely dependent on public sector tenders. The IMF’s control is now to be stepped up further in exchange for bail-out loans from the World Bank and African Development Bank. The latest prescription from IMF’s doctors public sector wage cuts and pay freezes. Workers are encouraged to follow the example of MPs, royal advisers etc who have taken a 10% cut. But this is hard to swallow when the obscenely exorbitant lifestyles of the king, his households and their patrons cost 60% of annual national revenue!

King Mswati – one of the richest in Africa

The government’s attempts to make workers and poor pay for the crisis also include cuts in medicine supplies to hospitals and hikes in electricity tariffs. These attacks could provoke the beginning of mass opposition that could lead to the downfall of Mswati. Already the bottom 20% of a total population of less than 1.4 million, receive just 4% of the country’s GDP; 70% of the population survives through subsistence agriculture; the country suffers the world’s highest HIV/Aids infection rate at 26% of 15-49-year-olds, and the lowest life-expectancy, at 32 years. Meanwhile, king Mswati has an estimated personal fortune of US$200m and is one of the richest people in Africa. Despite the dire economic situation, the royal households’ (Mswati’s lavish lifestyle includes 13 wives and three fiancées) budget was increased by R40bn, and the king and his cronies are planning new boastful expenditure, such as the building of a new airport.

What should replace the despot?

The 12th April marked the anniversary of Mswati’s father’s suspension of the constitution in 1973. Although the constitution was formally reinstated in 2005, the repressive measures enacted in 1973 have since been bolstered by laws ensuring that political parties remain banned and activists are routinely arrested, tortured and even killed.

While overthrowing Mswati would be a big step forward, the situation is not so strikingly different on the other side of the border in “democratic” South Africa. On 13 April, while Swazi police arrested and laid siege to opposition activists in Manzini, a participant in a demonstration for running water and sanitation was killed by South African police in front of an SABC TV camera crew. Having won the vote, the workers and poor in SA have yet to create their own party which can fight in their interests with a socialist programme. The dire poverty and desperation experienced by the majority of the Swazi population is much the same in rural SA, where colonial /Apartheid-installed chiefs often still act as local despots. In other words, the conditions which have led to the mass opposition protests in Swaziland will not be solved simply through the overthrow of Mswati, or even less by converting him into a largely ceremonial figure like SA’s tribal kings. The aspirations of the Swazi people can only be satisfied through the democratic control and ownership of the economy, based on planning for the needs of the country in co-operation with the South African working class, as part of a socialist federation of southern Africa.

The DSM (CWI in South Africa) supports the demand for an end to the rule of Mswati and the hated Tinkhundkla system (a sort of traditional ‘council of elders’ system), and the un-banning of political parties. We fully support the struggle for democratic rights, including the right to organize and protest and to set up independent unions and workers’ political organizations. Pressure should be intensified on the ANC government, which is propping up the Swazi monarchy, to cut the diplomatic and economic protection it gives to Mswati. Cosatu (South African Trade Union confederation) solidarity action together with Swazi campaigns for democracy would be a first step. The best support SA workers and youth can give to their brothers and sisters in Swaziland will be following their example – launching a co-ordinated mass movement for not just democratic and political liberties but for real economic liberation.

Intensification of struggle needed!

An intensification of strike action is needed, as well as sit-ins and demonstrations, carefully co-ordinating such struggles to ensure maximum support from workers and youth across the whole of Swaziland, including from the rural population.

Systematically organise in companies, administrations and factories, schools and universities to resist the repression of state forces, like the street and factory committees that existed in South Africa in the 1980s, with the aim of setting up mass democratically elected committees of struggle.

We call for the ending of absolute monarchy and for the establishment of a democratic Constituent Assembly. For a new government standing clearly for the interests of the poor and working people.

Take over, under democratic workers’ control and management, all the major sectors of the economy, kicking out the royal stooges, as well as the IMF.

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