Swazi teachers strike enters 2nd month

Mbabane - In the geography class at St Mark's High School, boys play chess on a board scratched onto a workbench in one corner, while in another a girl knits a scarf while her friends gossip.

Swazi teachers have been on strike for more than a month, but so far their abandoned classrooms are the only tangible result of a movement that wants not just salary increases but democratic reforms in Africa's last absolute monarchy.

"Our ultimate goal is democracy," said Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, who see King Mswati III as the country's biggest problem.

"He creates the poverty himself."

Teachers went on strike on 22 June demanding a 4.5% salary increase. Other public servants joined briefly, but the movement is stuttering after nurses returned to work on Tuesday following a court interdict.

Police have arrested 41 teachers, and the union has spent almost 150 000 on legal fees, Mazibuko said.

"The protests have become unsustainable. We are looking at stayaways, picketing on the premises," she said.

The International Monetary Fund has urged the government to slash its public wage bill as the economy stagnates, but has pulled its team from the country after the kingdom made no progress on reforms.

Striking teachers have had their salaries slashed as authorities retaliate against the strikes, receiving as little as 30 emalangeni for their last pay cheques.

Some were handed dismissal letters and threatened with jail for contempt of court if they didn't report to work, said government spokesperson Percy Simelane.

"Even if money could come now it would be very difficult to increase salaries," he told AFP. "We need to adhere to this advice or sink."

Teachers point to a 30% increase lawmakers awarded themselves in 2010.

"If you've paid yourself so much, why can't you pay them?" asked Mazibuko.

"The politicians' kids are outside the country. The king's children are outside the country."

"They will not invest in educating kids for the poor," she said.

Public servants also blame the lavish lifestyle of Mswati and his 13 wives. Forbes magazine rates him as among the world's 15 richest royals, keeping each wife in her own palace.

This week opposition groups claimed three of the queens and an entourage of 66 would travel to Las Vegas for a holiday.

The lawmakers' big paychecks "could be contributing towards the hefty salary bill that we have," Simelane said. "If it is not (withdrawn) amid the outcry... discontent will be very rife."

But he insisted democratic reforms were not necessary.

"We are one of the most democratic societies in the region," he said.

About 60% of the tiny country's 1.1 million people live on less than $2 a day. The UN World Food Programme says one-fifth of the country experienced food shortages this year.



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