Swaziland's financial crisis 'forcing schools to shut'

Orphans are given lessons in a make-shift school at Malkerns outside Manzini (archive shot)
Image caption Many children attending school in Swaziland are orphans

Most schools in Swaziland are shut because of the financial crisis that has hit the government, the head of the Swaziland Principals Association says.

Charles Bennett told the BBC teachers were boycotting classes at the start of the new term because the government had failed to pay money for school fees.

More than 60% of Swazi school children are poor or orphans, Mr Bennett said.

The government has not yet received a $355m (£218m) loan promised by South Africa to help it pay bills.

The crisis has triggered widespread protests in Swaziland, which is ruled by an absolute monarch, King Mswati III.

Last week, opposition supporters burnt images of the king in the second city, Manzini - a rare and punishable offence in a country where the monarch is revered, analysts say.

'Chalk shortage'

Mr Bennett said the government owed schools nearly $11m and services had been cut because of the failure to pay bills.

Image caption The opposition wants an end to the absolute rule of King Mswati III

"There is no electricity... no water," Mr Bennett told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

"The feeding programme - which covers most of the pupils - doesn't exist because there is no money to buy food."

Mr Bennett said more than 60% of pupils did not pay school fees because they fell in the category of "orphans and vulnerable children".

Schools were, therefore, heavily dependent on government funding, he said.

"We might be running out of material, such as paper for exams and chalk," Mr Bennett said.

Pat Muir, principal secretary in the education ministry, appealed to teachers to call off the boycott, the Times of Swaziland newspaper reports.

The money would be paid to schools by Thursday, he said, according to the report.

Last month, the University of Swaziland failed to open for the new academic year after the government failed to provide money for student fees.

Aids activists say Swazi schools have many orphans because their parents died of HIV/Aids.

'Lavish lifestyle'

Swaziland, with a population of 1.2m, has one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world.

About 230,000 people are HIV-positive, of whom 65,000 depend on state hospitals to give them free antiretroviral drugs.

However, health workers say hospitals are running out of the drugs because of the financial crisis.

King Mswati, who has 13 wives, has ruled Swaziland since 1986.

Critics accuse the royal family of lavish spending, despite the fact that many of his subjects languish in poverty.

The government says its financial crisis has been caused by a sharp decline in the landlocked kingdom's income from the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu), following a new tariff deal.

Last month, South Africa said it would give Swaziland a $355m bailout, but it has not yet released the money.

Pretoria said it first wanted the government to introduce fiscal reforms.

Swazi rights groups say South Africa should give the bailout only if King Mswati agrees to introduce democratic rule.

Political parties are banned in Swaziland.

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