Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-SWAZILAND: Border Post Scuffles Highlight a Democratic Shortfall

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 14 2006 (IPS) - Activists lobbying for democratic reform in Swaziland have vowed to push ahead with their campaign, even though several of them were temporarily detained this week for blocking the five border posts between South Africa and Swaziland.

“We’ll meet with our counterparts in Swaziland to chart a way forward. We are right now consulting with each other and we will agree on a date for mass action as soon as we can,” Bongani Masuku, secretary general of the Johannesburg-based Swaziland Solidarity Network, a non-governmental organisation, told IPS.

Twenty-five pro-democracy campaigners were arrested on the South African side of the border at various crossings Wednesday, and charged with public violence and disturbance. Police said they had been forced fire rubber bullets to disperse the marchers, after they refused to heed warnings to end their protest.

Those detained included Joe Nkosi, deputy president of the Johannesburg-based Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and Cedric Cgina, deputy president of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa – also headquartered in the South African commercial hub.

Confirming their eventual release, COSATU spokesman Patrick Craven told IPS that the campaigners had been granted bail of between eight and 82 dollars.

“We will fight these cases. We will demand that the cases be dropped altogether,” he said. “We also want the conduct of the police investigated so that similar incidents can be avoided in the future.”

Craven further emphasised that, while South African unions were involved in lobbying for democracy in Swaziland, the latest initiative was being spearheaded by Swazis.

“This campaign is entirely a Swazi campaign. We are guided by what they decide. It will be quite wrong for South African trade unions and civil societies to decide for the Swazis,” he noted.

“But what’s clear is that the struggle will continue.”

Despite the arrests, Masuku described the blockade as successful. “It drew the necessary international attention to what’s happening in Swaziland. It also put the Mswati regime in the spotlight,” he said.

The protest was planned to coincide with the date on which King Sobhuza, father of the current Swazi monarch, Mswati, declared a state of emergency in the country 33 years ago. Under the state of the emergency, Sobhuza banned all political parties, introduced 60-day detention without trial, outlawed marches and demonstrations – and scrapped the constitution.

While a new constitution has since been introduced, it is viewed by some as tightening the monarchy’s grip on the country; and, opposition parties remain outlawed. The lack of far-reaching reform has prompted the Swaziland Solidarity Network and the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) to declare April the ‘Month of Focus on Swaziland’.

Despite intimidation and harassment, PUDEMO is holding rallies around Swaziland, and lobbying for international sanctions against the monarchy.

“We are also demanding that treason charges against 15 of our comrades, who were arrested last year, be dropped,” PUDEMO President Mario Masuku told IPS in a telephone interview from Swaziland.

In addition, “We are demanding that our comrades in exile, 30 of them, be allowed to return home,” he said. Most of these persons are living in South Africa, Britain and Australia, according to Masuku.

Bongani Masuku believes the 54-nation Commonwealth, a body which groups former British colonies – including Swaziland – could do far more to encourage democracy in the kingdom.

PUDEMO has also complained that the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Swaziland is member, is turning a blind eye to developments in the country.

“We have written three letters, the latest being early this year, to SADC in the last three years, and we have not received any response. We are now planning to travel to Botswana for a face-to-face meeting with SADC secretariat officials,” said Mario Masuku.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a non-governmental group based in Cape Town that lobbies for wider availability of anti-retrovirals, has added its voice to those criticizing the lack of democratic rights in Swaziland – saying this has affected the health of Swazis.

“Life expectancy (in Swaziland) is estimated to be approximately 33, possibly the world’s lowest. Its Human Development Index rating (from the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report) is falling, primarily due to the AIDS epidemic: nearly 39 percent of adults aged 15-49 are estimated to be HIV-positive,” said the TAC, in a statement issued Thursday.

“The Kingdom suppresses dissent and political parties are outlawed. The King demonstrates callous disregard for the rights of women. This is not a political climate conducive to improving health-care.”

Swaziland currently has the world’s highest adult HIV prevalence rate.

Added the TAC, “Swaziland is a neighbour of South Africa, supplies this country with labour and is a member of the African Union. There is a moral obligation for South African civil society and government to assist the people of Swaziland in their struggle for democracy and freedom.”

According to Mario Masuku, the monarchy continues to downplay the growing demands for democratic reform in Swaziland.

“Like all dictatorships, they continue to deny Swazis their rights,” he noted. But, “The people will win.”

Republish | | Print |