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POLITICS-SWAZILAND: Struggling Against Tradition

Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Oct 1 2008 (IPS) - The crowd ululated, whistled and danced. Their candidate had won! Last Sunday, the people of Mbabane East returned Esther Dlamini to Swaziland's House of Assembly for a second term.

Voters queuing to cast their votes in Motstane constituency. Credit:  Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Voters queuing to cast their votes in Motstane constituency. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

A court-ordered recount of votes found that she had indeed won 1,621 votes out of 2,461 cast in this suburb of Swaziland's capital, and her voters were celebrating in the community hall where the ruling was read.

"They ganged up against me but I won!" exulted the former police officer and mother of five, and ululated in joy. She was referring to her opponents who had challenged the earlier results in court.

Dlamini was one of seven women elected to the 55-member House of Assembly in the polls held on Sep. 19 and 27.

The number does not bring Swaziland even remotely close to the Southern African Development Community target – approved in August – of having 50 per cent women in Parliament by 2015.

But it is not bad compared to five women MPs elected in the 2003 elections and just two in 1998.

And it is even better when considering that Swaziland is Africa's last remaining absolute monarchy, where adult women were considered legal minors until a couple of years ago.

One reason behind the increase in women candidates and voters is the vigorous campaign, organised by 11 women's groups under the slogan "Make the Right Choice: Vote for a Woman". Through media and meetings in more than 100 communities, the campaign encouraged women to vote for women and to run for office.

The campaign banked on the unusual fact that more women than men are registered as voters in Swaziland. According to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), out of 400,000 eligible voters, 350,780 registered. Of these, about 192,000 are women and 158 760 are men. This should give women an edge if they chose to vote for female candidates.

The campaign attracted strong criticism from traditional leaders in this tiny country of less than a million people. Chiefs from the eastern Shiselweni region, complained loudly that the campaign gave women an unfair advantage.

Chief Dambuza Lukhele argued to the EBC that elections should be based on individual merit and not on group status. Lukhele is a member of the Ludzidzini Council, an advisory body to the powerful Queen Mother, and a former Cabinet Minister.

"This campaign is biased, emotional and provocative, and unhealthy for a country such as Swaziland," Lukhele told IPS. "What if other disadvantaged groups come up and also do their own campaigns?"

Nonhlanhla Dlamini, the gender unit coordinator at the Ministry of Home Affairs, says that a lot that needs to be done to change the prevailing attitude towards women.

"Society is not ready to give women a chance," she told IPS.

Some of the 33 women candidates reported receiving telephone threats from anonymous men who told them to desist from running, revealed Lomcebo Dlamini, coordinator of the rights group Women and Law in Southern Africa-Swaziland (WLSA).

The odds are stacked against women from the very structure of Swaziland's unique Tinkhundla system of governance, where political parties are banned and people elected on individual merit. In theory, any citizen can stand for elections and campaign for a seat in Parliament but women lack the political clout, financial means, understanding of the system and, crucially, the chiefs' approval.

The role of the House of Assembly is not to pass legislation and be a check to the executive, explains WLSA's Dlamini. Rather, MPs are agents of community development. With few women MPS, "women lack the resources to be visible in the communities," she says.

The next hope for Swazi women to increase their representation lies with the arcane system of appointments by the King to the Assembly and by the King and the Assembly to the 50-member Senate.

Dlamini explains that the Constitution calls for 22 women to be appointed to both houses if they do not reach 30 percent representation in the polls.

However, she adds, this does not mean that the Constitution mandates 30 per cent representation in Parliament. The five women elected and the 22 appointments makes 27, out of a total of 106 members of both houses. (The Attorney General is the ex-officio 106th member.)

"This does not give you 30 percent of the total Members of Parliament," says Dlamini.

The next step for the activists is to lobby Parliament to appoint women who are gender champions.

One impressive victory is the election at Ludzeludze constituency in the Manzini region of the outspoken activist Nonhlanhla Dlamini, director of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse.

"Besides the fact that society lacks confidence in women leadership, you still get some stereotypes who want to know who is going to take care of domestic responsibilities if women go to Parliament," she told IPS.

The burden of AIDS – Swaziland has the world's highest seroprevalence rate with about one-third of adults infected – falls mainly on women as carers of the sick and the orphaned.

Combining work and domestic responsibility, says Dlamini, "is such big challenge such that most of them don't stand for elections because they feel they won't cope."

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