As government workers agitate for better pay in Swaziland, reports that their king is sending three of his wives on holiday in Las Vegas have incensed protesters who fault his extravagance.
Teachers have refused for nearly five weeks to teach in the African nation ensconced between South Africa and Mozambique, insisting on a 4.5% pay increase to match growing costs. Nurses and other public workers have also pushed for better wages. The Swazi government has declared the strike illegal and refused their demands, reportedly suppressing protests with rubber bullets.
Swaziland has been under financial strain: The International Monetary Fund urged the government to cut back earlier this year, warning it needed to reduce its overall spending on wages. The country canceled royal silver jubilee festivities last year and has slashed scholarships for university students, saying it must stem its costs.
"God warned the Swazi people not to love money,” King Mswati III reportedly told his subjects earlier this week, urging them to love God instead.
But protesters argue the blame lays with the spendthrift ways of Mswati himself, reported to possess a fortune of more than $100 million and known for sending his wives on shopping sprees abroad. News this week of plans for a lavish royal trip to Las Vegas, reported by activists and later confirmed by South African newspapers, infuriated labor leaders as an example of royal excess.
"This just shows the utter disdain that the royal family has for the people of Swaziland, that they can go on an expensive and indulgent trip like this when the country is on strike demanding better living and working conditions,” Vincent Dlamini of the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union told the Mail & Guardian.
The Swazi Diaspora Platform, an activist group for Swazis living outside the country, seized on the reports Thursday to slam Mswati as “a dictator that is treating Swaziland as his personal piggy bank.” Democracy groups lament that the king, the last absolute monarch in Africa, has cracked down on dissent while his impoverished country suffers the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.
A government spokesman told a South African tabloid that no such trip was happening. Word of the Vegas trip has not shown up in Swazi media, which is subject to government censorship.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles