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Swazi government keeps distance as democracy demonstrations swell

By Sarah Lucas
Posted Oct 9, 2011 in World
Manzini - In contrast to its heavy-handed response to previous demonstrations, the Swazi government is mostly staying clear of protestors during this week’s Global Week of Action protests across the country.
More than 1000 people peacefully marched through the main city of Manzini chanting slogans on Tuesday, the largest pro-democracy demonstration since April.
This followed a protest of 500 people in the capital of Mbabane on Monday.
On Wednesday there were 1000 protestors in Nhlangano, 2000 in Siteke and 5000 in Manzini, according to the country’s main opposition party, People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).
The protests are the product of the great political discontent in the country, Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Student and labour unrest during the 1990s pressured King MSWATI III to reluctantly introduce a constitution in 2006, but genuine political reform is yet to be realised.
The legal status of political parties is unclear under the constitution, and talks broke down after the African United Democratic Party was blocked from registering as an official political party in 2006.
According to Swaziland Democracy Campaign, the coalition of pro-democracy organizations behind the demonstrations, the aims of the protests are an end to political repression, the release of political prisoners and the establishment of multi-party democracy. Some demonstrators burned cloth printed with the image of the monarch.
The country is made more volatile still by its desperate economic and financial situation. Underlying conditions are poor, with 70% of the population living on less than $1 per day. Swaziland recently overtook Botswana as the country with the world’s highest known HIV/AIDS rate.
Bad went to worse in February when Swaziland’s share of South African Customs Union (SACU) receipts was slashed from $741 million to $281 million. Having lost more than half of national revenue, every government department was forced to cut expenditure by as much as 25%. Thousands of public workers were furloughed, streetlights turned off and shortages developed in essential medical supplies.
King MSWATI III has responded unsympathetically to complaints of economic hardship, instructing his people in March to “work harder and sacrifice more”.
Demonstrators would prefer instead that the government tax the royal investment firm, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, used to finance Mswati’s lavish lifestyle, including luxury cars and palaces for each of his 13 wives.
The government has sought over decades to contain Swaziland’s pro-democracy movement, regularly jailing its leaders and kidnapping activists. Previous demonstrations have been violently quashed. During the so-called April 12 Uprising this year, police fired water cannons and tear gas into crowds. People standing in groups of more than two or three were clubbed by officers.
The government attempted to ban strikes taking place this week through the courts, but having failed, has allowed demonstrations to take place.“There is heavy police presence but they are not disturbing the marchers,” said Dumezweni Dlamini from the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice, a Swazi NGO.
Protestors in Manzini reported scores of riot police standing by and anti-riot vehicles along the protest route. Two security checkpoints were set up along the highway between Manzini and Mbabane. PUDEMO reported on 5 September that mobile phone communications in Mbabane had been cut.
On Wednesday there was a “major” confrontation in Manzini when protestors ran in the street and the police panicked, but there were no casualties, said Zakhele Mabuza, national spokesperson for PUDEMO, speaking on his mobile phone in the midst of a protest.
The regime’s uncharacteristic restraint may reflect a desire to avoid negative press that might damage its relationship with South Africa. South Africa is poised to sign a $343 million bailout to help ease the financial crisis in Swaziland.
This may provide an incentive, but government restraint will be tested on Thursday with larger demonstrations planned in Nhlangano, Siteke and Manzini, and on Friday when the protests converge in the capital.