Twin-engine jets, shopping sprees, dancing maidens: excess and repression in Swaziland
The people of Swaziland are in for a double celebration this week. The country held the finale of its traditional annual Reed Dance on Monday 2 September. Hard on the heels of the extravagant pageantry which, according to official sources, rounded up over 60,000 virgins, the Kingdom is set to mark the Independence Day on 6 September. His Majesty King Mswati III, his kith and kin, not to mention his fourteen consorts, have plenty to celebrate. But His Majesty’s 1.2m ordinary subjects seem to have less and less to celebrate with each passing year.
This week also marks the annual global week of action bringing together opposition forces in Swaziland, and at the end of the week the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) will be holding hearings about how bad the situation facing workers in the country has got.
The country’s GDP is estimated to have shrunk by 1.5% in 2012 while this year’s growth prospects look no better. The rate of annual inflation hovers around 9.6%. Ordinary Swazis are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. In 2013, the UN Human Development Index (HDI) scored the country at 140 among 187 countries and territories based on 2012 data. Life expectancy at birth fell from 58 years in 1993 to 49 years in 2011. According to UNDP, 20.4% of the population live in multidimensional poverty, based on surveys which take into account multiple deprivations in the same households in health, education and standard of living.
Political repression has been the hallmark of the Swazi regime. “I want to stress to you that political parties remain banned up until the people of Swaziland say so,” clarified His Majesty in August 2007 in a press conference in Mbabane after he had apparently been misunderstood or misquoted during a visit to Malaysia. His Majesty gave no clue as to when he last consulted his subjects on the issue. In the political vacuum, the royal wrath is pointedly directed at the “next worst” form of political expression – trade unions. The Trades Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) remains persona non grata since its formation in January 2012. His Majesty’s Government has left no stone unturned in its relentless search for pretexts to deny it registration. The regime appears impervious to the criticism of the numerous violations of fundamental rights of workers enshrined in ILO conventions which it has dutifully ratified. In fact, Swaziland had been cited in special paragraphs in the reports of the Committee on Application of Standards in the past two years prior to the ILO’s decision this year to dispatch a mission to the country.
According to the World Bank, “Swaziland is the epicentre of an HIV/AIDS pandemic and finds itself facing a social disaster.” The Kingdom occupies an unenviable position in the rankings of countries with high prevalence, topping the list with 26% of its population in the age-groups 15-49 being HIV-positive. One third of Swazi children are orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) while the Kingdom has the highest death rate from the pandemic despite the considerable progress made in recent years in the treatment and care of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Impoverished Swazis need not worry unnecessarily. They could always rejoice over the joys of the Royal Household or over His Majesty’s latest shopping jaunts to exotic destinations in his DC-9 twin-engine “private” aircraft or His Majesty’s concupiscent eyes feasting on the dancing maidens. Surely, there is enough to make Nero blush!