September 29, 2003

Pro-democracy groups draft "alternative" constitution

Prince David Dlamini, King Mswati's brother, who heads the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), is reportedly finalising work on a palace-authored constitution to meet the king's September deadline for a proclamation of ratification. The document gives the king ultimate governing authority, and bans political opposition to royal rule. In opposition to this draft, pro-democracy groups in Swaziland have begun the process of drafting an 'alternative constitution' to counter the current government draft.

About 700 members of various progressive groups gathered to begin the process of drafting an alternative constitution. "The view held by many individuals and organized groups is that the draft constitution does not reflect the ideals and aspirations of all the people of Swaziland," said a statement released by banned political parties and human rights, civil and labour groups, assembled under the umbrella organisation, the Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA)."The most fundamental difficulty is that the constitutional process has been exclusionary in nature. We invite all Swazis to help create a genuine constitution," read the statement further. Though political meetings of any kind are banned by royal decree, police did not block the proceedings. However, they did observe the proceedings.

Since 1998, the SDA has called for a constitutional convention with delegates elected from constituencies around the county and representatives from the main civil society organisations, but no action was taken until this week.

Mswati delegated the responsibility of delivering a national constitution within two years to his brother, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, in 1996. After a costly exercise from which the European Union withdrew its sponsorship, calling the effort "unending" and questioning the palace's commitment to political reform, the prince delivered a preliminary report in 2001. The draft constitution was finally presented to Mswati by a second committee in June this year. The document gives the king power over the cabinet, parliament and the courts, which cannot be contested through legal or political channels. A Bill of Rights offers freedom of speech, assembly and association, and equality for women, but all rights present in the constitution are subject to the king's pleasure, and are subordinate to the unwritten laws of Swazi tradition.

Thulani Maseko, of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, said his organisation would proceed with the drafting of an alternative constitution. The weekend convention was the first of several, he said, in which issues would be discussed and a national governing document hammered out. Political observers noted that to be truly representative, future conventions must feature delegates popularly elected by local constituencies, as originally planned by the Swaziland Democratic Alliance.

A lecturer at the University of Swaziland scoffed at the possibility that the royal government would permit the process of a parallel constitution to proceed. "The progressives have gone far to show grassroots dissatisfaction with the constitutional process. They need now to tap into that that disgruntlement for the strategic end of getting people to accept their efforts," she said. (IRIN)

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