MBABANE, 15 April 2011 (IRIN) - The government of King Mswati III of Swaziland is accusing NGOs and foreign diplomats of consorting with "the enemy".
A new round of protests against sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch began on 12 April - the 38th anniversary of a decree issued by Mswati's predecessor, King Sobhuza II, which imposed a state of emergency and banned political parties. Witnesses said heavy-handed police detained pro-democracy activists and media representatives.
"We say people should disassociate themselves from the banned political parties - or whatever you call them - then we find some of you, Your Excellencies, sitting and having diner with these people," public works minister Nthutuko Dlamini told about 30 foreign envoys at a meeting called by foreign minister Lutfo Dlamini in the capital, Mbabane, on the eve of the protest. "You cannot be seen to be with my enemy. It is naturally wrong."
The primarily urban-based pro-democracy movement includes trade unions, banned political parties like the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), and the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), all termed as "terrorist organizations" under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
The non-partisan value systems of NGOs do not prevent them being drawn into the political fray, Dimpho Motsamai a researcher in the Africa Conflict Prevention Program at the Pretoria-based think tank, the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN.
NGOs have to engage with the state around issues of policy, delivery or simply by asking of government "where did the money go?". Once NGOs "cross the line" and become defined as a political entity, they become exposed to Swaziland's security legislation that could lead to their banning, she said.
Nthutuko Dlamini told the diplomats according to local reports that countries should not provide financial assistance to "[non-governmental] organizations that have anti-government agendas", but should instead make those donations directly to the government.
No foreign country with a diplomatic mission in Swaziland is known to contribute financially to any political party or entity. However, foreign governments provide assistance to local NGOs working in the social, health and humanitarian sectors. NGO activities have not been disrupted by the pro-democracy protests so far.
"Government has always had a rather jaundiced view of NGOs, because they feel they have no control over us," a programme director at an HIV/AIDS NGO, who declined to be identified, told IRIN:
"They are concerned about 'outside influences', and many NGOs have international ties and depend on the international community for financing. One of the themes we heard this week from government is that pro-democracy protests are due to foreign influences and outsiders with agendas," the director said.
A Swaziland-based sociologist, who declined to be named, told IRIN: "No Swaziland-based NGO has a political mission. But in Swaziland 'culture' has been politicized, so when some NGOs raise issues that are foreign to traditional Swazi viewpoints this is seen as the imposition of a foreign ideology on the Swazi way of life."
The sociologist cited as an example the experiences of NGOs such as Women in Law in Southern Africa and the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse that have drawn fire for promoting gender equality and the protection of women in a society where women were considered as minors under traditional law.
Donor dependent country
The landlocked donor-dependent country, sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, has the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence - an estimated 26 percent of people aged between 15 and 49 are infected - and at least two-thirds of the roughly one million Swazis live in chronic poverty.
Income from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) has provided around 75 percent of government revenues according to some estimates, but this has declined in recent years, exerting acute financial pressure on the public purse.
SACU, comprising Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland, is the world oldest customs union. It applies a common set of tariffs and disproportionately distributes the revenue to member states, providing a lifeline that ensures the economic survival of Swaziland and Lesotho.
In 2011 the government suspended the first quarterly pension pay-out of US$21 per eligible individual. A reduction of about 7,000 public service jobs was also expected this year, although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommended the workforce be cut by a third, or 10,000 employees, because the number of workers on the payroll was disproportionate to the country's size.
NGOs provide an array of services, from support for people living with HIV/AIDS to assistance for abused women and children. About 100,000 Swazis currently receive food assistance from foreign donors, but in the past few years this number has sometimes surpassed a quarter of the population.
"Aside from the matter that government is not accountable for the money it receives - which is a key issue with the protestors - the truth is that NGOs provide many services that government does not," a spokesman for an Mbabane-based NGO, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
In the past, NGOs publicly expressing a negative view of the monarchy have been condemned in parliament for "engaging in politics" with the support of foreign funding.
In 2009, a support group for HIV-positive women, Swaziland Positive Living (SWAPOL), held a rally protesting the lavish lifestyles and shopping excursions to the Middle East and Europe by Mswati and his 13 wives while most of the people lived in poverty.