SWAZILAND: Students regroup after long boycott

Higher education students in Swaziland have resumed classes after weeks of boycotts. But unhappiness with the government's handling of their grievances has prompted the national students' union to call for a mass meeting in April to regroup and decide a course of action.

Four campuses of the University of Swaziland and four colleges - the Swaziland College of Technology, Ngwane Teachers' College, William Pitcher Teachers' College and the Nazarene College of Education - were closed indefinitely by the government in January after students went on the rampage and damaged infrastructure. The University of Swaziland was shut for three weeks after the disturbances and reopened on 17 February. While student leaders insist their marches were peaceful, the government said it was closing the institutions as students were not attending classes and to protect infrastructure from vandalism.

The students were protesting against a government cut-back on state scholarships and loans. The government said the decision, which obliges students' parents to pay fees, was made because it was encountering problems recovering loans.

The students also mobilised in favour of free primary education and against low student allowances. The Swaziland National Union of Students - the body representing all student representative councils - demanded to be recognised as the official voice of students across all tertiary institutions.

Union President Bheki Khumalo, a second-year electrical student at Swaziland College of Technology, said that while students were back in class by the beginning of March, they were not satisfied that their problems had been resolved.

He claimed the Swazi media had sabotaged efforts to communicate with students through updates after the boycotts. A meeting of all student councils, scheduled for April, would decide the way forward.

"We want our pathetic personal allowances, which have not been touched in the past 12 years, to be increased," Khumalo said. Students receive only R462 (US$63) to cover the nine-month semester.

"The government is bluffing in addressing our call for free primary education, [against] the scrapping of student loans and the raising of personal allowances," he told University World News.

Khumalo added that the government had referred the issue of scholarships to the Minister of Finance, to be looked at in terms of the country's budget. The issue of personal loans would be discussed after resolving the question of scholarship funding.

The class boycotts should have driven the message home that students were serious about solutions being found to their grievances, he said. But some student representative councils had started calling for the re-opening of universities and colleges.

An executive member of the student body at the University of Swaziland, Samkeliso Nxumala, made such a call last month. He also told Voice of America that students decided to take to the streets because the government had money but was spending it in the wrong areas.

"There has been a lot of expenditure that doesn't benefit anyone except for rulers. There has been a lot of awarding of money particularly to politicians. Recently they had their salaries, I think, tripled," he said.

King Mswati III, the absolute ruler of Swaziland - known as the Switzerland of Africa for its mountainous environment - has been criticised for extravagant spending, including a recent government-funded shopping junket to the Middle East by his 13 wives.

The union said students recognised that the problem in Swaziland was lack of democracy: "It is the lack of power to the people to choose the government of their choice, hence this arrogance from the present administration," Khumalo said, adding that the country's three labour union movements were willing to partner with students to address their problems.