The African National Congress (ANC) on Thursday broke its silence over the violent suppression of protests in Swaziland, calling for moves towards democratisation.
“We call on the government of Swaziland to work towards the normalisation of the political environment by unbanning opposition political parties, releasing political activists and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with opposition political and trade union leaders to find a collective solution to the socio-economic situation faced by that country,” Ebrahim Ebrahim, the deputy international relations minister, said in a statement.
“The use of security forces to quell any form of political dissent and failure to address legitimate concerns of citizens can only lead to the worsening of relations between government and civilians, something that does not augur well for economic stability.”
The statement by Ebrahim, in his capacity as the head of international relations, refers to South Africa’s own history of repression under apartheid and is the first strong repudiation of the absolute monarchy of King Mswati II by the ruling party.
Until now it has been left to the ANC’s alliance partner, the trade union federation Cosatu, to campaign for democracy in the small and impoverished country.
Before the release of the statement on Thursday afternoon critics of the South African government’s noncommittal stance on the suppression of planned protests in Swaziland had cited political, business and historic ties between senior ANC figures and the Swazi elite as the reason for its silence.
The 2010 report of Parliament’s national conventional arms control committee reveals that South African parastatal arms manufacturer Denel sold weapons worth R1,1-million to Swaziland last year, including small arms.
Zanele Mathebula, Cosatu’s deputy international secretary, said that South Africa’s initial silence could be traced to the “interests” of ANC figures in the country.
Newspaper reports in Swaziland point out too that party heavyweights, including former deputy president Baleka Mbete and parliamentary counsellor Siphiwe Nyanda who spent their years in exile in Swaziland, are regular visitors.
Mathebula said that the federation knew of a South African Member of Parliament with a stake in the Swazi mining industry, but she would not provide further details. She said Cosatu was investigating the issue.
Swazi activists said this week that members of the Royal Swaziland Police, deployed to crack down on the protests, were carrying new equipment, although its provenance was unclear.
South Africa’s willingness to supply arms to Swaziland is in stark contrast with the policy of the British government which, according to diplomatic exchanges released by WikiLeaks this year, refused the Swazis a $60-million licence for assault rifles, heavy machine guns, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters in 2008 for fear that they might be used to quell internal dissent.
Mathebula also revealed that Ebrahim had agreed to address a Swaziland Democracy Campaign last weekend but cancelled at the last minute, saying that he had another engagement.
According to Mathebula, the Swazi government also appealed to the South African government to put pressure on Cosatu over the federation’s role in organising the protests.
“[The Swazi government] cannot understand how South Africa can allow Cosatu to be so vocal. They blame us — as if we are forcing the Swazi people to revolt against the king,” she said.
Respect for chiefdoms
Cosatu believes that Lutfo Dlamini, the Swazi foreign minister, during a visit to South Africa last week, asked his South African counterpart, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, to intervene over Cosatu’s support for the democracy campaign and plans to blockade the border in support of the protests.
“After the minister came the [South African] police tried to intervene and scare us. On the eve of the protests they phoned us and said the blockade was illegal and we must not do it,” Mathebula said.
Dlamini refused to comment but said the protests had not been discussed during his visit.
Dimpo Motsemai, an Institute of Security Studies researcher, said that President Jacob Zuma’s sympathetic attitude to the Swazi monarchy had delayed of the South African response.
“The monarchy is entrenched and King Mswati II has strong links with the chiefdoms in KwaZulu-Natal. President Jacob Zuma has a lot of respect for the monarchy and for the cultural identity of the chiefdoms,” Motsemai said.
However, Ebrahim, a close confidant of Zuma, explicitly compared the Swazi situation to the pressures that led to South Africa’s transition from apartheid:
“Having emerged from a brutal past of apartheid that has led to scores of our people being assassinated, assaulted, detained and imprisoned, South Africa is today a world renowned democratic constitutional model. Were it not for the National Party led minority regime having been forced by the masses of our people to engage in a dialogue with the African National Congress and other liberation movements prior to 1994, this would not have been possible,” Ebrahim said.