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Swaziland's Pro-democracy Demonstrations Face Government Intransigence
12 April 2012

The April pro-democracy demonstrations that are evolving into an annual convention in Swaziland take political centre stage this week, amid steep government restrictions.   A four day mass demonstration planned by pro-democracy groups, from 11- 14 April 2012 is expected to be marred by violent incidents, given the brutal intolerance that has often characterised past demonstrations.

The group comprising the newly formed union merger, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), teacher associations, banned political parties, student and youth unions, demand inter alia: political and democratic reforms ahead of 2013 parliamentary elections and the scrapping of a newly imposed 14% value added tax. According to the movement’s ‘April 12 Uprising Committee’, the April demonstrations in Swaziland’s urban centres of Manzini and Mbabane signify ‘the continuation of the end of the dictatorial system mislabeled as Tinkhundla’.

The protests are a symbolic rebuff to the denunciation of a constitutional monarchy by King Sobhuza II in April 12 1973, through a Proclamation, following multiparty legislative elections in 1973 where the royalist party, the Imbokodvo National Movement amassed a triumphant parliamentary majority. The trigger was an opposition party win of three parliamentary seats, which although minor, became perceived as a major long-term threat to the hegemony of the monarchy. The proclamation effectively banned political parties. Sobhuza declared himself the supreme ruler of the country with absolute control over government and later established the Tinkhundla ‘individual merit’ based electoral system. The country remains a no-party state ahead of its elections in 2013. In the absence of discernible multilateral pressure, including that of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the significance of the 12 April demonstrations in tipping the stalemate with the Swazi government on democratic reforms is crucial.

The Swaziland government de-registered the newly formed TUCOSWA last week, arguing that it was improperly registered, despite having issued it a validity certificate on January 25 2012 without objection. TUCOSWA is a merger between established and powerful trade unions, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), with an estimated membership of 50 000. The registration of trade unions is usually a straightforward matter. However, TUCOSWA is seen to be adopting ‘political objectives’ of which it is assumed to have no prerogative, in light of its declaration to boycott the 2013 elections and mobilise support toward this end. On elections, the group demands: direct representation; universal suffrage and measures to guarantee the implementation of political rights and freedoms. The de-registration of TUCOSWA following its election boycott statement was largely anticipated after the Minister of Labour and Social Security, Lutfo Dlamini reacted that ‘elections were beyond TUCOSWA’s scope and mandate’ (See: The Times of Swaziland, 22 March 2012).

In addition to the repeal of TUCOSWA’s registration are reports that SNAT’s application to protest was rejected because it was late. The foregoing make the four-day protests a risky affair for most groupings and other public sector unions not exclusively prohibited to assemble. The reaction of the Swaziland Royal Police is likely to reflect this perplexity. 

Indeed some positive political developments since the 1973 Proclamation are notable, including the promulgation of a new constitution in 2005. But most of the 1973 proclamation provisions were incorporated into the constitution. Section 12 of the 1973 proclamation stated that ‘no meetings, processions or demonstrations of a political nature shall be held in any public place, unless with the prior consent of the Commissioner of Police; and consent shall not be given if the Commissioner has reason to believe that such a meeting, procession or demonstration is directly or indirectly related to political movements or other riotous assemblies’ The 1973 warning on ‘riotous behavior’ has prevailed along with a variety of claw back clauses in the current Constitution. For example, the constitution includes a clause guaranteeing freedom of association but retains the state of emergency, the ban on political parties and the King’s draconian powers. Furthermore, King Mswati, an authority most revered in the country, serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Force and the Commissioner-in-Chief of the Police Service. This largely explains hardline justifications by government on violent policing of assemblies.

The Swaziland government has wide latitude in clamping down on any form of dissent. With many years of experience in regulating opposition, the abrupt turnaround over the procedures and legality of the 2012 demonstrations is staple in its civil society diplomacy. Tactics to discourage dissent are mostly controversial because of ambiguous and contradictory constitutional provisions relating to public assembly and freedom of association. The broad application of the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act, which lists political parties - the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), and its youth wing the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) - as terrorist organisations, can also be applied to trade unions, although they are legal in terms of the Industrial and Employment Act.

Government’s contention that planned demonstrations are illegal may result in violent confrontations, prematurely ending their continuation as was the case in April 2011. Then, government forces were so markedly brutal compelling South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) to release a strongly worded statement on 14 April, which drew parallels between the Swazi government’s violent crackdown to its own struggle against apartheid. Subsequently, the South African government broke its silence on the political tensions in the country in a statement released by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). In the statement it expressed its concern about the political situation in Swaziland and recommended political dialogue as the best way to resolve the political tensions. DIRCO further committed itself ‘to continue to monitor and assess the situation’.

The latter raised hopes on a possible SA-led initiative that would mediate in Swazi government civil society tensions and establish a platform for dialogue to develop broad and permanent consensus on the future governance model of the country. The status of South Africa’s widely publicised R2.4 billion democracy-conditioned loan offer to Swaziland in 2011 still needs further elaboration. The expectation on South Africa during planned demonstrations in 2012 is that its voice becomes audible in the debate regarding Swaziland politics of democratisation. South Africa’s diplomacy initially led to some shifts in the Swazi government’s recognition of the potential risk of destabilization and unsustainability of the current political model. On the other hand, the South Africa-Swazi loan negotiations deadlock underscore the monarchy’s deep-seated misgivings about calls for ‘wholesale’ political reforms. Even reasonable ones from its own establishment have not been entertained. A case in point in 2011 was the dismissal of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mathendele Dlamini and the King’s Private Secretary Sam Mkhombe for attempting to revive the once-ruling Imbokodvo National Movement as a move to assuage calls for reform.

In retrospect, the shadow that seemingly looms over the monarchy following mass demonstrations diminishes over time. As pro-democracy activists fail and are inhibited to mobilise support from other sections of the population, mainly the middle class and the rural masses; external pressure on the country to enact reform correspondingly dissipates.  In the absence of a significant game changer, the immediate aftermath of April protests may be limited to boosting the movement’s awareness campaign and ‘monarchy-naming and shaming’. Like previous years, however, the monarchy administration will possibly counter this, keeping the masses depoliticised and unorganised through a combination of measures including surveillance, media control, intimidation and manipulation of cultures and traditions. How long this approach will last remains to be seen.  In the longer term, government’s reluctance to embrace the ideals of democracy and establish the basic conditions for upholding and respecting the fundamental rights of its people should categorically be considered a human security concern. The role of civil society in Swaziland will also grow incrementally, in response to satisfying social welfare and the promotion of freedoms that continue to be overlooked by the state.

Dimpho Motsamai, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

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