Swaziland: Financial crisis 'forcing schools to shut'
Most schools in Swaziland are shut because of the financial crisis that has hit the government, according to the head of the Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA).
SWAPA Chairperson, Charles Bennett, has told the Times of Swaziland newspaper that teachers are boycotting classes at the start of the new term because the government has failed to pay nearly US$11m of money for school fees.
According to Bennett, more than 60 per cent of Swazi school children are poor or orphans so do not pay fees. Schools are, therefore, heavily dependent on government funding.
The crisis has triggered widespread protests in Swaziland, which is ruled by an absolute monarch, King Mswati III, who has ruled Swaziland since 1986. His critics accuse the royal family of lavish spending, despite the fact that many of his subjects languish in poverty.
The government claims it has not yet received a US$355m loan promised by South Africa to help it pay bills. Pat Muir, principal secretary in the education ministry, appealed to teachers to call off the boycott stating that the money would be paid to schools by next Thursday.
However, for Mr Bennett’s members, the financial crisis has lead to a shortage of essential resources: “There is no electricity, no water. The feeding programme, which covers most of the pupils, doesn't exist because there is no money to buy food. We might be running out of material, such as paper for exams and chalk.”
Last month, the University of Swaziland failed to open for the new academic year after the government failed to provide money for student fees.
Aids activists say Swazi schools have many orphans because their parents died of HIV and AIDS. With a population of 1.2m, Swaziland has one of the highest HIV and AIDS rates in the world with 230,000 people who are HIV-positive, of whom 65,000 depend on state hospitals to give them free anti-retroviral drugs. Health workers say hospitals are running out of the drugs because of the financial crisis.
The government says its financial crisis has been caused by a sharp decline in the landlocked kingdom's income from the Southern African Customs Union, following a new tariff deal.
Last month, South Africa said it would give Swaziland a bailout, but it has not yet released the money. Pretoria said it first wanted the Swazi government to introduce fiscal reforms.
With political parties banned in Swaziland, rights groups say that South Africa should give the bailout only if King Mswati agrees to introduce democratic rule.
EI Chief Regional Coordinator for Africa, Assibi Napoe, said: "EI urges the Swazi authorities to undertake the necessary changes to pay school fees to ensure teachers can deliver quality public education for all."