December 8, 2005

Tentative hopes for parties ahead of new constitution

The government has issued guidelines on the creation, registration and running of nongovernmental organizations in a move that some believe makes a small opening for legal political activity when the new constitution, largely maintaining the royalist status quo, comes into effect in January. At the least it will ensure better communications with NGOs that carry an increasingly large share of social services in the country. Whether this move, widely welcomed by the local and foreign NGO community, will lead to wider political relaxation is a controversial point, and depends largely on the attitude of neighbouring South Africa. Foreign diplomats stationed in Swaziland have interpreted the constitution as not wholly blocking the existence of political parties, though not specifying their legality either. The constitution is clear that candidates for public office must run as individuals.
After seven years of discussions the legitimacy of the new constitution is widely questioned, and royalist hopes that it will serve to deflect criticism are likely to be misplaced. It might be that only about 1.000 people or 0.1 percent of the nation's population of more than one million may have taken part in the consultation process, according to Musa Hlope of the Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations, writing in the 'Times of Swaziland'. He dismissed government's claim that the new national constitution signed by King Mswati represents the will of the Swazi majority. "We will test the constitution in court on a case by case basis," says Jan Sithole, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU).
Though not a political party, the SFTU for a decade has staged rallies and work stayaways challenging the absolute monarchy of King Mswati. The SFTU is a member of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance, and is affiliated to the Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations.
Others are also pressing for legalisation. "If parties were unbanned tomorrow, we would announce a membership of 10.000 the next day," says Obed Dlamini, president of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). Dlamini contended that potential party members were intimidated by the party ban from publicly declaring their affiliation. NNLC was formed in 1959, nine years before independence from British colonial rule, by Ambrose Zwane and other rising national leaders not of the royal ruling Dlamini clan. The ban on political parties was instituted by King Sobhuza, Mswati's father, in 1973 after three NNLC candidates were elected to parliament, creating an incipient opposition in a legislature that had been completely controlled by the royal Imbokodvo Party. Replacing Imbokodvo today is the "cultural group" 'Sive Siyinqaba', formed in 1997 by a group of rising conservative politicians. Well financed and influential, the "cultural group" would be a strong contender in elections if allowed to become a political party.
The largest political opposition party is still believed to be the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), formed in the 1980s by Manzini businessman Mario Masuku. The government put Masuko on trial for sedition in 2002 but he was acquitted. PUDEMO's youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), is led by activist Bongani Masuku, who is mostly out of the country. SWAYOCO's activities are limited to issuing press statements out of its Pretoria office attacking government. For that matter, PUDEMO and NNLC have been quiet throughout 2005. The head of the NNLC's Women's League ran for parliamentary office in the last elections of 2003, but failed.
Facing international suspicion that the constitutional process was stage managed to ensure continuing royal rule, government has now agreed to meet with the Civil Coalition, an umbrella body of legal, human rights and other groups, to discuss their objections, though no timetable or other parameters for talks has been announced. But if the outcome of pressure and discussions is that political parties are finally allowed to operate in the kingdom, local observers say that a fresh crop of activists will likely launch new political organisations. (South Scan, London)

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