May 12, 2003

Democracy postponed again

Swaziland's new Constitution has been delayed again, as Prince David Dlamini conferred with constitutional experts. Dlamini, who this week accompanied King Mswati III to the United Kingdom where the Swazi monarch met Queen Elizabeth, was recalled from a diplomatic post in Denmark to produce a draft document out of a Constitutional Review Commission's (CRC) five-year odyssey through the kingdom to learn what type of government ordinary Swazis wanted.

The prince said last year his work was done, but the Constitution, originally due two years after it was commissioned in 1996, is still in limbo. About R112-million has been spent on the exercise, which was decried from its inception by pro-democracy groups as a "non-starter". The Swaziland Democratic Alliance, which consists of labour unions and political organisations that have been banned by royal fiat for 30 years, wants the state of emergency prohibiting political activity lifted and a constitutional convention with elected representatives, similar to the one held in South Africa.

Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, who headed the CRC, has dismissed suggestions that the new Constitution, - when it does emerge from the palace - will not represent the aspirations of the Swazi people. "Everyone had their chance to make submissions before the commission. People have only themselves to blame if their views are not in the Constitution," he said.

Royalists and progressives, such as such as Mario Masuku, president of the banned People's United Democratic Front (Pudemo) party, were given assignments as CRC commissioners. However, Masuku and others from the pro-democracy camp declined to serve, saying they had not been mandated by their organisations. It was an ironic excuse, because the authorities refused to recognise organisations during the exercise, but only accepted individual submissions. The press was banned from covering the proceedings. There was no independent accounting of what took place.

"For how long will Swaziland keep postponing democracy?" asked Martin Dlamini, editor of the independent Times of Swaziland, this week. "We tell the world about rule by consensus, but do we say that the CRC consultation exercises were held in the intimidating presence of chiefs who were there to ensure people do not speak their mind and do not enjoy the basic human right to freedom of speech? "The chiefs hold the power to evict people who differ in opinion. They represent the king in the rural communities, and whoever speaks against government is bound to get into trouble." Martin Dlamini also noted that the CRC gave no statistical evidence to back up its report findings that an "overwhelming majority of Swazis disapprove of political parties" and "a great majority likes government the way it is".

The European Union withdrew financial support from the "never-ending exercise" in 1999, but the United States and Britain provided financing in the hope that the resulting Constitution would provide for at least incremental change.

Mswati told the nation when he accepted the CRC report two years ago, when the final document seemed only months away, that the Constitution would be based on Swazi law and custom, meaning the monarchy would remain the primary power. The continuing postponements are likely due to an impossible conundrum faced by the drafters: how to reconcile traditional authority with individuals' democratic aspirations? The CRC promised a Constitution with a Bill of Rights, but the monarch would remain the ultimate authority. The difficulty of trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable is no doubt causing the delay in producing a new Constitution. (Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)

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