Friday, 9 December 2011

POVERTY: Swaziland:The misery of a mismanaged monarchy

geoffrey york: Dec. 02, 2011  
MANZINI, SWAZILAND—  When she arrived at her school one morning last month, Simangele Mmema discovered that the food and water were nearly gone.
She had already seen some of her students collapse from hunger at morning assemblies this year. Now she didn’t have food for their lunches. And so she had to send the children home and close the school a week before the end of term. “We can’t keep them here if they can’t eat,” she said.

Grade 1 students at Kholwane primary school in rural Swaziland sit in groups of seven at desks intended to seat two. The school has a shortage of desks, and broken chairs, but no budget for new ones. The school was forced to close early for the year because it had run out of food and water, a result of the country’s financial crisis.
In Photos: Hardship in Swaziland Ms. Mmema, principal of Kholwane primary school in rural Swaziland, is struggling to keep her school alive in the face of severe budget cuts, which have forced many of the country’s schools to close for weeks at a time. The schools are the latest victims of Swaziland’s financial crisis – a crisis largely due to mismanagement by the autocratic King who has ruled this impoverished country for the past 25 years.

As revolution swept across North Africa this year, a growing number of people in sub-Saharan Africa have challenged authoritarian regimes. They are increasingly aware of the link between autocracy and poor economic governance, and they are less willing to accept it.
Long-ruling dictators, including King Mswati III of Swaziland, have faced mounting protests this year. Thousands of Swazi demonstrators have taken to the streets, although so far the King’s police and soldiers have crushed the protests with tear gas and water cannons.
King Mswati, with his 13 wives and a personal fortune estimated at $200-million, is an extreme example of Africa’s autocrats. As one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, he appoints the government and presides over the world’s longest-running “state of emergency,” with all political parties banned since 1973.
Among foreign tourists, the Swazi monarch is famous for his annual Reed Dance, where thousands of bare-breasted virgins dance in front of the king, hoping to become one of his wives. But many of the king’s subjects are angry at the contrast between his vast wealth and the poverty of the people. While schools are shut down for lack of money, the king and his wives have lavish palaces, luxury cars and frequent shopping sprees in Europe on chartered private jets.
He has spent millions of dollars on armoured Mercedes-Benz limousines for his wives and a Rolls-Royce Phantom for himself. He is building a new multimillion-dollar international airport, with a separate royal terminal.Next to one of his palaces, he is building a luxurious new meeting hall for visiting dignitaries, complete with ornamental pillars and domed roof.
When trade unions objected to his spending, King Mswati said the masses should “work even harder and sacrifice even more.”
Swaziland’s financial crisis became severe this year when its customs revenue dropped by 60 per cent under a new regional customs union. South Africa offered a $350-million loan to bridge the gap, but the loan was attached to a series of conditions, including political and economic reforms, and the King’s government refused to accept the deal. Instead it sought other loans, and when the money failed to materialize, it threatened to chop the salaries of public servants.
The King and his friends, including the police and army, have been largely immune from the crisis. But ordinary people are feeling the pinch. Grants to pensioners have been delayed. Supplies of life-saving HIV medicine have been disrupted. Swaziland’s only university was shut down for weeks, and its students have been deprived of meal and book allowances, forcing many to leave school. University programs in law and journalism have been virtually shut down, and the university’s enrolment has dropped in half.
“We feel like a cursed generation,” says Othile Mthethwa, an 18-year-old university student. Because of the cancelled meal allowances, she has to beg her parents for food. “At the end of the month,” she said, “you get really hungry and you can’t study.”
Even before the latest crisis, the Swazi people already had the world’s lowest life expectancy – barely 33 years. Two-thirds of them earn less than a dollar a day. And they suffer the world’s highest rate of HIV, with 26 per cent of the adult population infected.
At Kholwane primary school, about two dozen of the 138 students are orphans because one or both of their parents have died of AIDS. The government promised to support the country’s 69,000 orphans with special payments to schools where they are taught and fed, but the money has stopped arriving, and the government now owes $10-million to the orphans.
Without money for the orphans, Ms. Mmema had to buy maize with the school’s limited budget, carrying it in her own car and milling it herself – until the money ran out. In desperation, she visited government offices and even tried to phone the Deputy Prime Minister, but got no response.
“The officials don’t know how frustrated we are,” she said. “I sacrifice a lot to keep the school going. But when I see the children walking to school barefoot in the winter, that’s when I break down and cry.”
Swaziland’s protest movement was slow to emerge. Most people revere the royal family, believing the King to be a living messiah. Even now, many pensioners refused to complain when their monthly grants were cut off. “It’s from the royalty, and we have to appreciate what they are giving us,” says Abraham Nkambule, a 70-year-old farmer.
In primary schools, children are taught to sing songs of praise for the monarch. “You are the sun, you shine over all of us,” they sing. “You are the lion, your word is final.”
Stephen Lewis, the former UN ambassador on AIDS in Africa, remembers meeting King Mswati and seeing the King’s female aide crawling on her knees into the room and then crawling out backward so that her back would never be turned to him. When Mr. Lewis expressed his horror at this, the King just laughed. “He laughed at everything,” Mr. Lewis recalled.
This year, however, more Swazis have been willing to defy their King and protest against his government. Teachers danced and applauded last month when their leaders called for democracy. “Let us tell the truth and liberate our country,” said Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, in a speech to the teachers.
“Revolution came to Egypt and Libya. The people will lead us, they shall fill the streets. I am ready to pay with my blood for democracy.”

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