Swaziland pro-democracy protests met by teargas and water cannon

Riot police beat demonstrators as union leaders and journalists are arrested in Africa's last absolute monarchy

Riot police have fired teargas and water cannons, beaten demonstrators and arrested union leaders, activists and journalists in an attempt to stop pro-democracy protests in Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarchy.

Simantele Mmema, spokeswoman for the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, told the Associated Press that riot police had dispersed more than 1,000 workers who were singing and chanting in a teacher training centre.

Earlier more than 150 paramilitary police surrounded Freedom Square in the commercial capital, Manzini, separating any groups of two or more people. Buses approaching the city were stopped by police, with passengers held under guard or driven back in the opposite direction. At least seven labour leaders were arrested and several foreign journalists detained. Five activists were arrested on Monday evening before the planned march, which had been banned by the authorities.

"The paramilitary police were marching and chanting in the square, as if they were the demonstrators," said Sikelele Dlamini, co-ordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, a coalition of pro-democracy groups, speaking by telephone from Manzini. "It was an open act of intimidation, saying to protesters: 'We have taken over the streets'."

The Manzini demonstration was called in protest at the lack of freedoms and the dire economic crisis in the tiny mountain kingdom. Nearly broke, the government recently announced it would have to cut civil servants' salaries, which were raised last year following an outcry over plans to raise politicians' allowances.

The march was timed to coincide with the 38th anniversary of the day when the late King Sobhuza II repealed the constitution, banned political parties and installed himself as absolute ruler. His son, King Mswati III, has ruled since 1986.

Mswati's polygamy – he has married at least 13 wives – and his taste for luxury, especially cars and palaces, has caused ridicule outside Swaziland. At home though, where tradition runs deep, and people are proud of their culture, he remains largely popular.

There has long been a measure of opposition to the lack of political freedoms, but the pro-democracy movement has gained momentum due to recent financial difficulties, as well as the uprisings in north Africa. Swaziland's main source of revenue, from the Southern African Customs Union, recently fell 60%, due mainly to the global recession.

The IMF has been engaged to help the country borrow money from donors, but recommended that big spending cuts need to be made. With the highest civil service wage bill as a percentage of GDP in Africa, Swaziland's workers will feel the pinch under the government's own austerity plan. Around 7,000 civil servants need to be retrenched, and salaries will be cut by up to 10%.

With about two-thirds of the 1 million-plus population living below the poverty line, the proposals have not gone down well. Last month unions organised a strike that involved thousands of people marching through the capital Mbabane in protest at the cuts, the biggest demonstration in years. The demonstration in Manzini was a follow up, with pro-democracy activists joining in.

Dlamini, the activist, whose female colleague was beaten by police on Tuesday while he hid in a nearby office, said: "Civil servants pay cannot be reduced – they are paid virtually nothing anyway. And they are not the ones responsible for messing up the economy. The government must go."

Some observers have pointed out however that Swazi civil servants are relatively well paid compared to in other countries in the region.

The demonstrators have received strong support from South Africa. The powerful trade unions there have called for an end to King Mswati's rule, while the ANC Youth League called on Swazi youth to "fearlessly confront the Swaziland monarchy and fight until it has been brought down to its knees".


Xan Rice

The GuardianTramp

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