Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

SWAZILAND: Opposition Arrests a “Desperate Attempt by a Dying Regime”

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 13 2006 (IPS) - Political tensions in Swaziland are on the rise following the arrest of 15 pro-democracy campaigners in recent weeks over petrol bomb attacks that were made on courthouses and the homes of various officials last year.

The activists belong to the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO). They include the secretary general of this opposition party, Bonginkhosi Dlamini, and leading campaigner Mphandlana Shongwe – who was reportedly detained Tuesday.

All 15 appeared in court this week on charges of high treason related to attempted murder. However Bongani Masuku, secretary general of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, believes the case is simply an attempt to clamp down on perceived opponents of the royal family. Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

“It’s a desperate attempt by a dying regime,” Masuku told IPS.

The Swaziland Solidarity Network groups organisations that are working for the restoration of democracy in the country, where multiparty politics was banned in 1973 by King Sobhuza – father of the current monarch, King Mswati the Third. The network is based in neighbouring South Africa, as it cannot operate in Swaziland.

Police in that country have been accused of torturing the PUDEMO detainees, along with a number of their spouses and relatives. The wife of Mduduzi Mamba died in police custody – allegedly after officials tried to force her to reveal information about Mamba’s activities. However, officials claim the woman, LaFakudze Mamba, died of heart failure.

The arrests and claims of torture have drawn an angry response from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a vocal opponent of the situation in Swaziland.

“These brutal attacks on pro-democracy activists are further proof that King Mswati’s regime is hell-bent on crushing any opposition to its dictatorship,” spokesman Patrick Craven said in a statement, Jan. 11. “And, they vindicate COSATU’s longstanding support for trade unionists and opposition forces in their battle for human rights and democracy in that country.”

Added Solly Mapaila of the Communist Party of South Africa: “These comrades (the PUDEMO detainees) are not going to get a fair trial. All the judges in Swaziland are appointed by the king, and they have to abide by the decision of the monarchy.”

The Swaziland Solidarity Network has pledged to lobby various organisations about developments in the country.

“We have already written to the European Union (EU). Jabulani Matsebule, deputy president of PUDEMO, is going to address the EU parliament,” Masuku said. (Matsebele is based in Australia.)

Similar letters have been sent to the African Union, which will hold its annual summit later this month, and the United Nations and Commonwealth, added Masuku.

“The people of Swaziland have realised that they have a responsibility to liberate themselves, of course with the support of outsiders.”

Following a meeting in Johannesburg this week, South Africa’s Young Communist League and the Swaziland Youth Congress (an arm of PUDEMO), also highlighted the importance of international involvement in Swaziland.

“We are concerned at the silence by the international community about the struggle of the people of Swaziland, and call for collective international action against the heinous crimes against the Swazi people perpetrated by King Mswati,” the two movements said.

These words were echoed by Mapaila. “We’ll…need the involvement of South Africa and the AU,” he said. “They can play a big role in Swaziland.” The country’s economy is heavily dependant on South Africa, and most of its trade is with that country.

However, the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Swaziland is member, might prove less effective at mediation.

“In terms of diplomacy, it will be difficult for some in a grouping like SADC to criticise each other publicly. These countries need each other; they need each other’s solidarity,” Mapaila said.

Masuku agreed. “Some of them (SADC members), like Swaziland, are also politically insecure – threatened by democracy – and would like to protect the monarchy and not criticise it.”

Home to just over a million people, Swaziland has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world: 38.8 percent, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Despite widespread poverty in his country, King Mswati lives in luxury, something that has also drawn criticism in Southern Africa and beyond.

Last year, IPS reported on the monarch’s controversial purchase of a Maybach, a Daimler-Chrysler produced vehicle then said to be one of the ten most expensive cars in the world.

The Maybach apparently cost Mswati about 500,000 dollars – this at a time when more than a quarter of the country’s population required food aid.

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