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Swaziland: `The people are getting angrier and angrier'; Swaziland Democracy Campaign to be launched

February 13, 2010 -- B.V. Dlamini, deputy secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, spoke to London Student's Ingrida Kerusauskaite about the way forward for Swaziland. London Student is Europe's largest independent student newspaper. This interview is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.

What is the political situation in Swaziland? What does that mean to the citizens?

The country is ruled under a dictatorship, where there is no separation of power: the judiciary, legislative and executive powers are all invested in the king, to the extent that the government cannot properly advise the monarch. First they have to know what he wants to hear, and then they tell him what he wants to hear, not what he has to hear. The distribution of resources in the country is very uneven: 69 per cent of the population live under the poverty line, despite the fact that Swaziland is regarded as a middle-income country by the international financial institutions. There are also serious violations of human rights.

Swaziland has an international reputation of being an “ideal tourist destination”. What effect does that have on the country?

There are high levels of cultural indoctrination – where culture is used in a way to ensure the royal family’s stronghold on power. Moreover, there has been this misplaced self-congratulatory outcome where the rulers of the country say “Look, people are coming to the cultural festivities, then that means they endorse in the way we are governing, they are happy with the way that the country is being governed.”

While in other countries indoctrination manifests itself in political terms, party political ideologies, in Swaziland it is very strong in the cultural form – that we need to be seen as a cultural destination for the West. In Swaziland, you can often hear, “You are not expected to behave like this, it is un-Swazi. Listen to your leaders, pray for your leaders, make sure your leaders do not have trouble in ruling the country.” I think it inhibits people’s development. I haven’t seen anybody who participates in the activities and comes out saying “my life has improved”.

People participate in these cultural activities not because they choose to, but because they are intimidated into participation by various fines and sanctions. I know people who have had difficulties in accessing tertiary education institutions because the traditional chief (of the village) wouldn’t sign their application for a scholarship form, on grounds that they had not been seen in some of the traditional festivities. They just say “you are not an obedient citizen, we summon people to the royal calling, and you are not there”.

I got the impression that you believed that only a democratic republic could significantly improve the situation in Swaziland. Is that true?

I think a democracy is fundamental to propel the country forward. But within the context of Swaziland, we are calling for the repeal of all oppressive laws, the separation of powers, where the judiciary must remain independent, the legislature must be able to enact proper laws that would develop the people, and the executive must run the country. We are not saying that the kng must be removed, he should remain as the unifying figure and play a certain role in terms of governance, like for example in the UK.

The king’s participation in the day to day running of the country causes very serious problems. Certain projects known as “white elephants” are very dear to the king, however destructive to the country’s economy, and no one was able to stand up and protest against them. For example we are currently building a big international airport, which we will not be able to sustain as there is not much air traffic into Swaziland.

Even now, with a small airport, we are struggling to get people to fly on the small jetstream plane between Johannesburg and Manzini, and we are building a very big international airport that will accommodate Boeing 777s or Airbuses. So who is going to fund it? A lot of public resources had to be moved as no international investors were willing to invest in the project.

The feasibility of the project states very clearly that it will be a failure. And that is just one example. Right now the king has 13 wives. I wouldn’t want to be seen to be criticising him for the number of wives, but for the expenditure. It is becoming increasingly expensive, because each and every one of them is having a palace built for them, they all have these nice cars and escorts, they go shopping all over the globe – Las Vegas and Kuwait recently, Dubai, London, New York… Just living a life of luxury, in the face of abject poverty. At the end of the day it will only work against them, because people are getting angrier and angrier, as they are hungry while seeing these people living large. I’m saying that if we democratise the country, then all these problems of poverty, dilapidated health system, poor infrastructure could be solved. We would be able to direct the resources to where they could best be utilised.

Swaziland is a member of the UN, has ratified numerous international conventions, but it seems to be abusing them?

Swaziland is a member of the United Nations, and a signatory to quite a number of international conventions and international charters, but it violates all of them. Even though Swaziland is always one of the first countries to sign any convention that comes around, it is also one of the first ones to do exactly the opposite to that particular convention. You are free to associate as long as you associate with people that agree with the government. You are free to express yourself as long as you say things that they want to hear.

The government has also signed the Internation Labour Organisation conventions on workers' rights and trade union rights, and subsequently violated them. Recently, the international trade union congress has issued a report on the southern African countries, stating that Swaziland is the worst violator of workers' rights in the region. A good example is the fact that village chiefs make their communities work their fields in the name of tradition. The leaders own subsistence farms which require labour power, so they call the people of the village to do that work. They do the work for free. It is "tradition".

