8 February 2002

Focus on democracy versus monarchy


(IRIN) - Senior Prince Mguciso Dlamini, elder brother of King Mswati III, is emphatic about the kingdom's pro-democracy opposition: "They say they love the king, but they really do not," is his verdict. Given the continuing popularity of the 33 year-old monarch who has ruled Swaziland since 1986 when he turned 18, to be anti-king not only goes against popular sentiment, but can be considered close to treason.

Currently, Mario Masuku, president of the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), is on trial on two charges of sedition. He allegedly uttered statements calling for the downfall of King Mswati personally, and the royal system of government that has ruled Swazis for over 400 years and 13 generations of Dlamini kings.

But Masuku denies saying anything against the monarch. Other leaders in the Swaziland Democratic Alliance, an umbrella organisation that encompasses labour unions and banned political parties, pledge their cultural - if not their political - allegiance to Mswati.

Under a 1973 royal decree promulgated by King Mswati's father, the long-reigning King Sobhuza (1899-1982), opposition political parties are illegal, on the grounds that they are disruptive to national unity. The ban was in part a reaction to Swazis' apparent dislike of an independence constitution, revoked at the same time, which was resented as being "imposed" by a foreign power, Great Britain.

"The constitution was a legacy of colonialism, when Swazis were robbed of most of our land, and we were treated as second-class citizens in our own nation," explained Prince Matsebula. He, like his younger brother Prince Mguciso, serves in the Swaziland National Council that advises King Mswati on national policy.

The independence constitution did provide for political parties, but the first parliamentary elections in 1967 were won in a landslide sweep by the Imbokodvo party, which was supported by royalty. Five years later, a parliamentary opposition was introduced with the election of three MPs from the nation's oldest party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), established in 1959.

"The conservatives who ran Swaziland were scared to their bones of multi-partyism. With King Sobhuza, they decided in 1973 to get rid of political parties. The king assumed absolute powers," explained current NNLC president, Obed Dlamini. "Political marches and meetings were also banned. Swaziland's first army was created that year to provide muscle for the decree." Dlamini, a member of the royal family, was prime minister from 1989 until 1993. All Swazi prime ministers have been royal Dlaminis, but Obed Dlamini's administration had a markedly progressive bent that saw the end of a 60-day detention without trial law that permitted government to dispose of political dissidents at will.

"There are two real opposition parties in Swaziland, the NNLC and PUDEMO," said Dlamini. After Masuku was arrested in November 2000, Dlamini feared he would be next. But the government has permitted the banned parties to function as long as their activities are restricted to issuing occasional press releases. Police invoke emergency powers to curtail street demonstrations, rallies and any type of political meeting.

This has not stopped PUDEMO's youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), from taking to the streets when asked to support demonstrations called by Jan Sithole, the secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, which is aligned with the teachers, nurses and civil servants unions within the Swaziland Democratic Alliance.

After a series of nationwide workers' stay-aways in the late 1990s, political observers felt the kingdom's opposition leadership was in the hands of Sithole and union executives. But 2001 passed quietly, with Sithole's anti-government activities restricted to overseas trips to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, where he argued that Swaziland's human rights record on freedom of speech and assembly was a reason for international concern, and perhaps trade sanctions.

It seems like a much earlier era when the combined action of labour unions and opposition parties against government in 2000 culminated in demonstrations where Masuku allegedly called for Swazis to bring down the royal government through revolutionary means. Today, Masuku's defence attorneys argue that a police translation of the SiSwati words he spoke at the time is inaccurate.

According to Sithole: "The objective of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance is to retain the king, who is so important as a cultural icon and as a unifier for the nation. But we would like to see him within a democratic framework, as a constitutional monarch."

A hardcore cadre of about 100 Masuku supporters, along with some labour leaders, have shown up for the five days of his sedition trial before proceedings were suspended pending the appointment of a new presiding judge. To deter demonstrations, police set up roadblocks on highways leading to Mbabane, and quizzed travellers about their business in the capital city.

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