Friday, September 30, 2011

Swaziland: 'Smart' Denial Amid Creeping Paralysis

Though the aftermath of the robust anti-government protests of early September has deepened government paralysis and created a more volatile situation acrss the country, Swaziland's government continues to play for time.

The government is keeping itself afloat - barely - by borrowing from the country's central bank, despite entreaties in August from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not to do so and to repay as soon as possible the outstanding emergency credit line it secured from the bank.

In addition to the pillage of the central bank, the Swazi government has also dipped into the country's emergency fuel fund to pay its public sector wage bill, a situation that is unsustainable beyond October.

The more it borrows from the central bank, the greater the distance the government is putting between itself and its ability to meet the conditions on fiscal continence attached to the R2.4-billion loan it hopes to receive from South Africa. The first part of the loan was supposed to have been paid in August, but the government of King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last fully fledged royal despot, has so far resisted signing the Memorandum of Understanding on the loan's conditions, which include democratic reforms and strict adherence to the IMF's recipe for fiscal restraint. These conditions are anathema to Mbabane.

What moves there have been on opening up to change have tended to be clumsily arranged forums for some sections of civil society. Lately, though, even these seem to have dropped by the wayside. The latest effort at engagement was more true to established form - the Smart Partnership National Dialogue, held in mid-September at the Mavuso Trade and Exhibition Centre. Though a regular event on the royal calendar down the years, this year's conference was billed as the leading channel of debate on the country's political and economic troubles.

Mswati described the dialogue as an event "designed for individuals and not organisations", which put paid to any chances that the event would engage Swaziland's increasingly restless civil society. Though the king's organisers balked at inviting opposition parties and organisations to the conference, individual members were ostensibly welcome, but those from the pro-democracy organisations, including the newly formed Swazi
Democratic Party, said they would not attend anyway.
In the end it was only the Swaziland Council of Churches' Convention of Civil Society, a pro-government formation boycotted by trade union movement and the People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), that looked as if it might turn up to the king's "dialogue" with a list of proposals for democratic change. But it too threw in the towel when it was told that it would not be heard.

Instead the king used the event to lambast the IMF, the media and the political opposition for failing to take a proactively positive stand in solving Swaziland's troubles. He urged the business community to get Swaziland out of its financial mess, among other things by pioneering mineral prospecting. He referred to attacks on the lack of detail on the South African loan, but gave no indication that the loan was still on the cards.
The tiny landlocked kingdom of about a million people is beset by crises on a number of fronts. It is fiscally insolvent due to the sharp decline in Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) revenue since the end of last year, unsound spending on capital projects urged by the monarch, a top-heavy wage bill of 18% of GDP, and helter-skelter corruption. There is a constant leakage of state funds to sustain a rapacious royal family, including the king's 13 wives. The country also faces a developmental meltdown, with the world's highest levels of HIV and TB, 70% poverty and 40% malnutrition.
No matter which way it turns the government is stymied. The judiciary remains hamstrung by a strike by lawyers over the appointment of Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, seen as one of the king's men, following the dismissal of the more independent-minded Supreme Court Judge Thomas Masuku. In a further fallout from this controversy, Mswati's prime minister, Barnabas Dlamini, fired David Matse, the country's justice minister, on Thursday. Matse was sacked for his refusal to get rid of Masuku.

Matse is the second justice minister to be fired in a year, after Ndumiso Mamba was caught red-handed in a hotel room with the king's 12th wife Nothando Dube, a former Miss Teen Swaziland.
With the health sector hard hit by the absence of drugs for chronic and acute diseases, schools unable to open due to lack of government funding, and bus and taxi workers vying hard for custom, hair-trigger protests are increasing. This was seen in the violent clashes between over 1 500 transport workers and the police in and around Manzini last week, which was sparked by the arrest of taxi operators for operating outside their designated limits.

Outside the main urban centres residents have been quick to protest and rally against the authorities, as has happened over the continued closure of schools.
With no ready cash to pay for many schools to open and pupils to enrol, school principals and ministry of education officials have raided the education grant for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) to use it to enrol other children. The government recently received R15 million (-1.5 million) from the European Union for its OVC budget, and it is uncertain how the money was spent. The OVC fund is short anyway of R80-million.
The education ministry says that it will ensure that all primary and high schools will open by the second week of October, but admits that it does not have the funds for teaching aids, food and necessities to enable any of the schools to function. It also announced that it does not have cash for petrol for the fleet of ministry vehicles to tour the schools and take stock of the situation.

The education system has been further rocked by claims that teachers routinely tortured children at Mhlatane High School in Hhohho. The allegations are contained in a report by the Swazi office of the NGO Save the Children, which has been submitted to the United Nations.

Swaziland is due to appear before the UN Human Rights Committee in the first week of October, when it is expected to respond to the allegations.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pretoria's Conditions Tie Mbabane's Hands

The relative restraint shown by the Swazi government during the five days of rolling protests across the country last week demonstrate Mbabane's increasing recognition that survival hinges on how it is seen to be handling the democracy demands of its citizens.

