A strike called by Swaziland’s largest teachers’ union demanding a below-inflation salary increase is beginning to spread across the country - after the government refused to entertain any wage demands - and has led to sporadic clashes and arrests.
“There is no money to pay teachers a 4.5 percent increment. They have been told this again and again,” Education Minister Wilson Ntshangase told the media. Inflation is currently running at about 9 percent.
Strikes by the 9,000-strong Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) began on 25 June 2012. Government spokesman Percy Simelane says all teachers who take part in the strike will be fired; he has called the teachers “delinquents and criminals”.
On 28 June public transport was also hit after the Swaziland Transport and Allied Workers Union (STAWU) joined the strike. The government has applied to the industrial court for a 30-day detention order for the SNAT leadership.
“As expected, a court order was sought [by the government] to declare the strike illegal and was granted by a government-appointed judge, but because this happens whenever a strike is called in Swaziland the aggrieved parties take to the streets anyway. But it gives the security forces a green light to attack us,” Amos Dlamini, a striking teacher from the Manzini region, told IRIN.
“That [firing teachers] would certainly cut down on government’s wage bill, because a majority of teachers will be dismissed. But it shows government sees education as a political battleground, not as a national crisis that needs attention. As an African teacher I wonder why I am not respected. Why do some African leaders give lip service to the importance of education but do so little in terms of policy and expenditures?” a striking teacher in the second city of Manzini, who declined to be named, told IRIN.
SNAT has members in primary and secondary schools, and also in some tertiary institutions. According to the union, 30-50 percent of Swaziland’s 153 primary and 172 secondary schools have so far been affected by industrial action. The government has ordered school principals to keep the doors open, but in the absence of teachers, lessons have been disrupted and in some urban areas there have been incidents of students joining their teachers in street protests.
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“It is unusual for whole schools to empty and children taking to the streets like this. I’ve never seen anything like this that is so widespread. This is not the Swazi [practice] to be confrontational or disrespectful to police and authority, and you can see these children are very frustrated and angry,” Felicia Simelane, a seamstress whose shop provided a bird’s eye view of a confrontation between police, students and teachers in Manzini, told IRIN.
The average monthly wage (before tax) for a primary school teacher is about US$470 and $700 for a secondary school teacher.
Several students in Manzini and three teachers in the capital Mbabane were arrested on 26 June 2012 for allegedly throwing stones at riot police, who have so far responded with tear gas and warning shots, according to police spokesperson Superintendent Wendy Hleta. A further 25 teachers were arrested on 27 June 2012 on their way to peri-urban schools to encourage teachers in those areas to observe the strike, according to the union.
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“We are tired of going to school where there is no water for the toilets, no electricity and food that makes you sick to your stomach. The teachers are abused because they are paid peanuts. We know where the money goes in Swaziland. We know who has it,” Nhlanhla Mkhonta, a secondary school student in Manzini, told IRIN.
King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, has increasingly been criticised for his and the royal household’s spending habits.
A teacher, who declined to be named, told IRIN: “These children are not revolutionaries, they are just Swazis who feel Swaziland should belong to all Swazis and the resources of the country should be used for everyone. As a teacher it breaks my heart… These children are suffering because they don’t have a functioning science lab or even a decent soccer pitch.”
A significant drop in revenue from the Southern African Customs Union in the wake of the global economic slowdown helped precipitate a financial meltdown in Swaziland. A key IMF recommendation was that Swaziland’s public sector workforce be trimmed by 10 percent. But with private sector unemployment estimated at more than 40 percent, analysts say the government fears large-scale public sector retrenchments would spark unrest.