From the trade union perspective, we say that this is forced labour, and the government says “no, it is tradition”. We say that if it is tradition, then people must have a choice whether to take part or not. It mustn’t be a situation where those not wishing to participate are then punished – in the form of not being able to access certain rights and privileges.

What are the views, structures and objectives of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, and why is it sometimes in conflict with the government?

The trade union movement is actively involved in the pro-democracy struggle, calling for a multi-party democracy and a democratic constitution-making process. We want a people-driven, people-centred constitution. We advocate for the rights of workers, whose conditions are often unbearable: they work until they drop. Some have even given birth inside the factories.

We believe that such conditions are abusive, in violation of workers' rights, ILO conventions and human rights. These rights are being violated by employers, with the assistance of the government. When workers go on strike, the government sends the police to beat the hell out of them. There are even cases where police agents were shooting the workers just because they went on strike, demanding better working conditions. The government said that it was “not going to tolerate [strikes], because it will chase [away] investors”. 

What is the situation for students in Swaziland? How effective, do you think, would established links between students at British and Swazi universities be?

The extent to which students are free in Swaziland is very limited. They face legislative challenges, because it is very difficult to register a student union in Swaziland. The country is characterised by immense poverty, which means that most people can’t pay for tertiary education.

However, there is a very limited number of government scholarships available. The problem arises out of misplaced priorities, and in order to address that problem, we have to address the problem of governance.

Student unions are told to concentrate on students, not political issues. There are also issues of academic freedom. You can’t express yourself within the university while outside the gates of the university you can’t be free. You should be able to publish your views. But if those views are not favourable to the government, publishing them would be putting yourself in jeopardy. Sometimes students embark on action, but they are beaten down. The institutions themselves are a microcosm of what happens in the working class. 

What impact do links between British and Swazi university students have?

The Swazi students’ plight would be heard by the British students, who can then advocate for the cause on other platforms. Also, Swazi students are interested to know what students in Britain are learning, and whether it is similar to their curriculums. We are not used to discussing the content of our education in universities, and we often wonder whether our degree is really what it takes to survive out there in the job market. Students could share their experiences, compare similar degrees and broaden their perspectives.

Swaziland Democracy Campaign to be launched: `The hour of democracy in Swaziland has struck!'

Sunday, February 21, 2010, will be a watershed moment in the struggle for democracy in Swaziland. On that day, the historic launch of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC) will take place in Johannesburg. Progressive organisations from South Africa and Swaziland will combine in the Swaziland Democracy Campaign to accelerate global momentum for democracy in Swaziland. The launch will be preceded by a strategy development workshop, where a comprehensive program shall be developed to consolidate and advance the campaign.

At this time, thousands of people in Swaziland, and students in particular, have demonstrated their courage and determination and their willingness to sacrifice in the fight for their freedom. By taking action, they have opened the eyes of the world to the royal elite's scourge of legalised terror. In the name of culture, and divine right, the royal elite have ruthlessly protected their privileged position while the vast majority of the population live in complete impoverishment. The royal elite has used the tinkhundla system to spy upon and oppress popular and democratic activists throughout society. However, in schools, workplaces, institutions of higher learning and communities, there is resistance, and it is growing, despite an escalation of repression and use of the notorious Suppression of Terrorism Act.

Following years of joint activities, marches and border blockades, the progressive movement in Swaziland and their South African counterparts have decided to take their co-operation to new heights, from the Joint Swaziland Action Campaign (JSAC), which was created on August 12, emerges the Swaziland Democracy Campaign.

The SDC is comprised of organisations involved in the struggle for democracy in Swaziland and in South Africa. The campaign recognises and supports the democratic initiatives and efforts undertaken by trade unions, NGOs, church organisations, students and youth organisations, women and cultural forums, political movements and progressive forces in South Africa and globally to support the struggle in Swaziland.

The Swaziland Democracy Campaign will popularise an initiative to intensify the call to cut links with the brutal regime and mobilise practical support for the democratic movement in Swaziland. As the crisis in Swaziland continues to its peak, let all of us vow to step up pressure on the ruling Swazi regime, and those who protect it.

