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South Africa Key to Swazi Protest Outcome

MANZINI, Apr 15 2011 (IPS) - Uneasy calm has returned to the streets of Manzini, Swazi commercial capital, after two days of heavy-handed police action against unions protesting government’s handling of the financial crisis gripping the mountain kingdom.

The role played by South Africa in the affairs of its tiny neighbour, Swaziland, came to the fore this week, as police broke up union protests against government’s handling of the financial crisis that has gripped the mountain kingdom.

While U.S. and EU diplomatic representatives issued a statement calling on the Swazi authorities to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly and association, the South African government issued an anodyne statement calling for calm and political dialogue.

Unions planned four consecutive days of protest, but police occupied Manzini’s Jubilee Park before demonstrators ever got there, and pounced on protesters as they converged, detaining leaders and dropping others in remote parts of the country.

Labour has rejected a 4.5 percent wage cut, part of a response to a budget shortfall caused by a drop in revenues from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) which previously provided up to 60 percent of the country’s income. The wage cuts are a requirement if the International Monetary Fund is to support Swaziland’s efforts to borrow money for budgetary assistance.

Unsound governance

Wage cuts are never popular, but Swaziland's government has done itself no favours ahead of proposing austerity measures.

Finance Minister Majozi Sithole cut a rod for his own back when he admitted in February that the government is losing up to 11 million dollars a month due to corruption.

"This government is not fit to lead us," said Sibongile Mazibuko, the president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT). "It’s corrupt to the core."

King Mswati III’s extravagance in the face of Swaziland's crushing poverty - nearly two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line - is also not helping the situation. The royal family enjoys lavish resources, including the tax-free profits of the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane conglomerate.

Public servants were also outraged to discover that government is no longer remitting pension contributions to the Public Service Pension Fund (PSPF).

Civil servants have a monthly contribution of five percent of their salaries deducted for the PSPF; government is supposed to put in an amount equal to 15 percent.

Mazibuko told IPS that the government had entirely suspended remitting pension payments to the PSPF - although it has continued to deduct five percent monthly wage slips.

"We’ve heard that these are all desperate efforts by the government to keep paying salaries because it has run out of money," said Mazibuko.

The government has not disputed the allegation.

Customs union

The question of SACU revenue highlights the enormous economic power South Africa wields over Swaziland. The five member countries of the pooled customs and tariff income – Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia are the others – are discussing changes to the world’s oldest customs union. South Africa generates the bulk of the income, but Africa’s largest economy is proposing changes to a revenue-sharing formula presently tilted heavily in favour of its smaller neighbours.

“The new formula is putting member countries in a worse-off situation,” said Minister of Finance Majozi Sithole.

If the proposed new formula were to be implemented in the 2011 financial year, Sithole says, Swaziland’s income would fall from 614 million dollars to just $185 million, putting the country’s budget in even worse trouble. Income for Botswana and Namibia would fall by roughly two thirds, while Lesotho’s share would increase slightly.

“South Africa’s [share] would improve from 25 billion rand to about 38 billion rand ($5.4 billion),” said Sithole.

A statement issued by the shadow deputy minister of international relations in South Africa, Stevens Mokgalapa of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, said President Jacob Zuma was in a good position to pressure Swaziland to democratise.

“South Africa is Swaziland’s key trading partner – more than 90 percent of Swazi imports are from South Africa and we buy two-thirds of the country’s exports,” said Mokgalapa.

He urged Zuma to use the economic levers at his disposal – including the SACU sharing formula – to bring pressure to bear on King Mswati III.

Across the border, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions staged a solidarity action on Apr. 12 at the major border crossing between the two countries, also demanding that King Mswati III introduce multi-party democracy.

“We’re in solidarity with the Swazi trade unions,” said Zanele Mathebula, COSATU international deputy secretary general.

COSATU did not carry out its threat to blockade the border post, but the frontier was quieter than usual.

“We did experience lower cargo and passenger movements as it is per norm,” said Leon Potgieter, the customs inland operations at the South African Revenue Services. “Clients were warned in advance of the impending strike.”

Swazi senators upset

Members of the Swazi Senate expressed disappointment at South Africa for not protecting the country from its media and COSATU – angered both by the border protest and by the generally negative coverage of Swaziland’s government in the South African press.

Senator Prince Magudvulela said the South African media has taken the side of the protesters in this matter.

Senator Ngomuyayona Gamedze said the African National Congress-led government in Pretoria should prevent its nationals from making negative comments about the king.

“Are we still friends with South Africa?” he wondered.

Swaziland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Themba Masuku, said he thought the South African government was not aware of what its people were saying about Swaziland and the King, otherwise it would have done something.

The senators reminded South Africa that the institution of the monarchy was instrumental in bringing to an end the apartheid regime.

South Africa’s High Commissioner to Swaziland, Reddy Mampane, said the Swazi government has not made a formal complaint to South Africa. “In any case, how would the South African government prevent COSATU and the media from saying things about Swaziland?”

Swazi Foreign Minister Dlamini, who visited Pretoria in early April and met with his South African commentator, downplayed the idea of any tension between governments, saying relations between the two countries were “perfect”, and arguing that senators were just expressing their views on the matter.

He did warn South African activists and media to stay out of Swaziland’s affairs. “We don’t want other people meddling into the country’s politics. Only Swazis speaking SiSwati can discuss the country’s politics and not other people.”

Protests quiet – for now

Meanwhile, unionists suspended their protest after two days. Following a fierce standoff at the Swaziland National Association of Teachers Centre in Manzini on Apr. 13, police forced their way in and searched the building from top to bottom for “firearms and terrorists”.

“Police were following sensitive information given that there were people on Facebook who claimed that Apr. 12 would see the end of Swaziland,” Minister Dlamini told reporters.

On Apr 14, Police Commissioner Isaac Magagula claimed police had arrested three people who were found with explosives at the SNAT centre. He said the suspects will appear in court soon.

Unions said this was just propaganda by government to divert attention. “Police have a history of arresting people in such instances and failing to prove their case in court,” said Vincent Ncongwane, the chairperson of the Labour Coordinating Committee. “Magagula must call another press conference when the verdict is out.”

The protesters may have retreated for now, but teachers’ union president Sibongile Mazibuko says they’ll be back. “On April 19, the three trade unions will host a meeting where we’ll decide the next step,” said Mazibuko. “We won’t rest until the cabinet goes home.”

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