The vast majority of Swaziland’s primary and secondary public schools have not opened for the new term, after the government failed to settle the outstanding education fees of US$10.8 million for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).
About 200,000 children, or nearly one fifth of the country’s 1.1 million people, are classified as orphaned or vulnerable. Swaziland has the world's highest prevalence of HIV - 26.1 percent. One in four Swazis aged 15-49 is HIV-positive and 70 percent of people live below the poverty line.
The government of King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, is legally bound to pay OVC fees, which have been outstanding since January 2011.
“Last week government assured us that when schools opened for the third term, [13 September] money for the outstanding fees would be paid for the OVC. This did not happen. The schools have no money to operate,” Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the country’s largest teachers’ union, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), told local media.
In a mobile phone text message to about 9,000 union members on 13 September, SNAT said: “Since government has failed to deposit money for OVCs as per agreement, teachers should return and remain at home until [we] meet Thursday [15 September] for a protest march.”
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The Ministry of Education told IRIN the teachers’ union did not have the authority to close schools, and the ministry has ordered children to attend school through broadcasts on government radio stations.
Swaziland’s deepening economic crisis saw neighbouring South Africa recently agree to a R2.4 billion (US$370 million) loan to prevent an economic meltdown, after international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), declined to bail out Swaziland for, among other reasons, its failure to reduce its public sector wage bill, which is seen as far too large for the country’s size. South Africa has not yet paid the loan.
“Cash flow problem”
The Swazi government says the failure to pay OVC school fees is a “cash flow problem” and has given assurances that education and health needs would be financed.
|They [OVC] are the innocent ones in all this. The first and second graders were promised that their fees would be paid by government, as per the national constitution|
A headmaster of a school in central Manzini region, who declined to be identified, told IRIN: “They [OVC] are the innocent ones in all this. The first and second graders were promised that their fees would be paid by government, as per the national constitution… The OVC in higher grades are so many now, and schools cannot operate without government assistance paying their fees. We are at our wits end. The children are absolutely devastated. It is painful to educationalists and it’s a tragedy for the children,” he said.
The Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA) recently resolved not to admit any OVC for the 2012 school year to avoid what is becoming an annual confrontation with government over the payment of fees.
“School is not only necessary for the children’s education, but for socialization, because many OVC reside at child-headed households. Their parents have departed,” social worker Thandi Gamedze said.
Second grade teacher Ronald Dlamini told IRIN: “Swaziland’s government has no money and it is making its spending priorities clear. It seems to be taking the path of least resistance. Instead of cutting civil servants’ salaries and risking strikes, it is making the nameless and the faceless ones suffer, because first and second graders and OVC do not take to the streets.”