Swazis claim their democratic space

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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.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sat, 09/19/2009 - 17:25


PUDEMO calls on world to support day of action for Release of gallant fighter President Mario Masuku

Mfanafutsi Linus Mavimbela, PUDEMO External Regional Chairperson, 17 September 2009

The tried and tested leader of the Swazi revolution, the gallant fighter and leader of PUDEMO Mario Masuku shall once again, on the 25th September stand before the court of the enemy in Swaziland, not as a guilty person, but as a symbol of resistance personifying the highest ideals of the Swazi people’s aspirations.

Despite his insistence that he must not be personified above the rest of the mass of fighting Swazis and their organisations, we are convinced that in him the best of the Swazi revolution is assembled. He resembles the finest traditions of sacrifice, discipline and selfless commitment to the interests of our people. This is why we feel we should affirm our salutations to him, his organisation and the cause for which he has, for so long, suffered.

We take this opportunity to say to the world, their call for his release is a call worth all the energy and devotion. Standing by him during these trying times symbolises standing on the side of the suffering and struggling masses of our country. PUDEMO has and shall continue refusing to be bullied into acceptance of imposed royal schemes disguised as constitutional processes and dialogue with all structures of the system, including its ambassadors. We reaffirm the way-forward of the movement about conditions necessary for genuine negotiations and the representations required for this exercise to be genuine and meaningful.

We salute the mass of the struggling people of our country and all those friends who stand on the side of justice in calling for democracy and change in Swaziland. Your stand in support of our cause is a stand in defence of democracy every where, it’s a stand in support of the broadening of the frontiers of democracy and justice.

It is for these reasons that we unequivocally support the action initiated by the Swaziland United Democratic Front and COSATU under the auspices of the Joint Swazi Action Campaign Committee, with the coming 25th September Pretoria action as a climax of that effort. We call upon all Swazis and members of PUDEMO to, in show of strength, join the action and ensure that we send a clear message to the Swazi regime that we cannot tolerate any further their actions and attitudes.

We are intensively preparing and organising for the day, spreading the message that it is not natural for Swaziland to be undemocratic, but a product of a particular historical circumstance resulting from royal thuggery and the abuse of our national heritage and culture for narrow selfish interests.

We invite all and everyone to concentrate on the major tasks of the Swazi revolution; not the distractions created by the enemy, meant to divert focus from the real issues facing our people and the urgency of the democratisation process.