(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Pro-democracy gains momentum

King Mswati III.
Taurai Maduna/IRIN

Some of the largest demonstrations in Swaziland's history, this time against growing poverty, took the shine off twin celebrations to mark King Mswati's 40th birthday and 40 years of the kingdom's independence.

At least 10,000 pro-democracy activists crowded the usually quiet streets of Manzini, the country's central commercial hub, on 3 September, before reassembling in the capital, Mbabane, the following day.

No mention was made of the march by government leaders during festivities on Saturday to mark the so-called "40-40" celebrations, but security forces were on high alert.

"We are elated by the historic outpouring of ordinary people to say to the royal government, 'Enough!'," said Andrew Simelane, a member of the umbrella Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU).

The march in Mbabane was marred by the detonation of two small explosive devices: the first, planted in a trash bin in a shopping mall, did no damage, and the second, inside an empty bus, blew a hole in the vehicle. No one claimed responsibility, and march organisers were furious that the blasts might distract from their humanitarian message.

"The people of Swaziland are suffering enough. We don't need bombings; we need to focus on how the nation's resources are being lost to corruption and privilege and not being spent on the people," said Vincent Ncongwane, Secretary-General of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, another worker's body participating in the marches.

The cost

Two-thirds of Swaziland's people live in chronic poverty, according to the UN Development Programme, and nearly 40 percent are HIV-positive, giving Swaziland the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. A majority of the population - 600,000 out of less than one million people - depend on food aid from international donor organisations.

Two weeks ago, 1,000 HIV-positive women, spurred by reports that eight of King Mswati's 13 wives had taken a trip to the Middle East and Asia, led a protest march in Mbabane.

The labour unions have demanded a public accounting of the money spent on the "40-40" event. Marchers in Mbabane were also angry that on the evening of the march, on 3 September, an elaborate party was held at Mswati's Lozitha Palace on the occasion of his eldest daughter's 21st birthday.

"The Americans this week scaled down a big political party for John McCain [the Republican presidential nominee] because of a humanitarian crisis [the impact of Hurricane Gustav]. A government must show its sensitivity toward the people's plight," said Cynthia Hlatshwako, who works as a secretary in Mbabane.

Although Swaziland's state-run television did not broadcast coverage of the demonstrations, some members of the Swazi press are showing new boldness. Local newspapers widely reprinted a recent list published by Forbes magazine, in which King Mswati was named one of the 15 richest royals in the world.

Political commentator Vusi Sibisi compared the current situation in Swaziland to that of France prior to the French Revolution. Swaziland's gross domestic product has seen a two-decade decline, while many other Southern African nations have been experiencing sustained GDP growth.

SFTU Secretary-General Jan Sithole has announced a week of mass action from 15 to 19 September.


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