Swaziland is one of the poorest countries on the planet, but it’s ruled over by one of the richest remaining feudal monarchs, King Mswati III. While 60-70% of the shrinking population (poverty and the highest HIV-AIDS infection rates in the world are taking their toll) lives on less than $2 a day, three of King Mswati III’s wives are off on a shopping trip to Las Vegas where they and their entourage will stay in 10 luxury villas each costing $2,400 a night.
So it’s no surprise that unions in Swaziland are demanding higher pay. For the last month, teachers and public servants have been on strike for an in-the-circumstances extremely modest 4.5% pay increase. Transport workers struck on 18 July over excessive fines, and nurses tried to join the strikes but were deemed an ‘essential service’ by the Industrial Court on 20 July, forbidden under Swaziland’s repressive labour laws from striking at all. Teachers themselves have faced similar attempts by the government to have their strike made illegal, and the Minister for Education and Training, Wilson Ntshangase, announced on 18 July that any teacher absent from work for more than three days would be sacked.
Leaders of the public servants’ union NPSAWU have been arrested, and demonstrations have been met with violence from the police who have fired teargas and rubber bullets at protestors and charged them with batons. On 11 July, eight people were shot and 13 arrested and on 18 July, a thousand parents and teachers seeking to present a petition about the dispute were prevented from reaching the parliament.
An example of the colossal hypocrisy of the King was his speech at a state banquet in Windhoek, Namibia last week, when he said:
“It is a struggle to liberate our people from poverty, disease and economic stagnation. I truly believe that if we combine our efforts to sweep this struggle away from our doorsteps, we will succeed in emancipating our people socially and economically.”
He could start by allowing unions to operate unfettered, raising wages for all, and abandoning the longest state of emergency in Africa so that political parties can contest next year’s promised elections freely and fairly.
Unions in Swaziland will continue their fight for social justice and political freedom, and are organising a week of action in September around Independence Day on Thursday 6 September, when unions around the world will be joining them in a day of international solidarity (details to follow).