Swazi democracy talks stumble

Mbabane - Talks on democratic reforms in Africa's last absolute monarchy stumbled Saturday as the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, the country's largest labour group, walked out of a civil society meeting.

The "national convention", which opened on Friday, aimed to bring together civil society groups to map out how the kingdom could begin negotiations toward multi-party democracy.

But the labour federation argued King Mswati III - who snubbed the gathering after being invited to deliver an opening address - had not shown a commitment to dialogue.

"Our position is that the king has refused to entertain the question of dialogue. He said this as recently as last year. It would appear that instead of strengthening our mass power we are busy talking dialogue, a language that the king refuses to embrace," said national organiser Fundizwi Sikhondze.

Sikhondze said unions would rather return to the streets to resume the demonstrations that have shaken Swaziland in recent months.

Pro-democracy groups, Aids activists and unions have staged unprecedented protests across the impoverished kingdom since April, complaining about an economic meltdown that is threatening the livelihoods of the country's 1.2 million people.

Swaziland is battling to stay solvent after last year losing 60% of its revenues from a regional customs union, the government's main source of income.

The government has frozen public-sector salaries and asked unions to accept pay cuts, leading to mass protests that have been violently put down by security forces.

Growing public resentment has lent momentum to calls for Mswati to step down.

The king - whose fortune is estimated at $100 million - is famous for his jet-set lifestyle and lavish spending on his 13 wives, each of whom has her own palace.

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