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.