It has the world’s lowest life expectancy, the highest prevalence of HIV, and near-zero democracy – and this week the people of Swaziland have taken to the streets with a simple message: ‘things must change’.
‘Neither human rights nor democracy are respected in our country,’ says Siphiwe Hlophe, a human rights campaigner in Swaziland. ‘We have a political party that tolerates no opposition, that will arrest you if you are wearing a T-shirt with a slogan they don’t approve of and we can’t stand it any longer.’
Thousands have gathered to protest in the country’s largest city, Manzini, for what has been billed a ‘Week of Action for Swaziland’. The timing is significant as 6 September is the anniversary of the country’s independence from the British in 1968. And today many Swazis are calling for freedom from their current rulers.
‘The main problem is that we have an absolute monarchy that is above the law,’ says protest leader Quinton Dlamini. ‘As long as they continue to hold so much power that they insist on abusing we will always be pushing for some sort of democracy.’
‘The Swazi monarchy is incredibly corrupt and is living way beyond its means – which has put a massive strain on the public purse’
Under the current leader, King Mswati III, the people of Swaziland − a small landlocked kingdom bordering South Africa and Mozambique with a population of less than 1.2 million − have no right to freedom of association, expression or assembly and opposition parties are outlawed.
‘Swaziland is not even a one-party state, it’s a no-party state,’ says Dr John Daniel, a retired professor of political science who taught for 12 years at the University of Swaziland. ‘You can vote, but the only option on offer is a toothless parliament that is hand-picked by the king so the whole process is a little futile.’
Along with the need for more democracy, the distribution of the country’s wealth is at the heart of the current protests. Swaziland has a massive public sector debt and the government recently announced job and wage cuts that have left many feeling aggrieved.
‘The Swazi monarchy is incredibly corrupt and is living way beyond its means – which has put a massive strain on the public purse,’ says Dr Daniel. ‘Relating to this they have plans to lay off almost half of the country’s civil servants as well as eliminate state subsidies and raise taxes, which is causing a lot of disgruntled people.’
'If a woman was to come back and tell her partner she had HIV she may be accused of being a deviant and beaten up’
Swaziland’s extreme poverty is the root of many of the country’s problems. According to the UN Development Programme, Swaziland has the world’s lowest life expectancy, at around 35 years, and the highest HIV prevalence, at 25 per cent for the 15-49 year age group. Recent UNAIDS statistics estimate that 42 per cent of women attending antenatal clinics in Swaziland are HIV positive. Some argue this disproportionate figure is directly related to the suppression of women’s rights.
‘Women in Swaziland have very few rights and we cannot practice safe sex because the decision lies with our partner,’ says Ms Hlophe. ‘Men in our country do not let women access health services and even if they can they don’t talk about it. If a woman was to come back and tell her partner she had HIV she may be accused of being a deviant and beaten up.’
Marital rape 'not recognized'
Women’s rights have no place in the Swazi constitution and neither domestic violence nor marital rape is recognized.
‘The government has made a number of statements about marital rape along the lines of “How can you be raped by your husband when you belong to him?”’ says Stephen Brown, director of Positive Women, a charity that works with women suffering from HIV and AIDS in Swaziland. ‘Swaziland has signed up to CEDAW [the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] but customary law supersedes any international agreements so it means absolutely nothing.’
As well as the calls for democracy and transparency, improved human rights are central to the reforms that people like Siphiwe demand. And even though she is fighting a regime that has been accused of torturing dissenters and using excessive force against protesters, she remains undeterred.
‘Of course we are worried, but there is no-one who can help us but us,’ she says. ‘Even the police must have some sympathy for the change we want; we want to relieve their poor working conditions too. We are demanding a fairer society for everyone.’