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Swazis claim their democratic space

By Jan Sithole, general secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions

July 16, 2009 -- Ask most people around the world who are not from Swaziland what they know about the country, the most likely response will be a blank stare. Those who have heard of Swaziland are mired in stereotypes about an exotic mountain kingdom.

As a Swazi citizen who was born, brought up and lives in Swaziland, these conjured images bring weary smiles every time I am confronted with them, especially when I am abroad on an assignment representing the trade union movement.

Yes, Swaziland is a beautiful kingdom at the southern tip of the African continent, dotted with mountains and full of exciting flora and fauna and other natural scenery. Yes, Swaziland is very proud of its rich cultural heritage, which includes the famous annual reed dance. And yes our country is so small that it is often barely visible on the African map.

But we are all that and more.

Swaziland, just like the rest of Africa and the global South, is a country grappling with all the contradictions and challenges thrown up by history, globalisation and internal power politics.

As one of the leaders of organised labour in Swaziland, I am painfully aware that the vast majority of the working people in my country eke out a very difficult daily subsistence amidst seemingly impossible odds.

The statistics are sobering.

Sixty nine per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. We hold the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV prevalence not just in Africa, but the entire world. Close to half of the nation survives on food aid. There are more than 110,000 orphaned and vulnerable children – this is in a country with a population barely topping one million, less than half the people living in the city of Nairobi. Women in Swaziland are treating like second-class citizens. They cannot own and inherit land directly and they constitute a disproportionate 63 per cent of the poor.

The rate of unemployment nationally is pegged at 40 per cent but could be as high as 70 per cent among the youth, who make up more than half of the population.

Speaking of governance, we are officially under an absolute monarchy. On the surface there are ``democratic'' institutions like a parliament, a judiciary, periodic elections and even a constitution promulgated in 2005.

In reality the King’s Proclamation of 1973 banned all political parties and today any Swazi can be arbitrarily arrested and incarcerated by the authorities for simply exercising their constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. As recently as July 12, 2009, hordes of police descended on a church compound to disperse dozens of youth who were attending a workshop on the grounds that some of the organisers were linked to a banned group that has been outlawed under the controversial Suppression of Terrorism Act.

In terms of the economy and despite the raging conditions of poverty and deprivation, Swaziland is officially described as a ``lower-middle income developing country'', partly because the Coca-Cola behemoth chose Swaziland as the location for assembling the concentrate for its world famous cola brand. It is a little known fact that tiny Swaziland supplies the Coca-Cola concentrate to most of Africa, big parts of Asia and all of Australia and New Zealand from its industrial plant in Matsapa, a small working-class town just outside the financial capital of Manzini.

The World Bank estimates that Swaziland’s economy is in long-term decline. The main income is from the aforementioned cola concentrates, remittances from the Southern African Customs Union and sugar. Very little of the revenue that the state accrues trickles down to the ordinary people. Recently Swaziland was among the countries which signed the Economic Partnership Agreement, widely seen as short-changing Third World countries vis-à-vis Europe when it comes to international trade.

On November 14, 2008, the government, using the provisions of the Suppression of Terrorism Act, banned the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and other political organisations and soon after arrested its leader Mario Masuku after making a speech at a funeral. Human rights leader Thulani Maseko, who was acting for PUDEMO, is himself facing charges of sedition.

There have been protests from workers, youth, women and broad elements of Swazi civil society in reaction to these social, economic and political realities. At the height of the 40th independence day celebrations – which coincided with the 40th birthday of the king – women in Swaziland organised marches and demonstrations to complain about the lavish spending by members of the royal household at a time when Swaziland was going through dire hardships. Human rights lawyers continue to challenge the draconian laws that have criminalised democratic dissent. Workers have taken up the cudgels against exploitation, low pay and a horrid anti-labour environment as they organise a campaign for decent work. For decades, trade union leaders and human rights defenders have been beaten, arrested and harassed for championing democratic rights.

Over the last few years the broad forces for peaceful democratic reform have been coalescing under the rubric of an emerging coalition of organised labour, inter-faith communities, women, youth, civic organisations and other NGOs.

As part of this democratic resurgence, a meeting to explore ways of working for a more democratic Swaziland was to be held on Saturday, July 18, 2009. The meeting, dubbed Sidla Inhloko in recognition of the widespread Swazi custom of eating cow heads in the process of discussing important issues in the community, convened 12 commissions dealing with HIV/AIDS, health, education, gender, youth, governance, human rights, privatisation, food sovereignty, the environment, the informal sector and other related concerns.

Clearly Zimbabwe is not the only country in Africa which deserves the critical engagement of progressive forces in the international community.

[Jan Sithole is the general secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions. This article first appeared in Pambazuka News.]

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