The Swazi National Union of Students (SNUS) first formed in 1984 as an umbrella organisation of all Student Representative Councils (SRCs) under the motto, “We are members of the community before we are students.”
The union, which was relaunched four years ago, is a membership-based organisation that welcomes official delegates from colleges and universities as well as ordinary students who wish to get involved. Their aim is to “[create] a strong, united and vibrant student movement geared to confront the socio economic and political challenges of the country” and advocates “an education policy that will be informed by the economic demands faced by the country and the democratisation of our society.”
In the beginning of 2010, delegates from all higher education SRCs got together in Manzini and formed the January Movement. This initial meeting was called due to a controversial scholarship policy that is about to be passed. The new policy envisions big spending cuts on college and university scholarships, reserving access to tertiary education to the few who can afford it in a country ridden by poverty. SNUS also criticises the process of policy-making, in which neither students nor other civil society stakeholders, such as parents or teachers’ associations have been consulted.
Another demand of SNUS is the increase of personal allowances paid to students on scholarships. Despite inflation, they have not been raised since 1992 and remain at E 464 (today approx. £ 40) – per year! They are calling for free primary education for all children in Swaziland as prescribed by the constitution and demand that the government recognise their Union as the official voice of students in Swaziland.
The January Movement of the SNUS took to the streets on February 1st and 2nd to take their demands to the Prime Minister. They have been met with police violence, intimidation and abductions. On another January Movement demonstration in Manzini on 10 February, four student leaders were abducted by state security forces. In an act of intimidation, the students were pulled into a car by men in plain clothes, who drove them to an unknown location where they were beaten. One of them was later dumped on the outskirts of Manzini.
Another student, Sicelo Vilane, who was taking photographs of police brutality during the demonstration, was arrested. He was charged under the country’s repressive Suppression of Terrorism Act after police discovered that he was carrying a membership card of the Swaziland Youth Congress, the youth wing of the banned opposition party PUDEMO. Thanks to domestic and international pressure on the government, the charges were dropped a few days later and the student released with no official reason being given.
Meanwhile, the government has responded by closing all universities and colleges indefinitely. Classes are suspended and students fear that if the closure is maintained for too long, they may have to repeat the year. Protests are ongoing and support has been drawn from the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, Swaziland Federation of Labour and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.