- Swaziland's parliamentarians have embarked on an unprecedented stayaway to protest against the Mbabane cabinet's inability to get grants paid to the elderly. MPs also call for the resignation of several government members, which are all appointed by Swaziland's authoritarian King Mswati II.
"These people [cabinet ministers] are well-paid to do some work, but they are doing nothing," said MP Marwick Khumalo during a raucous meeting of the House of Assembly on Wednesday night, when the members of parliament (MPs) gave cabinet one week to start paying out stipends to people aged 60 and over, and voted unanimously to suspend all parliamentary work until then.
Late last month, Health and Social Welfare Minister Njabulo Mabuza blamed budgetary constraints and "technical problems" for the failure to pay grants to widows and the elderly.
Two-thirds of the country's roughly 1 million people live on US$ 2 or less day and many of those aged 60 years or older rely on the government's quarterly pay-out of rand 240 (US$ 32), or rand 80 (US$ 10.50) a month, to subsist, often while bearing the burden of caring for HIV/AIDS orphans.
UNAIDS has put HIV/AIDS prevalence at 33 percent among sexually active adults, the highest in the world. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), by 2010, Swaziland will have over 120,000 orphans.
MP Sibusiso Nkambule, from the Kwaluseni constituency, called for Minister Mabuza to resign; MP Vusi Dlamini, from the Ntfongeni constituency, even called for Prime Minister Themba Dlamini's resignation over the issue.
The MPs' "strike" and brazen calls for resignations represent a rare confrontation between the usually docile elected representatives and the government, which runs the country under the authority of the sub-continent's last absolute monarch.
Parliament consists of MPs elected from 55 constituencies, with an additional 10 MPs appointed by King Mswati personally to safeguard royal interests. The Prime Minister and 17 cabinet ministers are also appointed by the King.
Swaziland's parliament does not create laws, but debates and approves laws tabled by cabinet, while King Mswati sets down government policy at the opening of parliament every February. Little is decided by democratic institutions in the impoverished kingdom.
A new national constitution, signed into law by King Mswati earlier this year, entrenched the political status that has been in force since 1973, when the reigning monarch, King Sobhuza II, overturned a Westminster style constitution - in which political parties contended for power - banned opposition political parties and meetings, and assumed ultimate executive, judicial and legislative authority.
Government promised last week that the social grants would be paid out, and thousands of elderly residents from the capital, Mbabane, and surrounding areas gathered at designated points early on Tuesday morning in the hope of receiving their stipends. By sunset only a few had reportedly been paid.
King Mswati's brother, Prince Guduza Dlamini, who was appointed House Speaker this week, attempted to stall the MPs' stayaway by calling on cabinet to deliver a policy statement on payments to the elderly to parliament. MPs rejected the suggestion as more promises rather than action, and voted to suspend all their activities until Thursday next week.
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