March 20, 2011

Protests over pay cuts and change of government / Union calls for economic sanctions

Thousands of protesters brought the Swazi capital of Mbabane to a standstill on March 18 as they took to the streets to oppose imminent salary cuts to civil service wages - and demand changes to the country's government. Swaziland's autocratic government is facing a growing challenge as a sharp decline in customs revenue forces budget cuts.

An estimated 20.000 Swazi residents, including public service workers and members of civil society organisations, marched to the office of the prime minister, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, demanding that the entire cabinet be removed because they have failed the country. "No to salary cuts," read one placard. "No to salary freeze," screamed another. The protestors also handed over a petition to Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini, demanding that he and the cabinet resign. Operations at schools, hospitals and government institutions were ground to halt.

African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) also called on South Africa’s government to impose economic sanctions on Swaziland to force King Mswati III third to step down. Samwu’s Stephen Faulkner said the South African government should have intervened much earlier. “We think that it’s a terrible dereliction of duty by the African Union and in particular by SADC countries,” he said. “We put particular emphasis on the South African government, who allowed the situation in Swaziland to continue.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has in the meantime vowed to intensify its role in labour protests in. “... we are intensifying our own role and involvement in taking up the demands of the Swazi people ... demanding that the world, and SADC and South Africa in particular, does more to assist the Swazi nation." Cosatu also said it supported the call for sanctions against the Swazi royal family. It said it would organise activities and events over the next few weeks to express solidarity with the Swazi people. One of these actions was a march planned for April 12 in Mpumalanga.

The Swazi government is proposing a 4.5 percent salary cut for public servants as well as freezing annual salary increases in an effort to reduce the wage bill by five percent. Wage negotiations were suspended until further notice in November 2010. "Public servants have to make a decision on whether they want to be paid 100 percent of their salaries and get nothing at all or get a reduced wage until the situation gets back to normal," said Finance Minister Majozi Sithole. Swaziland's government has done itself no favours ahead of introducing 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 eleven million dollars a month due to corruption.

After the protest, the country’s king fired a prominent defence official. He dismissed the official for failing to providing food to soldiers patrolling the borders. And a day after the protest, Mswati III called for his people to "work harder and sacrifice more", instead of protesting against the country's economic downturn, state media said on Saturday. "It helps no one to go to the streets and cause disruption in times when the country is buckling under the pressure of the economic downturn. We need to work even harder and sacrifice even more today for a better tomorrow. The storms shall pass for sure," Mswati told the state-run Observer newspaper. The secretary general of the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union, the country’s largest public workers organisation, said the king’s call was laughable.

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.

Tibiyo - established in the 1950s with public funds - has interests in agriculture, manufacturing, property and media, with shares in many of the country's most profitable enterprises. Profits from Tibiyo Taka Ngwane fund the royal family and national cultural activities such as the reed dance and incwala. "This is a company established from our money yet the royal family has monopolised it," said Mario Masuku, president of the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) party, banned under controversial terrorism legislation. Civil society organisations have demanded the nationalisation of Tibiyo.

Meanwhile, public servants were 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. According to Sibongile Mazibuko, the president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), the government had entirely suspended remitting pension payments to the PSPF - although it has continued to deduct five percent monthly wage slips. (Business Day/Mail & Guardian/IPS/Sadocc)

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