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Swazi reform activists criticise South African bailout

Swazi activists criticised Thursday South Africa’s decision to grant the kingdom a $355-million bailout, saying the deal offers no guarantees that King Mswati III will follow through on democratic reforms.

The 2.4-billion-rand ($355-million, 259-million-euro) loan requires Mswati, Africa’s last absolute monarch, to open “dialogue” on political reforms in the tiny landlocked kingdom teetering on the verge of financial collapse.

But the deal announced Wednesday by South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan does not say who should be included in the dialogue, or set out concrete steps for Mswati to move toward democracy.

“People who are pro-democracy in this country will get a backlash from the regime because the regime will be saying, ‘We have won the battle’,” said Mario Masuku, leader of Swaziland’s banned opposition People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

“It is a wrong decision,” he said, likening the loan to “throwing money into a porous bucket.”

Swazi activists had lobbied South Africa to withhold the loan until Mswati allowed political parties, which were banned in 1973, and committed to a transitional government and elections within four years.

The loan leaves unclear how South Africa will enforce its demand for talks on reforms, said Sikela Dlamini, co-ordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, an umbrella group of activists.

“I would be interested in how South Africa plans to ensure Swaziland goes beyond undertakings in writing and actually does the things they promised they would do. We are dealing with a government that cannot be trusted,” he said.

Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the exile group Swaziland Solidarity Network, told AFP the loan was “ultimate betrayal of Swaziland people by the South African government.”

South Africa should have set out clear requirements to allow political parties and release political prisoners, he said.

Swaziland has been battling to stay solvent after losing last year 60 percent of its revenues from a regional customs union, the government’s main source of income.

The loan granted only one-quarter of the amount that Mswati reportedly sought and was expected to keep the kingdom afloat through the end of the year.

In addition to demanding a political dialogue in Swaziland, South Africa also insisted on fiscal reforms sought by the International Monetary Fund, which included slashing the public wage bill.

That has sparked street protests by labour unions that were violently put down. The loan does little to address the fears of public workers, who face 10 percent wage cuts.

The hardships have increased public resentment of Mswati, who has 13 wives — each with separate palaces — and a fortune estimated at $100 million, placing him on Forbes magazine’s list of the 15 richest monarchs in the world.

In contrast 70 percent of his 1.2 million subjects live on less than one dollar day and 25 percent of adults have HIV, the highest rate in the world.

Mswati’s loan request put South African President Jacob Zuma in a difficult position as Swaziland’s financial meltdown has raised the spectre of a Zimbabwe-style collapse that sent hundreds of thousands of people across the border in search of work.

Key allies of the ruling African National Congress, including the party’s youth league and the powerful labour movement, have vocally demanded reforms in Swaziland and actively support the kingdom’s pro-democracy movement.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions said the loan conditions “come nowhere close to the demands being made by the people of Swaziland for democracy, human rights and an end to the parasitic monarchy.”