“Why do we continue with this assistance [to orphans and vulnerable children, (OVC), pensions and school fees for primary school students]? It seems as if we are trying to impress some people here,” said parliamentarian Patrick Gamedze in the assembly on 13 October. His colleague, Nichodemus Mashwama, also called for an end to government payments for primary school students, although this is stipulated in the constitution.
Other MPs backed Mashwama’s call for a constitutional amendment to abolish government payments aimed at achieving universal primary education. Some questioned why MPs should be held accountable for school fees, old age and disability pensions, and grants for OVC when government had no money to pay for them.
Donor-dependent Swaziland has been plunged into a financial crisis since receipts from the Southern Africa Customs Union dried up in the wake of the global 2008 slowdown, but finance minister Majozi Sithole recently conceded that government corruption cost the country nearly twice the annual amount budgeted for social services.
King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, rules a landlocked country between South Africa and Mozambique, where about 70 percent of the 1.1 million Swazis live on US$2 a day or less. It has the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence, with one in four people aged 15-49 infected with the disease.
Earlier in October the Acting Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Magwagwa Gamedze, told the UN Working Group of the Universal Periodic Review of Swaziland that government was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to pay for primary school education in a roll-out programme that currently funds children in grades one and two, and this would be expanded to accommodate all students up to grade five by 2015.
A US$350 million bailout package, put together by South Africa after international finance institutions declined to lend unless the country restructured its finances, is awaiting signature of the Memorandum of Understanding to release the money.
The government has shown little interest in signing the memorandum, which lists “confidence-building measures” towards democracy human rights and fiscal reform, as well as the “overhaul of its budgetary systems”, among the loan conditions.
The Times of Swaziland, the country’s only independent newspaper, pessimistically noted that the South African loan was “as good as dead”.
The debate on the future of social services was prompted by submissions from the Deputy Prime Minister, Themba Masuku, on the suspension of grants to the elderly. “We do not know where we will get the money to pay elderly grants,” he commented.
Most pensions were suspended in the first quarter of 2011. In June only 6,480 pensions were paid, while at least 40,000 pensioners without bank accounts received nothing so that OVC grants could be paid instead. Masuku did not respond to parliamentary questions as to when regular pension payments would resume.
“The money is so little - only R600 (US$80) a month - that few of the elderly can afford to pay the high service fees charged by banks for accounts,” Amos Zwane, president of the Swaziland Old Age Society, told IRIN.
“Whether they have accounts or not, no pensioner has received any money from government in three months,” Zwane said. “We go to the collection points, but there is nothing. There is no explanation.”
Sharon Dlamini, who lives in Ewandle in the central Manzini region, told IRIN “I ride the bus one hour to collect my pension and there is nothing for me. My grandchildren suffer. It has been so long since I ever used that money for myself, because I need it to pay their school fees and all their needs.”
The 65-year-old widow said, “They are suffering now. I live in rags and I go hungry, but I was happy to help them because those children have no one in the world but their granny. But there are no grants for us any more.”