Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour

LABOUR-SWAZILAND: Protest Marches to Coincide with Heads of State Summit

James Hall

MBABANE, Aug 1 2003 (IPS) - Former South African President Nelson Mandela will lead a global contingent of present and past heads of state at the British Commonwealth SMART Partnership Summit, or Global 2003, which will be held in Swaziland on Aug. 13.

But critics of such extravagant and expensively produced get-togethers are asking: To what end?

Of all the annual summits, large and small, devoted to economic, environmental, technical or developmental issues, the concept for Global 2003 is difficult for some people to grasp. Only 10 percent of Swazis know what its purpose. They are better informed through the local press about spending scandals that have attached themselves to the event.

“I don’t know what it’s about,” said a street vendor in Mbabane.

“The summit headquarters is in our building, but we are clueless of what they’re doing,” a businesswoman said.

In fact, the SMART Partnership Summit is about ways to bring the public and private sectors, government and businesses, together for national development, particularly in poorer nations. Nearly 20 heads of state have confirmed their attendance. Most, like Mandela, are from Africa.

“They will be wined and dined as if this were the G-8 summit (the annual get-together of governmental heads from the world’s top eight industrial nations). Nobody knows how much it will cost. And it is being held in a country where two-thirds of the people live in chronic poverty with no way out,” political activist Sipho Dube told IPS.

Dube said that while dignitaries and business elites enjoy themselves in specially constructed luxury accommodation, impoverished Swazis, now suffering through their third year of drought and their tenth year of declining economic growth, will see no benefit.

“This is another talk-shop and cocktail party, and the poor are paying for it,” he said.

The Commonwealth and Swaziland government, the principal sponsors for the event, have a different view.

“Only by meeting and discussing issues can a way forward be found out of poverty and toward sustainable development,” promotional literature states.

Spending excesses tend to be associated with summits, and the issue seems all the more troublesome when such events are held in poor African countries with pressing financial needs. To pay for the Global 2003 Summit, government has diverted funds from development and infrastructure-improvement projects.

Initially thrilled by the chance to showcase Swaziland under the reign of King Mswati III, government now faces a host of problems. Banned political parties see the event as a way to showcase their own agenda. They will attempt to picket the summit to protest rights abuses.

Teachers and labour unions will also stage protest marches to highlight unfair tax laws and lack of political freedoms.

Even Mswati’s own traditional leadership plans to stage a protest march to embarrass the king over a failed promise to deliver gratuities.

The Times of Swaziland has documented the saga of a 15-million-U.S.-dollar tent purchased in Malaysia to house some summit events. The price tag is more than government spends on agricultural development annually, in a country where a fifth of the population is without food. The Times discovered that the marquee is second-hand, and ran photographs of corroded air-conditioning units, rusty pegs and rotten floorboards.

“After the tent incident, our place will be guaranteed on the list of the world’s top worst managed economies in the world, just under (strife-torn) Zimbabwe,” said Times editor Martin Dlamini.

As for the protests planned at an event, Dlamini said, “At a time when the country should demonstrate a spirit of engagement and working in common purpose, it would appear we have a great show of disunity to display to the world.”

Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini has threatened to resign if a probe is not set up to investigate summit finances.

But government has blamed the scandal on leaked documents it said were “stolen” by journalists. David Lukhele, of the Ministry of Justice, announced a stiff new law to haul journalists to the high court to reveal the sources of their stories. If they don’t comply, a reporter or editor will be fined E25,000 (3,125 U.S. dollars), about double a reporter’s annual salary.

Summits as a rule seem to draw criticism for the amount of money spent to mount them. Transporting, accommodating and entertaining delegates is expensive. Is it worth it?

At the Economic Commission of Africa’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia conferences and summits are monthly events.

“There’s no question that work gets done. Usually lower-level officials and technical experts toil through many sessions on a specific problem, and when a treaty, policy or programme is finalised, government heads assemble for the ratification,” said Arlindo Gama, a Mozambican information and communications consultant who is working on an African information and communications development policy for the Economic Commission for Africa.

“Summits allow nations to coordinate their development efforts. There is no substitute, even in today’s world of electronic communication, to meeting face-to-face to share ideas,” a diplomat at the recent African Union summit in Maputo, Mozambique told IPS.

The pro-summit argument points to the success of environmental initiatives like those controlling greenhouse gas emissions, ocean use and biodiversity as ideas that were turned to policy via summits.

“All gatherings of top politicians draw protests, and they are magnets for criticisms,” said a Swazi official involved in the Global 2003 summit. “That is to be expected. At the end of the day, the success of a summit must be measured by its results."

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