July 14, 2003

King, Unions strike deal in run-up to smart summit

A spirit of compromise is at work in Swaziland between the royal government and pro-democracy forces agitating for political reform, as both parties return to the old Swazi values of dialogue and consensus. "In a spirit of national dialogue, we are suspending a nationwide work stoppage to give government more time to address our concerns," said a statement issued on Monday, July 14, by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU, the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT).

The labour unions had planned a workers' stayaway for Friday, July 18, that would close schools, and had the potential to shut down most commercial and industrial activity. Announcing the cancellation of major demonstrations in the central city of Manzini and the southern provincial capital, Nhlangano, the secretary general of SFTU, Jan Sithole, said a march to the prime minister's office would take place instead.

"A petition reminding government of their promise to address outstanding issues will be presented," said Sithole. The union has given the government until 31 July to respond to its demands. If no progress is made, a nationwide strike will be held next month to coincide with Swaziland's biggest event this year, a British Commonwealth Heads of State SMART Partnership Dialogue Summit, scheduled for August 13.

King Mswati is anxious that the summit proceed smoothly, to show that sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch has his nation under control and retains the approval of his people. Mswati's apology at a press conference at the weekend, saying he regretted political activists were excluded from last week's national dialogue summit, showed his desire for a harmonious summit. Several African heads of state have said they will attend. "There just wasn't room for everyone. But next time we will make room," Mswati said in response to reporters' questions about the likelihood of banned political organisations participating in future national consultation exercises.

The unions' demands are mostly economic and centre around new income tax rules that workers say unfairly tax their benefits. Workers are riled because government officials are awarding themselves large retirement benefits when they leave office prior to October's general elections. "The unfinished business of the king's jet keeps popping up," a union source told IRIN. "Mswati dearly wants a US $45 million plane at a time of economic meltdown, widespread poverty, and a third of the population on food relief. The workers won't stand for it," he said.

Mswati promised that parliament would have the last word on the plane, but remained silent when MPs twice voted against the purchase. He dissolved parliament for the election, leaving government in the hands of his handpicked cabinet, which has expressed the desire to purchase the Canadian-built luxury jet for the king. "Failure to renounce the plane will result in full-blown protest action by all workers on 12th, 13th and 14th August 2003," said Sithole.

The British Commonwealth secretariat, whose office supervises development-oriented SMART Partnership meetings between governments and businesses, has sent mediators to Swaziland to bring government together with its critics before the SMART Partnership summit. Talks with unionists at the weekend were reportedly responsible for the postponement of this week's national strike.

Commonwealth mediators are also close to striking a deal with the palace over the contentious Non-bailable Offences Order. Mswati decreed the law last year, which prohibits the release on bail of certain criminal suspects, including those charged with murder, rape and the poaching of protected wildlife species. The Court of Appeal overturned the decree last November, precipitating a rule of law crisis that brought criticism of the government from all nations with diplomatic ties with Swaziland, as well as international human rights and legal groups. "If Mswati approves of the measure to release all criminal suspects on bail, this will greatly reduce tension with the legal community," a member of the Swaziland Law Society told IRIN.

The country's legal practitioners had objected to the decree, which removed discretionary power over bail from the courts. Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini on Monday hinted that the Court of Appeal may be reconstituted following meetings with the Commonwealth mediators. Swazi officials say there is nothing new about dialogue and compromise to iron out thorny national issues. "Swazis have contributed their views at the local level and at national meetings for centuries," Chief Malunge Dlamini told IRIN. "What is changing is where the meetings are held, but the emphasis is attendance by a cross-section of the people."

Noting that political groups opposing royal rule are still officially banned by palace decree, some of these groups are suspicious of government's new spirit of compromise and expect it to end once the heads of state depart after the SMART Partnership summit. At the weekend, the president of the outlawed political party, People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Mario Masuku, and three supporters were released by Swazi police after they were arrested in Maputo by Mozambique police, held overnight, and turned over to Swazi authorities at the border.

"There was no 'compromise' there," said Masuku. "The authorities did not want us picketing the king at the African Union summit." Masuku said government would do whatever it took to avoid embarrassment to the king. If dialogue with opposition groups failed, arrests and the physical blockage of demonstrations was inevitable. "We have the right to defend ourselves against any attacks on us by government," he added. (IRIN)

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