Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT-SWAZILAND: Gov’t, Critics Use Summit to Highlight Their Case

James Hall

MBABABNE, Aug 13 2003 (IPS) - A growing reform movement, abetted by radical labour unions, is being heard louder than ever this week at the commencement of a British Commonwealth summit being held in Swaziland from Aug. 12 to Aug. 16.

The meeting, known as the SMART Partnership Dialogue Summit, is intended to open channels of communication between governments, business and civil society. SMART means Simple/Measurable/Action-oriented objectives/Respect/Trust.

At least ten heads of government attending all or part of the summit began arriving Tuesday.

If the political opposition to royal rule has its way, Swaziland will be isolated from the rest of the world when local and South African trade federations blockade the landlocked country’s border posts to protest royal governance.

“Only the airport will remain open,” joked Vincent Ngoncwane, the secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL). His humour was directed at the tiny Swaziland airport, which normally receives only small commuter flights from Johannesburg and Maputo, no more than eight a day.

In its protest action, the SFL will be joined by the much larger Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), whose secretary general, Jan Sithole, is considered by palace officials to be one of the nation’s leading anti-royalists.

“We are tired of modest demonstrations that are overlooked by government,” Sithole told 500 civil servants last week. The government workers staged a rare protest march through Mbabane, the capital, to demonstrate against tax policies they say heavily burden workers but leave royal and top government officials unaffected.

Sithole announced a nationwide strike for Aug. 12 through Aug. 14 to coincide with the British Commonwealth Heads of State SMART Partnership Summit to be held in Swaziland. A series of demonstrations that will also include teachers and nurses will draw attention to the human rights record of sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

Expressing its solidarity in a press statement, the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) said it has obtained permission from South African court to demonstrate against Mswati’s government at six border posts connecting Swaziland with South Africa. The objective is to block all traffic into and out of the country.

Calling the action much more than a demonstration, Swazi Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini likened it to an act of war.

“Borders can only be closed during times of war,” he said.

The prime minister assured Swazis that the landlocked country will not be cut off from the rest of the world just as government hopes to make a good impression for international visitors.

Swaziland imports 80 percent of its goods and services, including all of its petroleum, from South Africa. A border blockage combined with a nationwide work stoppage would effectively shut down the country.

By Wednesday, the day of the gala banquet Mswati was hosting to open the summit, the strike was on with mixed results. Some border posts were closed, but others operated normally. Protestors in urban centres shouted their displeasure and kept security forces busy. They managed to disrupt some commercial and industrial activity, but not shut the nation down.

“The timing of this action is no accident. It is intended to create maximum embarrassment for the king during the summit,” a cabinet source told IPS.

Sithole responded, “Government has no right to dictate when and where we may protest government policies.”

Among the heads of government who have confirmed attendance at the summit are Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, Zambian president Levy Mwanawaza, Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Botswana president Festus Mogae and Congo’s leader Dennis Sassou Nguesso.

As well as Lesotho’s Prime Minister Phakathi Mosisili, Malawian president Bakili Muluzi, Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo have also confirmed their attendance.

In an effort to drain support for the strike, government promised public servants a salary increase payment for Monday, the day before the summit. At the weekend, however, government workers rejected the overture, and complained that the security forces would be given the highest increments.

More important than these strategies to oppose or defend, say political observers, will be the participation of ordinary Swazis, if they choose to join the political activists.

As of Wednesday, there were more people observing demonstrators from sidewalks and office windows than people marching in the streets.

“Swazis are not demonstrative people. Political radicals and workers with particular grievances take to the street, but most people observe national strikes by staying at home. It is hard to gauge support for the political opposition, while it is easy to detect the affection most Swazis have for King Mswati,” said Solomon Dube, a political science teacher in Swaziland.

Labour federations have justified their involvement in political reform by linking good governance to better conditions for workers.

“We need a responsive government that can improve the economy, tackle AIDS, house the homeless and feed the hungry. A royal government tends to think only of safeguarding its own privileges and political power,” former prime minister Obed Dlamini told IPS this week.

Dlamini, who now heads the banned political party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, said that too little is being done to tackle crises that threaten to undermine the nation. Nearly 40 percent of adults are HIV positive. By 2010, one-sixth of the population will be orphans under 15 who have lost their parents to AIDS. About one-fourth of Swazis will be without food by early next year, which economists predict will be the tenth year of diminishing economic growth.

“Only by pressure from the international community will we move government toward political reform,” said Dlamini.

Government reform usually comes not when the international community demands it, but when the majority of a nation’s people demand it.

“When the Swazi nation makes their voices heard, this will set the agenda,” said Dube.

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