Swaziland - trapped by tradition

King Mswati III with King Goodwill Zwelithini in ­Mbabane in 1986. (Dennis Lee Royle, AP)

King Mswati III with King Goodwill Zwelithini in ­Mbabane in 1986. (Dennis Lee Royle, AP)

On April 12 it will be 40 years since the 1973 royal decree that dissolved Swaziland's Constitution, banned political parties and turned the ­previously democratic country into the absolute monarchy it is today.

In the four decades since that occurrence, South Africa has risen up against and defeated apartheid, Namibia became its own country, and Angola and Mozambique gained independence, fought long civil wars and are now at peace.

But tiny Swaziland, with a population roughly the same size as Pretoria's, remains a dictatorship where the hopes of winning democracy are dimming, smothered by a fractured opposition movement beset by infighting and individual goals.

Despite four decades of campaigns from trade unions and federations, democratic fronts, coalitions and political parties (which exist physically, if not in law), the government of Swaziland shows ­little sign of entertaining reform.

A financial crisis that set back economic and social development in 2011, which came after the fall in revenues from the Southern African Customs Union – upon which the government relies for 60% of its income stream – briefly stoked the possibility of reform.

International Monetary Fund calls to cut the public wage bill (which the government at one point nearly couldn't pay) led to a noisy outcry from unions opposed to redundancies and pay cuts, which grew into a call for more accountability and a democratic system.

Two years on, however, the Southern African Customs Union's revenues are back up, the liquidity crisis that pushed Swaziland into discussions for a reform-backed loan from South Africa has eased, and the unions appear to have lost all of their momentum, despite forming the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland with a view to bringing more unity and impact to the movement.

Faded interest
International media coverage of the landlocked kingdom, usually only reported through the prism of having the world's highest prevalence of HIV infections (one in four adults live with the illness), intensified for a while, leading to headlines in the New York Times and the Guardianº.

But the interest soon faded owing to a mixture of more pressing news in South Africa, where most correspondents are based, and frustrations at bold claims of mass protests that in some cases saw more journalists than demonstrators taking to the picket lines.

The Mail & Guardian has carried stories detailing the absurdities of a government that lavishes millions on royal luxuries, including private jets and birthday parties, an army engaged in no conflict and a white- elephant airport that, after 10 years, still has no airlines signed up or an opening date in sight.

The M&G has reported on the controversial ruling that saw MTN Swaziland close down mobile and internet ­services offered by parastatal Swaziland Post and Telecommunications Corporation and then demand substantial financial damages. MTN Swaziland's shareholders are widely reported to include King Mswati and Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini.

Following the MTN ruling, Swaziland's Parliament passed a vote of no confidence against the Cabinet, but when the king took no action (against the terms of the Constitution), Parliament panicked and reversed the motion.

The Swazi government, which is highly sensitive to criticism, says its unique tinkhundla style of governance (comprising traditional chiefs) is an example to the rest of Africa.  

It says its people must be happy because they don't complain. Activists say most citizens don't know their rights and those who do are too scared to challenge authority, for fear of losing land and food handouts.

When questioned by panels at the United Nations, government ministers claim the 1973 decree no longer stands, because it was overturned by a new Constitution in 2005 that enshrines rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression.

Highly censored media
But the realities of a highly censored media, a heavy-handed police force and a wide network of informants make this claim hard to swallow for anyone who has tried to speak out against the system.

In 2010 a political activist called Sipho Jele died in police custody after being arrested for wearing a T-shirt of the banned People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) to a May Day event. Few believe the coroner's verdict of suicide, especially not the thousands of Swazis who live in exile.

The government also likes to point out that political parties are no longer outlawed, apart from the Pudemo, which is banned under the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act following allegations of a bomb plot against royal residences.

But, given that there is no legislative framework to do so, parties cannot ­formally register in Swaziland. There is also no provision for parliamentary candidates to run as a member of a party, only as an individual. Some opposition parties, including the Swaziland Democratic Party, led by former trade union head Jan Sithole, are planning to field candidates in this year's general election – expected to take place in August – arguing that they can influence more from the inside than from the picket line alone.

"It's about occupying space," Sithole said. "We cannot allow them to continue to take decisions and make laws without our participation. It's about finding other ways. In Swaziland, the call for multiparty democracy cannot just be on the picket line; we need to also influence from inside and that is what we plan to do."

Pudemo, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress and others, however, say they will boycott the polls, and only take part in an election under a multiparty system. In Pudemo's case, the party will participate when it has been unbanned and when the people it claims are political prisoners are released.

Veteran activist Musa Hlophe, who for 10 years has led the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, a collection of businesses, churches and democracy groups, sees little success in either approach.

Beyond politics
"There is a big risk that even someone as credible as Jan Sithole, with all his union experience, could, if he gets into Parliament, just get drowned," he said.

"The Constitution is not respected and, no matter how aggressive Parliament tries to be, the king still holds all the power and can ride roughshod over anything he likes. We saw this with the MTN and no confidence sagas.

"But the same gamble is being taken by the boycotters, because by boycotting one simply by default allows the process to go on. So either option, inside or outside, it's a no-win situation," said Hlophe.

Beyond deciding whether to take part in the elections, there are also divisions on what the role of the king should be; whether the monarchy, which beyond politics is a highly respected cultural institution, should retain a formal role, or be removed altogether.

Having been part of what must be one of Africa's longest struggles, Hlophe's frustration is growing. He is now in his 70s.

"Back in the 1990s, the trade unions could mobilise 20000 ­people.Where has that power gone?" He sighs. "What we need is unity, to work together, rather than in our separate cocoons.

"At the moment, things are planned on the internet and shut down quickly by the police," he said. "But if 20 000 or 30 000 people took to the streets of Mbabane, or marched to the king's kraal, what would the police be able to do?

"This lack of unity kills me from inside, because it tells me it is no longer just the ruling elite that is denying us democracy, but it is my fellow comrades in the opposition who are actually prolonging their status quo by their failure to focus on one key objective of restoring multiparty democracy and by going their separate ways to compete for power," he said.

Last April the unions, parties and pro-democracy activists, several of whom are affiliated to internet-savvy campaign wings in South Africa, talked big about a protest march that would bring the capital Mbabane to its knees.

The M&G travelled to Swaziland to report on the event, but failed to find the picket line. Later, we were told the main organisers had been detained by police, thus stopping activities before they started.

This year, despite the milestone anniversary, there seems to be ­little organised for April 12, or at least ­little that has been publicised, which may be a deliberate attempt to keep the security forces at bay. We will only know for sure next week.



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