3 May 2002

No progress in fight for democracy

Opposed by meek pro-democracy forces, King Mswati's government is likely to succeed in promulgating a new constitution to preserve palace power, Swazi political analysts told IRIN. "Mswati seems like small potatoes compared to Robert Mugabe and other national leader cutthroats," said a Manzini businessman. "No one has ever died in political violence here, and there aren't even any demonstrations anymore. Why should the world bother with little Swaziland?"

This is the dilemma faced by the kingdom's opposition groups, who are unable to stir up excitement among the tradition-minded populace most of whom are loyal to Mswati. Though some worry about corrupt palace officials, according to one survey by the Swaziland National Association of Journalists. "The days when the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) can close down the country at will to press for political reforms are over," said Dr Anton Magongo, a sociologist at the University of Swaziland. "The people are quiet because they have been cowed by the '73 Decree," said Phineas Magagula, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers. "They are afraid of the security forces. There is a difference between a silent country and a peaceful country."

Opposition political parties, which have been banned by royal decree since 1973, struggle on. Former Prime Minister Obed Dlamini, a royal family member who was fired from his post for being too soft on political demonstrators, now heads the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), founded in 1959 as the country's first political party. "The prerequisite for political dialogue is lifting the decree banning parties," Dlamini said. "When that happens, you will see membership of our party go from the 5,000 members we have today to tens of thousands in a week, I guarantee that."

At his birthday celebration on 19 April, a national holiday in Swaziland, King Mswati had called for dialogue between conflicting groups to forge a national consensus. At May Day observations this week, opposition groups said dialogue was impossible under the State of Emergency, imposed by Mswati's father, King Sobhuza, which outlawed all political organisations other than his own, the Imbokodvo party. Under the State of Emergency, political meetings are banned, and public meetings and marches of any kind require the permission of the commissioner of police. "If the king is sincere about dialogue, he must give us back our voices," said NNLC Women's League president Ntombi Nkosi.

Instead King Mswati's constitutional review commission has released a report that will be the basis for a new national constitution to be drafted by year's end. It calls for a permanent ban on opposition politics, and an expansion of royal powers. Nkosi burned a copy of the report at a pre-May Day strategy meeting of the SFTU. A move applauded by the federation's secretary general Jan Sithole but dismissed by political observers as futile and tardy, given that the report was issued last August. "The political opposition has been outmaneuvered by the palace at every turn," said Magongo. "They no longer control the agenda, like they did when they called national strikes against palace rule. The progressives react to government initiatives, and have failed to spark a large public following." Magongo feels that pro-democracy groups are being disingenuous when they say Swazis will join them once the ban on opposition politics is lifted. Magongo insisted: "Swazis would join now if they felt truly dissatisfied with the current government."

Mario Masuku, president of the largest banned political party, the Peoples United Democratic Movement, has been in prison for a year on charges of sedition. His trial resumes in June. Security forces manned roadblocks in Mbabane and surrounded the High Court during the initial phase of Masuku's trial. But only a handful of supporters showed up to test the police.

Masuku was charged with uttering seditious statements against King Mswati at a march in Manzini, Swaziland's most populous town 35 kilometres west of Mbabane. The crowd was protesting a royal decree which expanded the power of chiefs and traditional authorities. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the gathering, which proved to be the last of its kind to occur in the country. "We chose to turn to international pressure against government to achieve our objectives," said the SFTU's Sithole.

The Swaziland Democratic Alliance, a reformist umbrella organisation, has called upon the international community to isolate Swaziland economically and diplomatically until King Mswati agrees to be a constitutional monarch within a democratic system. Last year, when a royal decree made government officials invulnerable to legal challenges and circumscribed the activities of labour unions, the International Labour Organisation called for economic sanctions against Swaziland. But within a month, King Mswati revoked the decree, and there's been not talk of sanctions since. Prince Mguciso Dlamini, older brother to King Mswati and a senior palace counselor, said: "Swazis love their king. They are proud that their kings have preserved the nation against the odds after all these years. Political parties have not offered a compelling alternative." (IRIN)

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