JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Leading dissidents from Swaziland urged South Africa on Thursday not to bail out the cash-strapped government of King Mswati III in order to keep the
pressure on Africa's last absolute monarch.
With his appointed administration facing a Greece-scale budget deficit and moribund economy, the UK-educated monarch has turned to Pretoria for help, having tried and failed to get any cash from the International Monetary Fund or other lenders.
His opponents fear that even a small amount of aid from his giant neighbour will take the heat off Mswati, who has at least a dozen wives, an estimated $200 million fortune and runs the landlocked nation of 1.4 million as a personal fiefdom.
"If there are people who want to bail out the Swazi regime, it must not be a blank cheque," Mario Masuku, president of the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), told a news conference in Johannesburg.
Like all political parties, PUDEMO is banned in Swaziland, and Masuku has been imprisoned for criticising the monarchy during previous crackdowns on dissent.
Mswati's immediate fiscal problems stem from a 2009 recession in South Africa that triggered a collapse in revenues from a regional customs union that has historically accounted for two-thirds of Swaziland's budget.
However, Masuku said the root cause of Swaziland's woes was Mswati's autocratic and nepotistic rule, in particular his refusal to axe a military and civil service whose wages consume 18 percent of GDP -- the highest proportion in Africa.
South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said this week Pretoria "does not have the means to give bail-outs", suggesting any assistance will be limited.
The Swazi government has kept its head above water by running through central bank reserves, which now stand at just over $500 million, and running up at least $180 million in unpaid bills.
Meanwhile, the crisis has galvanized opponents of Mswati's 25-year rule and security forces have had to use water cannons and rubber bullets to break up protests. Dozens of students and democracy activists have been arrested.
Masuku and other campaigners at the news conference said any aid must carry strict terms, including a promise to move towards democracy, the unbanning of political parties and the release of Swaziland's five political prisoners.
However, Mswati is unlikely to yield, mindful of the way in which political concessions helped protests in Tunisia and Egypt snowball into mass uprisings.
"The king is likely to say no. That is in the nature of all dictators," said Musa Hlophe, a retired businessman now running the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations.
"But as people increasingly become desperate and in despair, there will be those who say 'Enough is enough,' and drag him out of the palace screaming and kicking."