An economic crisis in Swaziland is taking a toll on a generation of university students as the cash-strapped monarchy reduces scholarships, a move Swazi King Mswati III’s critics say is meant to crush youth opposition.
Universities are often a cradle of dissent in the small mountain kingdom of 1.1 million people, as political parties are banned and few channels exist to oppose the monarch, criticized for his lavish lifestyle and lack of democratic reforms.
This year 1,200 students were admitted to the University of Swaziland, out of 10,200 that sat final exams in school. Fewer than half of them received state bursaries in a country where 60 percent of people live on less than US$2 a day.
This led to a protracted battle between the Swazi government and student unions, which caused a two-month closure of the university and a much-delayed start to the academic year.
Owing to the economic crisis, the government announced reduced sponsorships covering only 2,157 new students in different tertiary institutions in the kingdom and abroad this year.
Some go to Morocco, Russia and Cuba, but only about 60 of those who were accepted at universities in African countries have been offered financial support from their home country.
Such was the hard luck of Phinda Simelane, a high-school graduate who had hoped to study medicine at the University of Limpopo in neighboring South Africa.
“I went to government to ask for scholarship, but they kept me waiting until the time to register was near,” he said.
“But they eventually declined to give me the scholarship and my father could not pay the 46,000 rand [US$5,570] in tuition fees, which excluded food and accommodation. Mind you such courses like medicine are not offered in Swaziland,” Simelane said.
For student activist Maxwell Dlamini the bursary cuts point to “the deep-rooted crisis facing our education.”
“If you consider the numbers that sat for the exams, those that passed and those that were eventually funded, it shows that our country is going down,” Dlamini said.
State coffers have gradually been depleted in the country nestled between South Africa and Mozambique.
In 2010, it lost a big part of its annual revenues from a regional customs union and these days it can hardly afford to pay civil servants.
It is refusing teachers a 4.5 percent salary increase, despite a protracted strike.
“Government has already cut down on tertiary education for our children. This means we must pay for them, yet she [the government] does not want to give us a meager below-inflation salary adjustment,” said Justice Dlamini, a striking teacher.
“How will we pay for these children? Paradoxically, she keeps wanting to cut our salaries yet the king continues to spend willy-nilly in spite of the crisis.”
For many Swazis, the state’s argument does not go down well. The king, still respected for his embodiment of Swazi tradition if not his economic policies, leads a jet-setting lifestyle with his 13 wives.
Dlamini believes the scholarship reductions have an ulterior motive.
“This was deliberately done to cut down on student activism because owing to the banning of trade unions and political parties, students were the only ones who were now giving government a hard time on both governance issues as well as education-related matters,” he said.
The new scholarship policy states that a student will lose funding if he is “a member, supports or furthers the activities of a banned entity.”