Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The University of Swaziland threatened with closure

The University of Swaziland threatened with closure
The People's United Democratic Movement of Swaziland
(PUDEMO) International Office
(Australia, Asian and the South Pacific Region)
September 13, 2006.

The People's United Democratic Movement deplores the threat to shut down the University of Swaziland if students do not return to class. This bullying approach to genuine student concerns has been the culture of this institution since the Liqoqo regime in the early 1980s. Successive leaders at the university have been socialised into this defective leadership culture in which threats and aggression rather than reason is a preferred model of administration.Consequently, the university has become a microcosm of the broader political system that is characterised by extreme levels of intolerance,incompetence and absence of public accountability.

One of the students' grievances is the late payment of scholarship allowances, which means that they are unable to purchase basic necessities such as food and stationery.This is a recurring issue that has a long history. University and government officials have shown no capacity and will to adequately address concerns by generations of university students about this matter. Instead, they resort to aggression and ridicule. On numerous occasions, the university administration has shut down the institution in an attempt to mute students' concerns. Armed police are regularly used to violently suppress students' peaceful protest.

When university students marched to the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister's office on September 7 to deliver a petition, they were confronted by armed police. A violent skirmish ensued, leaving scores of injured students. Even the Police Commissioner, Edgar Hillary who is renowned for his violent aggression, commented that the police violence was uncalled for. Hillary must do more than this by instituting strict disciplinary actions against the senior officers who ordered the attack. It would be generally expected under a responsible system of government that an independent investigation into the violence would be conducted. However, Swaziland is a failing state with no political will and limited administrative competence to exercise the responsibilities of a responsible government.

In a functioning state with proper financial systems, it really is not difficult to ensure that students or any other group of citizens receive the payments to which they are entitled. After the state has allocated budget to tertiary scholarship, the funds must be quarantined and not used for any other purpose.This guarantees the orderly payment of tuition fees and student allowances. If errors are made in a functioning state, it is no big matter to apologise and fix the problem. Consider the situation in Swaziland, where the government is repeatedly unable to pay the allowances in a reasonably orderly fashion, presumably because it has squandered the money on new luxury cars for the king's wives. Then, when the students request that the problem be fixed, they are demonised and physically injured by the police, whose role is supposed to be to protect the public! It is like a man who drinks all the money for his family then beats up his wife and children when they ask him for food.

The Swazi government is stumbling from crisis to crisis and each time its corruption and incompetence is on display for all to see. This kind of governance is a problem for those people immediately affected by the crisis (in this case the students) but it is also a problem for all Swazis and its effects last for a long time after the crisis has been resolved. For example,this kind of incompetence has significant implications for how Swaziland is regarded by business and other countries. If we repeatedly present ourselves as a country that cannot manage basic financial transactions or peacefully resolve what is a very simple conflict, then we are continuing to build an image of Swaziland as a poor candidate for investment and economic growth. The collapse of the rule of law in 2002 was profoundly embarrassing and the many subsequent crises of poor governance can only further damage our image. If Swaziland continues to present itself as a national joke, we will find it difficult to attract quality economic growth. If we are seen as incompetent, investors will stay away. If we are perceived as oppressive as well as incompetent, we may find that some investors come to Swaziland but that we have attracted those who see the combination of incompetence and oppression as an opportunity to exploit the government and our people.

The Minister of Education's response to the scholarship matter has been pathetic. Her initial reaction was to rebuke and demonise the students as a "crowd" and "mob". This is a typical example of an incompetent politician who resorts to degradation rituals to cover up her incompetence. According to the Swazi News (09/09/06) report, the minister told the university Student Representative Council that " a ministry we are not here for playing...", but this is what exactly the ministry is doing - playing with the future of our education system. Constance Simelane is a national disgrace and has done so much damage to our education system.

In a functioning state, the issue of scholarship and particularly the payment of student allowances would not have come this far. However, in a failing state such as Swaziland where corruption and incompetence are the only visible features of governance, nothing gets fixed. Whilst the Minister has finally assured students that their allowances have been deposited into the bank, she does not have a long-term strategy to deal with this recurring problem.Instead, she will sit on her hands and wait for another class boycott and more injured Swazis before she again reacts to this long-standing concern with another short-term fix. This week students at the Swaziland College of Technology (SCOT) are also boycotting classes because of this problem.

Education is one of the most important sectors for national growth. It is irresponsible for any government to entrust responsibility of this sector to an incompetent minister. PUDEMO has earmarked education, health and the economy as our policy priorities. We strongly believe that a government that does not regard these sectors as priorities for public investment is a failed government. When we take over government, we will revolutionise these sectors by building efficient systems of service delivery and management. Our immediate goal in government is to put a stop to corrupt practices and lavish spending for the royal family. We believe that corruption and royal spending consume a significant percentage of national revenue. Putting a stop to this rot and recovering this revenue is the task to which we have committed ourselves in government.

The university class boycott must be understood within the broader political context which promotes a culture of incompetence and irresponsibility. It is a result of decades of leadership failure at state and institutional levels. Both the government and the university administration must take full responsibility for the recurring problem that led to the class boycott. It is time for the university leadership to make a significant culture shift by adopting new ways of dealing with student grievances. As it has been demonstrated from time to time, bullying tactics have not resolved the problem.The university desperately needs a new generation of leadership with fresh insights into tertiary administration. We deplore the continued dominance of the university administration by a tired old guard which has become a total liability to the future of this institution.


Dr.Jabulane Matsebula
PUDEMO Representative
Australia, Asia and theSouth Pacific Region