Though many within the Swazi pro-democracy movement initially lambasted South Africa for agreeing to the R2,4-billion (US$351-million) bailout for Africa's last monarchic autocracy, they recognise that the first basket of conditions attached to the loan, dealing with general democratic reforms, has forced the Swazi government to give a freer rein to opposition protests.
Swaziland remains in desperate financial straits that well exceed what the loan from South Africa could cover. Despite profligate spending on capital projects deemed by international finance institutions to be unwarranted, budget payments of some R300-million each year to the royal household, and footing Africa's highest public sector wage bill - of 18% of GDP - the government is unable and unwilling to reverse its fiscal demise. On top of this, the roughly one-million-strong population suffers the world's highest HIV and TB rates and a devastatingly low average life expectancy of just 31 years.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No fees, no school.

Mbabane — The future education of Swazi children remains uncertain, as public schools across the country have not reopened for the new term because government has not been able to pay for their upkeep.
Swaziland's cash-strapped government has yet to pay the 13.5 million dollars it owes in school fees for the Free Primary Education Programme (FPEP) and for orphans and vulnerable children. Government pays for pupils in grades one to three under FPEP, and for the entire schooling of orphans and vulnerable children.

Principals use this money to pay for support staff and other running costs of their schools, which include water and electricity, and phone bills. They also use the money to buy teaching materials, like chalk. But principals across this small landlocked country in Southern African have decided to keep schools closed until the money owed has been paid.

Over 300,000 pupils attending public schools are affected by this standoff between the Ministry of Education and Training and the Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA).

On Thursday the Swaziland National Association of Teachers joined SWAPA and took to the streets to demand the payment of fees.

"We're desperate and frustrated," said school principal Roger Mpapane.

"Government is always late with payment and most of the time does not pay the money in full," complained another principal.

Some schools have had their water and electricity disconnected. Without these essential services, said Mpapane, ablution facilities become a health hazard.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Cash flow problem"

Mbabane — The vast majority of Swaziland's primary and secondary public schools have not opened for the new term, after the government failed to settle the outstanding education fees of US$10.8 million for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). About 200,000 children, or nearly one fifth of the country's 1.1 million people, are classified as orphaned or vulnerable. Swaziland has the world's highest prevalence of HIV - 26.1 percent. One in four Swazis aged 15-49 is HIV-positive and 70 percent of people live below the poverty line.

The government of King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, is legally bound to pay OVC fees, which have been outstanding since January 2011. "Last week government assured us that when schools opened for the third term, [13 September] money for the outstanding fees would be paid for the OVC. This did not happen. The schools have no money to operate," Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the country's largest teachers' union, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), told local media. In a mobile phone text message to about 9,000 union members on 13 September, SNAT said: "Since government has failed to deposit money for OVCs as per agreement, teachers should return and remain at home until [we] meet Thursday [15 September] for a protest march."
The Ministry of Education told IRIN the teachers' union did not have the authority to close schools, and the ministry has ordered children to attend school through broadcasts on government radio stations.
Swaziland's deepening economic crisis saw neighbouring South Africa recently agree to a R2.4 billion (US$370 million) loan to prevent an economic meltdown, after international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), declined to bail out Swaziland for, among other reasons, its failure to reduce its public sector wage bill, which is seen as far too large for the country's size. South Africa has not yet paid the loan.

"Cash flow problem"
The Swazi government says the failure to pay OVC school fees is a "cash flow problem" and has given assurances that education and health needs would be financed. They [OVC] are the innocent ones in all this. The first and second graders were promised that their fees would be paid by government, as per the national constitution

A headmaster of a school in central Manzini region, who declined to be identified, told IRIN: "They [OVC] are the innocent ones in all this. The first and second graders were promised that their fees would be paid by government, as per the national constitution... The OVC in higher grades are so many now, and schools cannot operate without government assistance paying their fees. We are at our wits end. The children are absolutely devastated. It is painful to educationalists and it's a tragedy for the children," he said.

The Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA) recently resolved not to admit any OVC for the 2012 school year to avoid what is becoming an annual confrontation with government over the payment of fees.
"School is not only necessary for the children's education, but for socialization, because many OVC reside at child-headed households. Their parents have departed," social worker Thandi Gamedze said.
Second grade teacher Ronald Dlamini told IRIN: "Swaziland's government has no money and it is making its spending priorities clear. It seems to be taking the path of least resistance. Instead of cutting civil servants' salaries and risking strikes, it is making the nameless and the faceless ones suffer, because first and second graders and OVC do not take to the streets."

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I'm glad to say that despite the problems with government, the university has opened and lectures have started. I will be posting some recent photos of Nhlanhla that I asked him to take for this blog. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Phones cut as nation protests

The People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) in Swaziland is reporting today (5 September 2011) that mobile phone communications in the capital Mbabane have been cut on the first day of a planned five day protest in the kingdom.
It reports sole mobile communication provider MTN Swaziland, which is 51% owned by King Mswati, has shut communication. This is a repeat of what happened last year during the 1st Global week of action when communication was shut, PUDEMO says.

