Swaziland’s civil service protests over pay freeze

2011-03-19 07:21

Mbabane – A protest sparked by Swaziland’s plans to freeze civil service salaries drew nearly 7 000 demonstrators, one of the largest crowds seen in the normally placid monarchy, as pro-democracy activists used the gathering to push their cause.

The crowd swelled as the day-long demonstration yesterday wound from downtown Mbabane to the prime minister’s office.

It was largely peaceful. Students in the crowd at one point threw stones at police, who were out in large numbers and showed restraint, so the tension was quickly defused.

Once the crowd reached the prime minister’s office, Sibongile Mazibuko of the teachers’ union called on the prime minister to resign.

Swaziland’s budget presented last month calls for freezing civil service salaries for the next three years and selling state-run companies.

The austerity budget has galvanised an anti-monarchy movement in the southern African country of about 1 million led by King Mswati III. Some protesters yesterday carried signs saying: “We want political reforms and “tyrants must fall.”

Mario Masuku, president of the main pro-democracy group, took part. He is usually arrested at such events, but was not yesterday, an indication authorities did not want to see the situation escalate.

“We are tired of being subjects in our country,” Masuku told the crowd. “Swaziland cannot remain an island of dictatorship in the sea of democracy. Royalty has squandered the economy ... We want a government by the people.”

He said the lesson of uprisings on the northern tip of the continent is that leaders must respond to people’s demands.

Democracy activists have struggled to draw support in the conservative kingdom.

Even people who do not like the current king, denounced as free-spending and irresponsible by democracy activists, see the monarchy as central to their national identity.

Swazi Minister of Finance Majozi Sithole has blamed corruption for some of his kingdom’s financial problems.

He complained, for instance, about doctors claiming payment from the health ministry for hours not worked, and officials travelling on funds meant for medication for rural clinics.

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