The following documents have been drafted for consideration and final adoption at the launch;

  • Draft public declaration of the campaign
  • Draft concept founding document
  • Draft Program of Action

A final list of speakers shall be made public soon. Meanwhile, the organisations from Swaziland have confirmed their speakers as follows:

  • Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) – Barnes Dlamini, chairperson
  • People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) – Mario Masuku, president
  • Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) – Alvit Dlamini, president
  • Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) – Mduduzi Gina, secretary general
  • Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) – Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general
  • National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) – Thulani Maseko, chairperson
  • Council of Swaziland Churches CSC) – to chair proceedings

Meanwhile at least 20 organisations from Swaziland have confirmed they are coming. The South African list shall be consolidated and sent out soon regarding speakers, as about 20 organisations have also confirmed their participation in the workshop and more than that for the public launch. Details of the launch are:

Venue: Johannesburg Civic Centre (Metro)

Time: 10h00

Date: February 21, 2010 (Sunday)

For more information contact Philani Ndebele +27 76 942 3565

Email: philani@asc.org.za

Swaziland National Union of Students: `We are members of the community before we are students'

By Thabo Dlamini, Bheki Khumalo and Maxwell Dlamini

February 15, 2010 -- The Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) want to convey our heartfelt appreciation to the many progressive friends of the Swazi students who have been issuing statements of solidarity to the oppressed students of Swaziland. We are encouraged and our spirits are renewed knowing that the progressive world community is with us and believes in the correctness of our struggle against this undemocratic kingdom of King Mswati III.

We were not aware that our struggle had struck the right chord, we thought we were alone but today we know that indeed the world community of progressive organisations will never let us struggle alone and this has made us to struggle with even more determination. We would like to single out the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) in South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and its sister unions, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), Trade Union Congress (TUC), Denmark allies, and many other organisations that have helped profile our struggle.

Today comrades, we report that owing to the insurmountable pressure that the regime found itself under when it charged our comrade Sicelo Vilane, it decided to withdraw the "terrorism" charges against him without stating the reasons why. Also, all our comrades that were abducted by the police during our last rally in Manzini were released without charge.  We do not believe that this was because of the benevolence of King Mswati III's government, but rather to the pressure that you patriots of the world have put.

The SNUS would also like to tell the Swaziland government led by the illegally appointed Sibusiso Dlamini that the students are angry at the response that his government has given to their demands. In fact, the response is nothing short of showing us the middle finger. The government was given four demands but responded only to two and in the most sarcastic of ways without regard to the seriousness and urgency that the students view their demands. The government has not even dared to respond to our concerns on free quality education for all students, as well as how it will register our union.

Instead the government has written a one-page responce in which it states that it will not address the issue of a personal [monetary] allowance now but rather talk about it once the scholarship policy has been passed into law. It says that the present scholarship will be revisited and students will be "consulted" in due course.
Our problem is that government wants to pass the scholarship policy clandestinely and we wonder who will represent the collective interests of students if the government does not want to register the SNUS. We have dealt with this government long enough to know its cunning plans.

We say today that we will no longer be begging the government to respond positively to our demands, we shall now be on the streets mobilising and organising until the government feels the heat and realise that we are serious and angry.

Our successful night vigil in Manzini deliberated and agreed that the problem in this country is not individuals that do not want to listen to us, but is the foundation on which this country is built. Students realise that the problem in this country is a lack of democracy; it is the lack of power for the people to choose the government of their choice, hence the arrogance of the present administration. It was therefore agreed that the January 30 resolution must be reaffirmed and pursued to the bitter end.

Students also welcomed the formation of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign expected to be launched this coming week. Such noble initiatives have unwavering support from the students and come at the right time when students have vowed to make this country ungovernable and Tinkhundla unworkable. As students we have taken it upon our shoulders to ensure that democracy comes in our lifetime and we believe that Swaziland can no longer be an island of dictatorship in a sea of democracy. Students will hold a rally this coming week as a build-up to this watershed moment in the Swazi struggle.

Lastly, the SNUS is expected to meet the South African Students Congress (SASCO). SASCO has a history of always being on the side of the oppressed, poor Swazi youth and students in particular. Even at this hour of need, they have opened their arms and welcomed the students to their shores and to that we are more than grateful.

Our demands are clear

1) Scrap the scholarship policy.

2) Provide free primary education to all pupils.

3) Register the SNUS as the official voice of students across colleges and universities in Swaziland.

4) Increase our pathetic personal allowances.

[Thabo Dlamini is Swaziland National Union of Students secretary general. Maxwell Dlamini is the SNUS organising secretary. Bheki Khumalo is SNUS president.]

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