Swazi police used batons to beat about 1 000 teachers and students on Tuesday and arrested scores of activists to stop a banned march against Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III.
Police stormed the teachers’ union offices where a group of teachers and students had sought refuge after officers fired tear gas and water cannon to stop them marching to the main city of Manzini.
“Police are now beating the teachers. They are throwing tear gas and beating teachers. People are running helter skelter. Police are beating us with batons,” said Smangele Mmema, a member of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, one of the main groups behind the protest movement.
Manzini had ground to a halt by mid-afternoon, according to the Swaziland Solidarity Network, a pro-democracy organisation based in South Africa, as the military was sent following clashes between police and protesters.
Security forces also set up roadblocks and turned away buses of protesters trying to reach Manzini, and detained at least six journalists.
The king is accused of bankrupting state coffers with his luxurious lifestyle while asking Swazis to tighten their belts amid a fiscal crisis that has seen the government move to slash civil servants’ pay.
Eleven protest leaders were arrested when their bus was stopped at a police roadblock on its way from the capital, Mbabane, to Manzini, 50km away, according to Muzi Mhlanga, a teachers’ union leader and key organiser who was among those arrested.
Union leader Vincent Dlamini of the National Association of Public Servants and Allied Workers’ Union, said about 500 members of his organisation were turned away from Manzini.
“Some people have been dumped in remote areas. People have been detained, we are trying to assist those that have been harassed and traumatised,” he said.
Labour unions last month staged the biggest protests seen in years in Swaziland, but authorities banned Tuesday’s protest, called by a coalition of civil society and trade unions under the banner of the Labour Coordinating Council.
They have been battling a government ban on the march in the courts but police were determined to stop it from going ahead.
“Such evil will not be tolerated,” police Commissioner Isaac Magagula said in the Times of Swaziland.
Police have been carrying out raids since last week, arresting four key protest organisers on Monday.
Amnesty International said it was “deeply concerned for the safety of these activists, who are held incommunicado and at risk of torture.”
Last week the national organiser of the banned Swaziland Youth Congress, Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, said he was held and tortured by police for 24 hours.
Mswati has not spoken publicly about the protests, but sent his top advisers to meet with union leaders last week in a failed bid to convince them to drop the protest plan.
Unions called for the protests to mark the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties.
The protest movement has strong support from unions in neighbouring South Africa, key supporters of President Jacob Zuma. Swaziland’s economy depends entirely on its larger neighbour, but South Africa’s government has remained silent on the protest. — AFP