A New Approach to Bring Democracy to Swaziland

2011-06-07

Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

Around 3 000 members of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), in collaboration with various civil political organizations, marched to the South African and US embassies in Manzini on Wednesday 1 June, to deliver a petition calling for, among others, asset freezes of King Mswati III and key members of the country’s ruling elite. The appeal explicitly calls for the United States (US) and South African (SA) governments to identify and freeze assets that the King and his ruling elite had invested in the respective countries. It also stresses the need for both governments to put pressure on the Swazi government to instigate democratic and economic reforms, initially with regards to the reform of the Tinkhundla government and its associated democratic limitations. It also demands that the Swazi government respect and uphold human rights in the interim, and that these key partners de-recognize the Swazi government ‘until the system is changed.’

The petitions were also handed to the country’s cabinet offices and the Ministry of Finance. In what is likely to be a year of protest action in the country, this may signify a new approach aimed at putting pressure on Africa’s last absolute monarch to democratise. According to the Swaziland Solidarity Network, there are plans to make such marches habitual, and the SNAT-led demonstration is the first of regular monthly one-day protests. This move parallels similar efforts elsewhere in Africa where protests stalled in the face of government pressure or repression, such as the ‘walking to work’ campaign in Uganda. This constitutes a non-confrontational approach as opposed to a more direct attempt at forcing a government to reform itself in line with protests demands, as these are met with increasingly repressive and violent responses in Africa and the Middle East.

The King recently cancelled plans to celebrate the country’s jubilee, a development that occurs in the aftermath of comments from Martin Dlamini, Swaziland’s Reserve Bank governor, that excessive spending would need to be curtailed. The strike by teachers was partly in response to this statement, as the governor could not guarantee that salaries would be paid beyond June. It also comes on the back of IMF recommendations that cuts are made in government spending to reduce the deficit and amid fears that Swaziland’s currency, the lilangeni, could be delinked from the South African rand.

The expectations of fundamental entitlements are certainly on the increase, but the stance of the Swazi government so far remains stagnant. Although the pro-democracy movement’s logic for an overhaul of the Tinkhundla political system may lack sufficient support within domestic political institutions, there is a growing external consensus on the need for a political negotiation or dialogue process that will eventually create the basis for either a constitutional monarchy or a democratic Republic.

US embassy political advisor Craig Pike is, according to the Washington Post, reported have received the petition after which he released a statement assuring both civil society and the government that the US was committed to working with them both to uphold human and democratic rights.  There was no immediate comment from the South African mission, which is understandably cautious of contradicting Pretoria’s approach to the matter in lieu of the April 14 statement which called for the Swazi government to ”begin a political dialogue with a view to seek a speedy and peaceful solution to the current situation”.

Further to this is the Zuma administration’s resolve to “continuously monitor and assess the situation” – which may be cold comfort to Swazi’s in the movement who make blanket grim analogies to SA’s SADC mediation in Zimbabwe. Aside from the concern that the movement lacks broad-based popular support, in part attributed to an aversion to ‘taking to the streets’ for fear of political oppression and surveillance, the ‘face’ of the movement is also not entirely obvious. The perceived lack of homogeneity in the pro-democracy movement, comprising the newly formed Swaziland Congress of Trade Unions, civil organisations and banned political parties may isolate the movement from the very governments that they are trying to influence.

In the long term however, moves towards reform will gain impetus especially in the context of a robust regional continental normative framework in the SADC region, which reinforces the commitment of the ruling elite to democratic governance and a tolerant political culture. Despite the yawning gap between declarations of intent and enforceable action, Swaziland’s ‘exceptionalism’ arguably will find itself in an increasingly unaccommodating context in the SADC region.

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