Depending on what news outlets you regularly follow, you may have recently seen a few headlines coming out of Swaziland:
- Annual Reed Dance – where all the maidens dance topless before the King.
- Protests in the Streets – various groups and organizations demonstrating over a variety of issues.
- Schools close down – lack of money forces the education system to shut down.
- Big South African Bail out – Our closest neighbor gives the country a financial boost.
- Wikileaks releases Swaziland cables – The ambassador’s comments are made public.
Since some of those headlines could certainly induce worry for those of you that know us, I wanted to take the time to share the situation as we see it on a daily basis.
First, there are a few broad themes you need to understand about the country:
- Swaziland is a constitutional monarchy with a king, but also houses of assembly (senate / parliament). In the case of Swaziland that means a really big government and a whole lot of bureaucracy. Unlike England that has a similar system, King Mswati III has a whole lot of power in running things.
- Swaziland is in deep financial trouble. The government is simply too big to be supported by the streams of revenue that exist. The country has high need (largely stemming from the HIV / orphan crisis) and low income (70% live on less than $2/day). This has caused the type of problems you would expect: unpaid bills, promises without delivery, loss of services.
- Most Swazis love their King, although there is a small but vocal contingent that want to see a more democratic system with less power (and money) going to the King. This group tends to be less traditional, more educated and in general fairly civil
In one way or another, most of the recent press comes from some combination of these factors (except for maybe the dancing-topless-virgins thing).
The bailout from South Africa was necessitated by the dire financial situation of the country. However, the amount (roughly 3.4 million USD) is only enough to cover about a month and a half of government salaries. So, by the time it arrived, most of it was spent and nothing was accomplished. This "bailout" largely just served to accentuate the poor financial management of the government.
The protests have mostly been put on by groups that are upset because they are not getting what was promised to them: students are marching because they haven’t received their scholarship; nurses are protesting because they haven’t been paid on time; the teachers are upset because government hasn’t provided their share of education costs.
Part of the principals/teachers protest has been to shut down the schools. So far most students have missed 3-4 days of their final term of the year. However, the actual effect is variable as some schools have continued to operate. Unfortunately, the whole thing is largely political maneuvering and it is the kids who lose.
The financial crisis has been a rallying point for many of the pro-democracy groups in the area. Many of them see the monarchy as a huge financial drain that must be addressed and they see the the King and his allies as the ones responsible for taking things the direction they have gone. So, the push is for more representation from the populous of the country and less power/money going to the king. But, you have to remember that even if those points are valid, most Swazis are very happy and dedicated to King Mswati.
Then, on top of all of this, wikileaks just released cables from the US Ambassador commenting on the situation outlined above. I haven’t read the cables, but from what I can gather, they are mostly just formal statements about the country and its leadership that any westerner who has been here two weeks could plainly see.
Now, a couple things I want to point out. First, for the most part, Beth, Mikayla and I have not been directly affected by any of the things going on. Financially we are not dependant on the government so there are no major worries. Second, the protests / actions that are going on here have been largely very peaceful. There has been a few instances where things have gotten out of hand, but no more so than what happens occasionally at demonstrations in the United States. I think when people hear "African Protest" they picture machine guns, tanks and riot police. Here it is mostly just a bunch of educated people marching in the streets with banners while police look on. I am not saying that there are not things going on that I raise my eyebrow to, but nothing is happening that makes me feel unsafe.
Of course, there are a lot of indirect aspects of these situations that have and will affect us and those around us. First, the children in our child care program have been out of school and that means that it is up to our staff to construct learning opportunities on the fly for 120 children. Second, because government is not paying its bills, there are a lot of services that aren’t available. This has mostly just lead to inconveniences, but I am unsure how things will progress. There is a real worry that provisions for AIDS medication may be interupted and that could severely hamper our work. Third, security is heightened so it means more road blocks and things like that, but again, those things are mostly just annoyances.
Having followed news out of Swaziland for over 3 years now, and having read up extensively on the history of the country, I can say that the nation (especially the monarchy) is at a very interesting point. I have no idea how things are going to play out, but I fully expect Swaziland to be much different when we leave it than when we arrived. Thankfully, there is nothing that indicates to me that our safety may be threatened. There are no militias jockeying for power, no soldiers looking to over throw the government, no fires being set or vigilante justice running rampant. If anything, people of Swaziland are just wanting to make sure their voices are heard and that the country they love has the promise of a bright future.
While I am glad some of the issues of Swaziland are getting global attention, I also realize how things might look those on the outside. Honestly, the ongoing issues (HIV, AIDS, TB, orphan care, etc.) are much worse than any of the political issues that might occasionally make the news.