July 21, 2003

Opposition demands legalisation of parties

Swaziland's draft constitution was initially greeted with relief by pro-democracy groups who had feared it would be far more draconian. But six weeks on, banned political parties have begun to condemn the document for its ambiguous language regarding the legalisation of political groups.

"We will only be interested in a constitution that would be inclusive of the entire people of Swaziland, not just a few. So we reject this draft constitution with contempt," the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) said in a statement last week. This was the most emphatic rejection of the draft document yet, from an organisation which political observers credit with the largest, albeit underground, membership among the country's pro-democracy groups. It came just days after PUDEMO's president, Mario Masuku, was arrested by Mozambican authorities and handed over to Swazi police to be questioned on alleged terrorist activities.

PUDEMO has demanded unequivocal language in the constitution, to state: "our people shall have the inalienable right to form and belong to political parties of their choice, without fear or favour." King Mswati III's draft constitution, made public on 31 May, permits freedom of assembly, subject to unspecified limitations, but makes no mention of organised political groups. PUDEMO also wants the constitution to challenge Swaziland's feudal system, which currently sees 80 percent of the people living as peasant farmers under palace-appointed chiefs. "These people can, and have been, thrown off their ancestral lands for engaging in activities that the palace dislikes, like expressing political views. The international condemnation of these evictions as gross violations of human rights has left the palace unmoved," said Masuku.

Breaking the traditional leadership's hold on the Swazi majority would require peasants to be given title deeds to individual properties, or at leaseholds, making them invulnerable to eviction by chiefs. "Every Swazi should have an unconditional right to land, with a 99-year lease on their land," urged PUDEMO secretary-general, Bonginkhosi Dlamini. Swaziland is currently halfway through a three-month consultation period on the constitution promised by Mswati when he accepted the draft from his brother, Prince David Dlamini, the chairman of the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC).

Although every chiefdom and urban district should be holding meetings with CDC representatives to enable Swazis to express their views on the draft, to date no meetings have been held anywhere in the country. It is unlikely that a national consultation exercise will be completed during Mswati's original time frame. Soliciting opinions from Mswati's subjects may not be necessary if, as Attorney-General Phesheya Dlamini told the Times of Swaziland last week, only King Mswati has the power to make the constitution the nation's governing law. "Parliament has no power to promulgate laws of a constitutional nature," he said.

Legal and human rights groups countered that a Court of Appeal ruling last November found Mswati had no legal right to pass laws without parliament. The government rejected the court's ruling, leading to the resignation of the entire appeal court bench. Legal sources told IRIN that if Mswati decrees a constitution, in light of the court's ruling it would be an illegal act. "If by any chance the king decrees the constitution, there is no guarantee that he will not issue another decree to remove it in the future," said Dr Joshua Mzizi, secretary-general of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland.

Mswati dissolved parliament last month in preparation for general elections in October. Attorney-General Dlamini said there were no plans to reconvene parliament to address the constitutional issue, leaving a royal decree the only option for adoption. Mswati donned military garb on Friday to officiate at the graduation of 440 new army recruits, in a ceremony that exemplified where power lies in the kingdom. "Each soldier shouted a salute of allegiance to serve and defend the king, not the Swazi nation," said a political activist who attended the occasion. "This is the fundamental issue we are dealing with in the draft constitution: the palace believes that the centre of the nation is the king, and not the people." (IRIN)

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