Public ignore call to strike in Swaziland

Nationwide mass action sponsored by Swaziland’s labour organisations inthe first week of March to protest against government policies did not achieve its goal of shutting down the country completely.

Though street marches in Mbabane and Manzini were probably the largest seen during King Mswati III’s reign, the national leadership was unmoved.

“It was business as usual, and no one was affected,” said Manzini businessman Abel Twala. However, schools and some banks were closed, while post offices were either closed or offered limited service.

The Swaziland Chamber of Commerce and Industry fretted that some retailers lost customers in the main towns, but the first week of March is usually one of the year’s slowest in the retail industry.
Factories functioned normally at the Matsapha Industrial Estate. The labour movement was optimistic though. “The stay-away is a roaring success,” said Jan Sithole, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU).

Alongside other union leaders and heads of banned political organisations, Sithole kept in the centre of enthusiastic anti-government demonstrations, where toyi-toying crowds in red T-shirts with logos inspired by the South African Communist Party paraded down major thoroughfares.

The protest’s key issue was the government’s plan to purchase a $72-million jet for Mswati, despite concerns of economists and international donor nations that the money could be better spent elsewhere in an impoverished country. The jet has become an easily understood symbol for pro-democracy forces to rally anti-government support.

But public support was lacking this week for a nationwide shutdown. Demonstrators were union people, bused in from the sugar estates of the eastern lowveld, a stronghold of SFTU support.

The Swazi public did not stop shopping or commuting, unlike during the stay-aways of the mid-1990s that were widely observed. Instead, the public provided an audience for the political street theatre, watching from sidewalks and storefronts as demonstrators marched by.

The Times of Swaziland reported that at one point the president of the teachers’ union got down on all fours and had a marcher ride him like a horse to demonstrate “how government is taking workers for a ride”.

A more serious message was delivered by SFTU president Africa Magongo when he told crowds the country has been reduced to jungle law because of the government’s refusal to implement court decisions it disliked.

“Despising the judiciary makes the country similar to a forest where wild animals roam and it is the survival of the fittest,” Magongo said.

Police displayed the government leadership’s nonchalance toward the strike action and kept their presence minimal. No acts of violence or vandalism were reported, or arrests made, again in contrast to the national shutdowns of the 1990s.

One palace insider scoffed: “So the 5 000 workers come out to toyi-toyi? We can produce 15 000 Swazi maidens who are willing to go naked to show their loyalty to the king.” He was referring to the annual reed dance, a traditional cultural event attended by regiments of young unmarried women.

Union leadership made the most of the sizable street demonstrations by their members. More noisy marches would come on a monthly basis if the government did not meet for discussions over governance issues by the weekend, Sithole said.

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