Trade-union leaders in Swaziland have threatened more strikes to force Africa’s last absolute monarchy to reform, arguing that the lack of democracy is crippling the economy.
A two-day strike, the biggest in a decade, brought the tiny landlocked country to a standstill last week, and union leaders are threatening further stoppages, refusing to back down unless their demands are met.
Thousands of Swazis demonstrated in the country’s second city of Manzini and capital Mbabane. Schools and government factories were forced to close while hospitals and banks operated skeleton services.
“We want the government to hear our grievances and until we are heard we will continue holding mass stayaways,” said secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), Jan Sithole.
The courts are currently considering a bid by the unions to force the government to appoint a South African mediator to step in and resolve their grievances.
“The purpose of the court application was to compel the government to go to a regulated mediator who will not shift goalposts as the government team that we were negotiating with did,” said Vincent Ncongwane, head of the Swaziland Federation of Labour (FSL).
Although their main demand is that 2008 elections be held under a multiparty democracy, they are also concerned about labour issues such as the heavy taxation of retirement packages.
“We would be pursuing the issues further until governments meet our demands,” said Ncongwane.
Workers say that the traditional “tinkhundla” system of government — under which King Mswati III retains full executive, legislative and judicial powers — is hampering economic growth.
The unions want to reverse the ban on political parties in force in Swaziland before elections scheduled for next year.
“If one looks back to the early 1970s when the country was under a multiparty system, there was economic growth that was one of the best in the region,” said Sithole.
“But immediately when political parties were banned in 1973 our economy took a nosedive, so it is up to Swazi workers to change the system that has been a stumbling block in economic development.”
Even the employers have some sympathy with the workers’ demands. They feel the strike could have been avoided if the government had acted sooner.
CEO of the Federation of Swaziland Employers and Chamber of Commerce Zodwa Mabuza said the mass action severely hurt the economy of the country.
The way the government had handled the protests had done little to show they were serious about resolving the issues, said Mabuza.
“The election cannot be divorced from socio-economic issues because they have a bearing on workers,” he added.
The last time the country had a rolling mass action was in 1996 when workers embarked on two months of protests, resulting in shops running out of food.
Swaziland is one of Africa’s poorest countries, where 70% of the 1,1-million population live on less than one dollar a day.
Earlier this year, church leaders criticised the country’s king for lavishing $2-million on birthday celebrations when farmers were reeling from poor harvests and food rationing had been introduced.
Mswati maintains a fleet of luxury cars and spends millions accommodating his 13 wives in luxury mansions. — AFP