Thursday, April 14, 2011

Manzini 'turned into a Swazi war zone'

Protesters go into hiding as crackdown intensifies

Apr 12, 2011 9:50 PM | By OWN CORRESPONDENT, SIPHO MASONDO and HARRIET MCLEA

Swazi protesters have vowed to intensify their protests against the monarchy even as the police yesterday unleashed a violent crackdown, arresting foreign journalists and assaulting protesters in a bid to crush the rebellion against King Mswati.

By midday Manzini resembled a war zone, with police beating anyone seen to be part of the protests.

In the city centre, police told protesters that anyone speaking against the king was committing treason and would be jailed.

Protesters are demanding an immediate end to the reign of Africa's last absolute monarch, democratic reforms, and the unbanning of political parties and labour unions.

Swaziland has banned political parties since 1973 and promised constitutional reforms have not been enacted.

Yesterday, hundreds of riot and other police chased protesters and used water cannons and tear gas against them.

Senior trade union and student leaders believed to be behind the uprising have been arrested, and the crackdown has forced protest organisers to go underground.

"We are unable to disclose our location right now because our phones are being listened to. But, despite this, we are still mobilising and are getting foot soldiers - ordinary Swazi citizens - to spread the message that the revolution is still on," said a protest leader, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

King Mswati, who has been under pressure to bring reforms to his kingdom, yesterday brought his army onto the streets.

Clutching their machine guns, the army stood on the pavements ready for action.

Police swooped on the Swaziland Democracy Campaign offices and arrested Mary da Silva, the organisation's convener.

Speaking to The Times from a hospital where she was being treated after a run-in with the police, Da Silva said: "We were in the offices distributing information when a group of six police charged in. I was having an interview with Radio 702 when one of them snatched my phone and started punching me.

"They took my laptop computer and all three of us to the Manzini police regional headquarters."

Da Silva said she and the others were interrogated for about two hours.

Though it has not been announced, a state of emergency is said to have been imposed, with curfews and 24-hour roadblocks across the country.

Protesters are likely to be angered all the more by the news that Mswati is planning a birthday bash for later this month.

The news comes amid government calls for public service salary freezes and cuts. Social grants and pensions have not been paid in many months.

The impoverished country is about to be hit by a 27% electricity tariff increase.

Cosatu, the SA Communist Party and the Swaziland Solidarity Network held more protests at the Oshoek border post, in Mpumalanga, and at the Swazi embassy, in Pretoria.

The Mpumalanga secretary of trade unions federation Cosatu, Fidel Mlambo, said the protests had been successful and without violence.

He said the protesters handed a memorandum to a Swazi government representative.

"They promised to respond in 14 days. If they don't, we will blockade all borders - there will be blood and we will be prepared to die."

President Jacob Zuma has been asked to intervene in the Swaziland turmoil.

Speaking at the ANC's headquarters in Johannesburg yesterday, the party's secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, said the ANC "had not taken a formal position on Swaziland".

A number of South African journalists, including correspondents of Radio 702 and of the AFP news agency, were arrested in Swaziland on the grounds that their reporting was "hostile".

Swazi Foreign Affairs Minister Lutfo Dlamini said: "The majority of the people of Swaziland still believe we need to have His Majesty as our father and we believe he will assist us in building in our economy."