They were supposed to be a “reality check for a deluded multimillionaire monarch”, providing “irrefutable evidence that it is time to step aside and make way for the people of Swaziland to govern themselves”.
But in reality last week’s protests, organised to mark the 39th anniversary of the April 1973 decree in which the late King Sobhuza II seized absolute power, turned into an opportunity for the government to flex its security muscles and expose weaknesses in the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Campaign organisers vowed to defy the government’s deregistering of the newly formed Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa) and strike anyway.
“They will be able to see with their own eyes that not only does Tucoswa exist, but that when it joins hands with the rest of civil society, with students, faith-based organisations, women’s groups and community organisations, it will present an unstoppable and inspiring living example of democracy in action,” said an emailed statement from the Swaziland Democracy Campaign.
The government responded by finding a legal reason for why the paperwork from the Swaziland National Association of Teachers — the largest and most vocal union – was incomplete and its strike therefore illegal.
And with the teachers’ association — which somewhat uncharacteristically quietly accepted the court ruling — out of the picture, the streets filling with soldiers and riot police and the local media reporting that “national security agents had been instructed to protect life and property”, few protesters dared to turn out, leaving hundreds of bored security operatives yawning on empty street corners.
The low attendance could be explained by the legal action and the police roadblocks around Mbabane that stopped minibus taxis of potential protesters from entering the capital, as much as it could by the activists’ own poor organisation, which failed to mobilise any great numbers despite a large and peaceful student march the week before.
Though it was a non-event, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, not to be confused with the Swaziland United Democratic Front although they are more or less the same people with the same aim, boldly claimed: “The mass democratic movement has been heard loud and clear. Our voice continues to reverberate all across the country.”
In an email circulated by activists in South Africa, the campaign’s convenor, Mary Pais da Silva, said: “Irrespective of the fact that they would face the full brunt of the brutal state security forces, activists went ahead to face the enemy head on.”
There were similar messages of defiance from the Johannesburg-based Swaziland Solidarity Network. It is run out of Cosatu House and shares an office with the South African Communist Party, which criticised police “brutality”.
But for those who were in Mbabane at the time, this seemed a little over the top, especially given how meekly the teachers’ association had seemed to accept its ban and that there were almost no clashes with the police, unlike in many previous demonstrations.
The government’s court challenge was certainly sneaky, as was Tucoswa’s deregistration, a move roundly condemned by global trade unions and civil society groups. It may rightly come back to bite the government at the upcoming International Labour Organisation conference in Geneva.
It was also wrong for the police to deny people their constitutional right to freedom of association, arrest people on their way to an organised prayer meeting a few days later and set up expensive, time-wasting roadblocks to achieve these ends.
Fight for democracy faltering
But as repressive as these tactics may be and as suspicious as the near-fatal car accident involving Sifiso Mabuza, deputy president of the Swaziland Youth Congress, may seem, some people are starting to question whether Swaziland’s democracy movement has not become too much of a willing victim, happier to cry foul than to take part.
One Western diplomat noted: “We can’t believe so few people turned up when they had talked such a big game. They seem to enjoy playing the repressed victim and don’t seem to realise that political change isn’t just going to happen because they think it should. South Africa is proof of that.”
Sensitive to these criticisms, Da Silva told the Mail & Guardian: “Change is a process. We cannot expect this thing to happen overnight and it has already taken us a lot to get where we are now.”
She said progress was being made, that many people supported the movement and she was confident more would follow.
Vincent Dlamini, secretary general of the Swaziland National Public Services and Allied Workers’ Union, said last week the protests had not been a failure, but were “proof of the brutality of the government and the kinds of threats it issues to its own people”.
But one veteran democracy activist, who chose not to associate himself with last week’s protest plans because of what he called “utter disorganisation”, said he was frustrated because he believed infighting and personal ego were dragging things down and preventing the achievement of anything meaningful.
He said communication was poor and media strategies were lacking, resulting in the loss of the movement’s key allies in the media, which sometimes struggled to make sense of what was going on.
Tucoswa, described by Mphandlana Shongwe, vice-president of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, as “the giant baby born with teeth to bite”, was formed specifically with the intention of creating unity in the labour movement.
Political parties relying on labour
Labour has traditionally been at the heart of politics in Swaziland because there are no political parties under the Tinkhundla system of governance, which elects members to Parliament on an individual basis. But despite coming together under the Tucoswa banner, the different labour activists are also members of separate political groups.
These include: The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the historic Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) and the newly-launched Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) — not to be confused with SWANNEPHA, the Swaziland National Network of People Living with HIV and Aids.
These various memberships, plus the proliferation of other democracy movements such as the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, the Swaziland United Democratic Front and additional civil society and church groups, are blamed for diluting co-ordination and impact, an effect the government has used to its advantage.
Although Pudemo is banned under the country’s draconian Suppression of Terror Act, which means being a member openly could — and has in the past — led to arrest, Swadepa and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress are not banned. There is no legislation that allows them to register formally as political bodies and they function more like social clubs without funding or statutes.
This is reason enough for some people to support the call to boycott the 2013 elections that emerged from Tucoswa’s first congress and is one reason cited for why the country’s attorney general chose to deregister the group.
But electoral boycotts are problematic because they allow a regime to continue uncontested and offer no avenues for internal change.
A royal insider said the boycott plan was, in his view, merely a smokescreen for the weaknesses of the political parties, which he said had no real following outside the cities.
“Under the Swazi system, anyone can stand for Parliament as an individual,” he said. “There is nothing stopping all the individual members of Pudemo standing for Parliament. But the fact is none of these parties have big enough followings, so they don’t dare stand and be proven unpopular.”
Even people close to the parties agree that there is too much political theory and talk of revolution and not enough on-the-ground engagement with ordinary Swazis, who are needed if mass action is to work.
Donor funds flowing freely
There is no shortage of donor money from international organisations such as Washington’s Freedom House or the George Soros-funded Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, which want an end to the autocratic regime that has kept two-thirds of the population in poverty while the monarchy and elite live a life of luxury.
Civic-education programmes run by churches and other civil society groups are taking place around the country, aimed at “sensitising” the 70% of Swazis who live in rural homesteads, isolated from the internet and outside news, to issues of governance and human rights.
But although ordinary Swazis may be starting to question their government, largely because of the recent financial crisis that interrupted food parcels and HIV medication, there appears to be little on-the-ground support for protest movements such as the Swaziland United Democratic Front and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign or for the political parties.
It seems that Tinkundlha, which so proudly favours individuals over group solidarity, has conditioned much more than just Parliament.
Even Pretoria’s Institute for Security Studies has pointed out the “lack of consensus of internal political ideology” and how “existing political groups have for years lacked legitimacy in advancing issues of national concern”.
Many see King Mswati III’s reign as unsustainable in the long term, particularly given the country’s weakening economic position, and believe that Swaziland will soon have to concede to pressures to democratise.
But it remains unclear what will happen next.
Asking this question, the institute said: “Tucoswa, along with its prodemocracy counterparts, needs a methodological rethink in the substance and procedural aspects of its campaign.
“Can its campaign convince the rest of the population that its philosophy can work and best deliver much needed services to the impoverished thousands in the country?”