PRETORIA, South Africa - Cash strapped and beset by political turmoil, the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarchy, is petitioning neighboring South Africa for a USD $1.4 billion bailout to stave off collapse.
The landlocked southern African country of just under a million people has been ruled by a monarchic autocracy since 1973.
Details of the bailout request to South African President Jacob Zuma by Swazi King Mswati III were leaked to the politics and intelligence magazine Southern African Report and published today, ahead of the Swazi monarch's mission to South Africa next week.
The exiled Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) and the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), both based in South Africa, have called on the South African government not to throw the Mswati regime a lifeline.
The Swazi government is expected to run out of cash this month and will be unable to pay civil servant's wages.
"Mswati's secret mission is to beg President Jacob Zuma to lend Swaziland money so he can avert a popular uprising by paying civil servants their salaries," says SSN spokesperson Lucky Lukhele.
SSN and the CPS together with the rest of the Swazi pro-democracy movement are pushing for resignation of the Mswati regime and the installation of an interim government to set Swaziland on a new democratic path.
Political parties, including the umbrella People's United Democratic Movement, are banned and there are a growing numbers of political prisoners in Swazi jails.
Mswati III is worth an estimated $100 million, in addition to the $10 billion put in trust for him by his father King Sobuhuza in the late 1970s. Earlier this year, Mswati's government granted him a $6 million increase to $39 million in his annual state allowance for his court and 13 wives.
Some 70 percent of the Swazi population live in poverty, and the country has the highest HIV-AIDS rate in the world, at just over 26 percent of the adult population.
According to census data, Swaziland's population has been in decline since the mid-1990s due mainly to the depressed life expectancy of just 32 years. Most people in rural areas do not have access to clean drinking water, proper sanitation or health services.
The country's economic crisis took hold at the start of the year following a 60 percent cut in revenue received from the Southern African Customs Union. This was a long-awaited development due to the reconfiguration of customs union disbursements.
The International Monetary Fund has refused to support loans to the Mswati government. Instead, the IMF has tried to oversee the regime's "fiscal austerity programme."
This is intended to reduce government spending on such things as the capital infrastructure projects promoted by the king, including the building of a second international airport at a cost of $US324 million at Sikhuphe to replace the vastly underused one at Matsapha.
"But none of the IMF's prescriptions address the crisis of mass poverty and unemployment in Swaziland," says Quinton Dlamini, the head of the public servants union in Swaziland. "The fund just wants to cut the wage bill and to boost the private sector. Neither move will help the economy in any far-reaching way."
President Zuma has previously refused to rescue the Mswati regime with cash loans. This time the beleaguered monarch is more desperate.
"We hope South Africa won't grant Mswati a loan," says CPS leader Kenneth Kunene, "but we also hope that the government of South Africa will make it clear that any prospect of a loan to Swaziland could only come on condition that all political parties are unbanned and that the autocracy is replaced by an interim government that paves the way for democratic change."
Photo: Mark Waller