Monday, 11 April 2011

Swaziland prepares for protests

Thousands of workers, students and members of civil society are expected to march in tomorrow's protests in Swaziland, despite the government ban and police crackdown on opposition in the past few days. The day, 12 April, marks 38 years since the country's constitution was suspended. The protest action has the support of COSATU, South Africa's largest trade union federation and part of the ruling alliance of Swaziland's large neighbour, although the South African government has not taken a stand on the issue.

A lot of the coverage around the planned protests has focused on this as a sub-Saharan replica of Egypt or Tunisia. This may be a good way to sell papers but is probably far from accurate. It is possible these protesters are emboldened by what has been happening in North Africa but this is really about the unique situation of Swaziland itself. The country is Africa's last absolute monarchy and all opposition is banned. Employment in the country is limited and a large proportion of those who are employed work in South Africa. Government services like health and education have always been limited but they became a lot less common, almost drying up in some areas, when the country lost most of its budget during the recession. 60% of Swaziland's budget had come from the SACU. When revenue dropped, Swaziland lost out. Large protests 3 weeks ago were over pay cuts to civil servants. The country is planning to lay off thousands of civil servants this year as part of IMF-advised austerity measures. The country also recently decided not to pay state pensions for the first quarter of the year, a decision that has left thousands of families with no income at all. All of this is against the backdrop of a monarch who supports a fairly luxurious lifestyle and has several wives and recently received a pay increase.

It is unclear at this point what exactly will happen tomorrow. The government of Swaziland has been working to shut down this opposition space but organisers claim they are determined and have popular support. They are demanding democratization and an end to corruption and state funds supporting lavish lifestyles for leaders.

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