Labour calls general strike over democracy demands

An upbeat New Year's message by Prime Minister Themba Dlamini has been rebutted by Swaziland's pro-democracy groups, with labour unions calling for a general strike in January to protest lavish royal spending and a controversial draft constitution.

"Poverty has been a great enemy for both social and economic development in our country. His majesty's government has put measures in place, and I hope this will go a long way to addressing this challenge," said Dlamini in his New Year's address, without offering specifics.

Dlamini, a relative of King Mswati III, who was appointed by the monarch to head the cabinet, was similarly vague on other issues, like the long-delayed national constitution and a rule of law crisis that has tarnished the country's international reputation and slowed foreign investment.

In his radio address, the premier argued that Swaziland was a democratic nation, despite the banning of political parties.

In response, the outlawed opposition party, the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), promised greater political activism in 2005, with public demonstrations and appeals for "selective" international sanctions against the royal family.

PUDEMO cited Mswati's recent purchase of one of the world's most expensive cars, a US $500,000 Maybach, as evidence of his insensitivity and lack of accountability in a country with a 70 percent poverty rate.

In its year's end statement, the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations called for "citizens' involvement in the budget making process and the immediate cessation of government expenditure on luxury items".

"Forty percent of Swazis are infected with HIV, [and] a quarter of the nation survives on food aid, but the authorities continue to spend tax funds for non-essential but expensive luxuries such as houses for royal children living abroad, increased allowances for the extended royal family and the redecoration of royal palaces," the group said.

The coalition criticised government for spending more money on the security forces than health and social welfare, "despite the fact that Swaziland has no notable enemies, and one of the worst health crises in the world".

A nationwide general strike set for 25 January has been called by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions in its New Year's message. The workers' organisation will protest what it called a non-democratic constitution that retains the powers of sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy.

"The fact that 2005 will begin with the king assenting to a constitution that has not been informed by civil society organisations ... demonstrates that we are a long way from enjoying our basic fundamental God-given rights," the labour federation said in its statement.