Swazis are heading for parliamentary elections in August, presenting pro-democracy groups with the dilemma that all liberation movements eventually face – whether to participate in or boycott state structures and institutions.
One wing of the democracy movement is vigorously pushing for a boycott and disruption of the elections, which it sees as mere window-dressing.
The proscribed People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), Swaziland's leading political party, is at the forefront of the "boycott choir".
Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, the party's secretary general, slammed the elections as meaningless "because they are for a Parliament that has no power and are intended to legitimise an illegitimate regime.
"For Pudemo," he said, "elections are not an end in themselves but a means to begin a process to transform the lives of the people of Swaziland through progressive, pro-poor legislation and policies."
King Mswati III, with full executive power, has the power to veto any law passed by Parliament and appoints the prime minister and Cabinet.
The other side of the debate argues that stayaway tactics have failed to yield results over many years. Their hope is that pro-democracy voters will vote in like-minded people as MPs.
Leading the "pro-participation choir" is Sive Siyinqaba, a political-cum-cultural group formed to counter anti-monarchical radicalism, but which wants multiparty democracy in Swaziland.
Masalekhaya Simelane, the movement's co-founder and executive member, explained that Sive Siyinqaba's participation aimed to rescue the Swazi nation "from the grip of uncompromising ultra-conservatives. We want to assist his majesty to govern his people democratically.
"We shall be sending our members to Parliament to pave the way for a genuine national dialogue on issues of governance."
The two wings of the democracy movement could not meet in Swaziland because Mswati does not allow free political activity and many exiles cannot return to the kingdom.
They trekked to the University of the Witwatersrand two weeks ago to grapple with the strategic conundrum of the elections, together with representatives of Swaziland's oldest opposition group, the banned Ngwane National Liberatory Congress; the banned Communist Party of Swaziland; the banned Trade Union Congress of Swaziland; and the faith-based movement, the Concerned Church Forum.
Also present was the German envoy to Swaziland, Angela Toepfer, the United States ambassador to Swaziland, Makila James, and representatives of Amnesty International – a sign that the tiny country is slowly moving up the international agenda.
The two-day dialogue was hosted by Wits's student representative council in conjunction with Germany's Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and was moderated by South African author and academic Professor William Gumede.
Participation of pro-democracy groups
Ironically, it took place as Mswati was telling the World Economic Forum in Cape Town that Swazis do not want change.
When the meetings ended, two unpalatable realities had become clear: that the election will go ahead with or without the participation of pro-democracy groups and that, in the remaining months before polling, there is very little that either a boycott or participation can do to transform the lives of ordinary Swazis.
This implies that the strategy must be longer term and should first and foremost involve pressure for political parties, banned by royal decree since 1973, to be unbanned and for the stage set for a credible electoral process.
The 100-odd delegates agreed to press for the legalisation of political parties. They unanimously resolved to strengthen their constituency base by intensifying the democratic struggle within Swaziland, building unity among democrats and speaking with one voice.
The delegates also agreed to urge the international community, multilateral institutions and regional organisations to put pressure on the Swazi authorities to respect the treaties and protocols signed by Swaziland, including those upholding worker rights and condemning torture.
In an interview, Gumede said that the groups had agreed to build a global movement for democracy in Swaziland along the lines of the former anti-apartheid movement.
Building mass organisation
Musa Hlophe, co-ordinator of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, emphasised that the meeting had been a milestone in forging unity among democrats and raising the international profile of the Swazi struggle.
"There was a time when our relations were poisoned by outside forces, but we have turned the corner," Hlophe said.
These were small steps forward. But another reality is that the Swaziland pro-democracy movement can no longer piggyback on South Africa to fuel its efforts; it will have to be stronger and stand on its own feet.
As the South African example shows, there can be no substitute for building a mass organisation inside the country.
Only through mass mobilisation can Mswati's government be shaken from its comfort zone and made to see the need for meaningful engagement with the democracy movement.
Musa Ndlangamandla is former chief editor of the Swazi Observer and a former adviser and speech writer for King Mswati III. He is currently an intern at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism
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