Teacher calling for democracy means business

20th May 2011 at 01:00
Swaziland - A deputy head is at the forefront of a struggle for greater freedoms in the last of Africa's absolute monarchies

While the world's eyes have been focused on the revolutions in north Africa, major political protests are developing in the southern African kingdom of Swaziland, spearheaded by the country's largest unofficial teaching union.

Leading the call for greater democracy and an end to the continent's last absolute monarchy is 55-year-old economics teacher and deputy head Sibongile Mazibuko, a widow and mother-of-four from the capital Mbabane.

She is also president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) which represents 11,000 of the kingdom's 13,000 teachers - despite unions being technically banned - and has been at the forefront of public demonstrations and protests, incurring the wrath of the state's security forces.

Protesters want the powers of King Mswati III curbed, an end to the royal house's lavish lifestyle and greater democracy in a country which has seen its GDP drop by 10 per cent in the past 12 months due to declining customs income because of the worldwide recession.

The first protests occurred last month when the army and police attacked demonstrators in the main commercial city of Manzini and other major towns and cities.

Mrs Mazibuko was detained for 12 hours and interrogated by eight police officers while colleagues were beaten and dumped in the countryside away from their homes.

She said: "Teachers are everywhere in the country and are in touch with everyone, so we know how people feel. It is our duty to represent those feelings and demand change to the way we are governed.

"We want to see a constitutional democracy in Swaziland and a system that is transparent. There must be an end to corruption in government and greater fairness."

The King has 13 wives and an estimated fortune of #163;61 million, while 70 per cent of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day. The unemployment rate is 40 per cent, and a quarter of adults have HIV, the highest rate in the world. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world, at 32.5 years.

Unions are banned, political parties were outlawed 38 years ago and the media is strictly controlled, with no questioning of the King or government allowed.

Mrs Mazibuko, who also teaches business studies and accountancy at the Hermann Gmeiner school in Mbabane, said: "Thousands and thousands of people have protested and we are confident we can achieve change. We do not want the monarchy to be abolished because it is deeply respected by ordinary Swazis, but we do want greater democracy and accountability."

At the start of May, the country's main trade unions, including SNAT, joined together to create a single federation which will continue the battle for political change.

Although she was not harmed during her arrest, Mrs Mazibuko admits to feeling intimidated but dismisses suggestions that she is a heroine.

"It has fallen to us to call for political change," she said. "Parents of the children we teach support us and drive us on. I have spent most of my life teaching children, making them good students and better people. I want that for Swaziland - I fear no evil."

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