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Swaziland protest silenced

April 19, 2012

The tiny kingdom of Swaziland has been marking the 44th birthday of King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch. The authorities responded to pro-democracy protests with detentions and road blocks.

King Mswati III of Swaziland addressing the UN Assembly in 2009
Image: AP

Musa Hlophe from the Swazi Coalition of Concerned Civic Organizations was among those wanting to mark King Mswati's birthday with political protest, but he told DW from the capital Mbabane on Thursday that the government had "succeeded in repressing this particular operation."

"Even if the streets were closed to us, we wanted to celebrate this day and demand that our right to assembly and protest be restored," he added.

Pro-democracy groups had slated the king's birthday as a day of protest following earlier demonstrations last week. Swaziland's impoverished citizens were ordered to celebrate the day by giving contributions such as cows.

One of the world's richest monarchs

The king's opponents were indignant. "With Swazis being so ruthlessly taxed, the one man who does not pay taxes in the country, and yet happens to be the richest, is adamant that he should take the little money the country has and use it on a birthday party for himself, his wives and his children," the April 12 Swazi Uprising Movement said in a statement.

Children in a Swazi village
Will these children grow up in a more democratic Swaziland?Image: DW/Inga Sieg

The movement takes its name from the date on which political parties were banned in Swaziland 39 years ago.

"This is pure evil. Why does he not go to Kuwait and ask his friends there to throw him a party funded with petro-dollars?" the statement added.

Mswati is rated by Forbes magazine as being among the world's 15 richest monarchs with a personal fortune of more than $100 million (76 million euros). He has 13 wives, each with their own palace. But 60 percent of his subjects live on less than 2 dollars a day in one of the world's poorest countries.

Most of the national income comes from Swazis working in neighboring South Africa or via customs charges on items entering Swaziland. The country also has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. One in four carries the virus.

Rights abuses are increasingly attracting international attention. A statement released by the US embassy in the capital Mbabane one day before the monarch's birthday criticized Swazi security forces for preventing peaceful gatherings and the government for banning a trade union.

With political parties having been outlawed, unions play a leading role in pushing for reform.

Striving for a return to a multiparty system

Mduduzi Gina, first deputy general secretary of the Trades Union Congress of Swaziland, told DW that political parties should be made legal again in Swaziland.

"We want the next elections to be held under a multiparty system," he said.

Last week the government declared illegal any protests highlighting the abolition of political parties and put large numbers of police and soldiers on the streets. Seven activists were detained while on their way to a pro-democracy church service in the city of Manzini.

Musa Hlophe believes change will happen one day. "Pressure will come upon the king, because the power is in the king's hands, in one institution. If he becomes convinced that change does include him as part of the future, that we will not drive him to the sea...we believe that persuasion rather confrontation will be the resolution."

The alternative to peaceful change, he added, "was too ghastly to contemplate."

Author: Mark Caldwell (AFP, dpa)

Editor: Susan Houlton

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