While campaigning the international press to look to his embattled home nation, Musa Hlophe, hailed as the grandfather of the Swaziland human rights movement, surmised that if his home country was a business it would be technically broke.
Since its parliament handed all power to the Swazi King 34 years ago - at the time King Sobhuza II and now King Mswati II - the tiny southern African nation has become one of the world’s most controlled countries. Already one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, King Mswati II has stretched his power so that he not only has complete authority to appoint the country's Prime Minister, members of the cabinet and judiciary, but he has also outlawed the Swazi people’s right to engage in governance or, indeed, participate in any meaningful decision making. Widespread control has meant citizens’ rights to access information, and even a free press, have been all but obliterated. There is no protection of the right to assemble, to associate or to speak. He has absolute control over the nation’s finances. For MandlaHlatshwayo, an attorney and founding member of the People’s United Democratic Movement, the state of human rights in the country, from which he has been forced to live in exile, is worse than in headline-grabbing Zimbabwe. “We can’t even hold a political meeting.”
But Swaziland is also a state rich in natural resources. “Of all the countries in this region our problems are not due to a lack of resources,” says Hlatshwayo. The problem rather is that proceeds of the sales of resources have not gone to priority projects: health and education. Over 80 per cent of the country’s wealth is held by 20 per cent of the elite. The King has happily indulged his privileged family, friends and government ministers to ensure their loyalty. Citizens who once were proud of their self-sufficiency are now begging for their bread under spiralling costs of living. Unemployment has fuelled unrest amongst the populace as the country groans under a 40 per cent unemployment level and its people become hungrier by the day. They are given promises instead of something to eat.
But the real breaking point for Swazis is crippling poverty. Only 30 per cent of Swaziland’s population of around one million have access to more than $1 in spending money per day. Across the country thousands lie waiting to die from HIV-AIDS. The country has the lowest life expectancy in the world at 30 years.
The government has been reassuring its people that everything is fine. It promises first-rate highways and has pledged to make the nation a shining beacon in Africa by relying on protectionism and sticking to its tribal roots. A hungry populace can easily be manipulated.
The government’s debt is about $900 million, and growing. Critics, such as SibongileMazibuko, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, complain that the government ministers, mere puppets of the king, pay vast sums for ostentatious projects intended to make them look good. JoannesMongardini, the IMF’s mission chief for Swaziland, told Swazi civil society organisations that the government had a $50m budget addendum for a new airport project, though the country owns no aeroplanes. It has promised that next will be highways, yet Mazibuko asks: what about hospitals? "Our people are dying."
The root of most problems that ail Swaziland is corruption. Money has been haemorrhaging from the nation, butnot a single minister has been indicted. While 2 per cent of the country’s population die each year as a consequence of HIV-AIDS and not having access to adequate medical services, the government is fixated on claiming that all is fine. According to Hlatshwayo, Swazi society “resembles one that is suffering the effects of a civil war.”
Yet a crushing human rights environment and dictatorial rule seem unlikely to squash the aspirations of a rising number of Swazi youth fed up with oppression. Fuelled by the North African and Middle East uprisings, the youth and civil society of Swaziland are mobilising. On 12 April the voice of the people angry at suppression and hungry for bread will be heard on the streets of the nation’s capital, Mbabane, to demand change. Facebook has been their platform. “It’s the only legal way we can communicate”, says Pius Vilakati, one of the leaders of the protest and an exile forced to live in South Africa. Vilakati says the objective of 12 April is resolute: an end to the monarchy. “We are not going to move away from the streets until the source of dictatorship is overthrown.”
A tough response is likely, the police have already upped their forces. Human rights activists say the government is passing out guns to the army. Roadblocks are now commonplace and checkpoints are springing up like mushrooms. Some say the protest is driven by an idealism that only the youth have and question the effectiveness of a group eager to repeat what those in Tunisia and then Egypt achieved. Time will tell, but for Hlophe, a veteran civil rights activist whose own son has joined the Facebook movement, perhaps it’s these words that best guide the future of the country: “It’s fair to say that ever since the events in the Middle East and North Africa unfolded, Swaziland will never be the same.”