Read the rest here.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Does too much charity cause Swaziland to abdicate its responsibilities?

This is a question I often ask myself. The Swazi government has a responsibility to pay for the education of primary age pupils but it does not fully honour that pledge despite having it in its constitution. By foreign charities and organisations paying for the building of housing for teachers, payment of school fees, the supply of resources and so forth, it could be argued that the government will be less likely to fulfill its responsibilities. In 2009, government announced a few days before the start of the school year that it would charge school fees. In 2011, parents have to pay school fees after the third year of primary school. Orphans who are supposed to get their school fees paid regardless of the form they are in are often turned away on a whim by head teachers for 'not wearing the correct school uniform' when the true reason is that the money paid by government comes late and is much less than the school fees charged to those who can pay.

The Swaziland government has a habit of treating its citizens with contempt and failing to honour its responsibilities. Abuse of power is the norm for those in all positions of authority. To get a passport you need a personal interview with the passport office, as though it is not a right. Now the Swazi government is facing an economic crisis. Its currency is artificially propped up by being pegged at one to one against the South African rand. South Africa has had to step in and loan 2.4 billion rands because the IMF and other lenders will not help because of Swaziland's record of corruption and bad governance.

Students struggling to manage financially

Mbabane — Swaziland's only university has reopened a month late for the new academic year, but the nearly 6,000 students are boycotting classes over cuts in their allowances, which the government says will only be paid in a few months time. The deepening economic crisis, which has led neighbouring South Africa to agree to a R2.4 billion (US$370 million) loan to prevent an economic meltdown, is seeing cost savings being implemented at the expense of the country's poor and vulnerable, where 70 percent of the 1.1 million population live below the poverty line.
"These allowances not only pay for students' room and board, transport and books but they also are used by families to pay for the education of the students' relatives. This suspension will lead to a domino effect throughout the education system so that none but the rich are able to afford schooling," Ntombi Dlamini, one of the affected university students, told IRIN. The government has said allowances which ranged from US$3,500 per annum for students living off campus, to $1,250 for students living on campus, would be reduced by 60 percent.

The Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), an umbrella organization of pro-democracy NGOs, said in a statement: "With the current fiscal crisis, the government has reduced allowances to an amount that effectively makes it impossible for most students to continue with their studies. "Most students in Swaziland come from very poor backgrounds where their tertiary education is the only hope of them escaping the cycle of poverty. Such students are known to use the little allowances that they get from the Swazi government to help their younger siblings through school and to help them with their living expenses. "With the cut in students' allowances, the Swazi government is effectively saying that only those students who come from well-to-do families will be able to afford to have tertiary education," the SSN statement said.

Irene Ndwandwe, a university student, told IRIN: "People accuse us of squandering our allowances on frivolous things, but I live very frugally and every cent I can save I send to my family who live in very impoverished conditions in a rural area." The money she sends home is used by her family to pay grade five school fees for her 10-year-old sister and although the government is constitutionally bound to provide free primary schooling, it is currently only exempting fees up to grade three.

Primary schools might not reopen

Wilson Ntshangase, minister of education, cast doubt in a recent radio broadcast that the country's primary schools would open later this month for the final term of the year, because of financial considerations.
According to local media, the Education Ministry has held meetings with school principals indicating that the payment of school fees for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) across all school grades was also in doubt. OVCs are estimated to comprise nearly half of the country's school enrolment and their school fees ensure the schools can pay their bills. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) declined a bail-out to Swaziland for among other reasons its failure to reduce its public sector wage bill, which is seen as far too large for the country's size. King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, resorted to South Africa for assistance to prevent a financial collapse.
However, the government has reportedly amassed US$180 million in unpaid bills, and the South African loan is merely seen as providing a temporary lifeline for the economy. The loan has been agreed but not enacted as yet, as conditions for it are similar to those imposed by the IMF.

IMF warning

The IMF, after completing a two week assessment, said in a statement on 31 August 2011 that the country's reserves had dropped to below the three months import cover, which is generally considered the cut-off point for a stable currency. The pegging of the emalangeni, the local currency, to the South African rand, is seen as the only barrier preventing the currency from being affected by rapid inflation. The IMF statement said: "The fiscal crisis in the Kingdom of Swaziland continues to deepen. The mission concurred with the authorities' views that the government will continue to face severe liquidity constraints over the coming months, notwithstanding the recently announced 2.4 billion rand loan from the South African authorities. "In this context, the mission advised the government to pass a supplementary budget to cut expenditures, while preserving pro-poor spending, and strengthen expenditure controls in order to restore fiscal sustainability.
"The quality of spending needs to be improved, with emphasis on education and health, particularly the fight against HIV/AIDS," the statement said. Swaziland has the world's highest prevalence of HIV - 26.1 percent. One in four Swazis aged 15-49 is HIV-positive. The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions has announced its intention to engage in solidarity protests against the cuts in student allowances, and pro-democracy groups are also planning a new round of demonstrations. Pro-democracy protests in April this year, marking the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties, were met with a heavy-handed response from security forces.