Friday, November 10, 2006

The Aged: Swaziland's MPs "strike" in support of grants for the elderly

Failure to pay grants rocks Swaziland's parliament

MBABANE, 9 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - Swaziland's parliamentarians have embarked on an unprecedented stayaway to protest against Cabinet's inability to get grants paid to the elderly.

"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 R240 ($32), or R80 ($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 Mabuza to resign; MP Vusi Dlamini, from the Ntfongeni constituency, 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 Mswati 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 Mswati sets down government policy at the opening of parliament every February.

A new national constitution, signed into law by Mswati earlier this year, entrenched the political status that has been in force since 1973, when the reigning monarch, King Sobhuza II, overturned a Westminister 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 recieving 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 activities until Thursday next week.

Reproduced with the kind permission of IRIN
IRIN 2006
Photo: Copyright
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