June 10, 2002

Concern That Anti-Democracy Laws Will Hurt Trade

There is some concern in Swaziland that the gazetting of a bill aimed at silencing pro-democracy groups could jeopardise much needed trade and investment. The Internal Security Bill, which seeks to reinforce a royal ban on opposition political activity, has also offered ammunition to the very pro-democracy groups it seeks to neutralise.

In a section certain to inflame pro-democracy labour unions, the bill would allow members of the public who suffer property damage during a march or demonstration, regardless of who is responsible, to sue the organisers of the march. Two years ago, in an industrial relations act, a similar measure was included by palace counsellors to King Mswati III in an effort to stop the pro-democracy Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) from calling workers' stayaways to press for democratic reform. Hooligans in towns had used those demonstrations as opportunities to vandalise property.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United States (US) labour federations threatened to press for economic sanctions against the kingdom if the labour legislation was not amended. Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini changed the act after Swaziland was temporarily dropped from a US trade scheme, the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), that permits Swazi goods to enter the American market duty-free, a benefit that supports the country's export industry. Being dropped from GSP cost Swaziland, in one instance, US $69 million in initial investment and 10,000 jobs when a textile company, which had announced its intention to set up a plant in the country, opted instead for Lesotho, a neighbouring kingdom surrounded by South Africa. The company's total investment would have amounted to US $180 million over five years.

Some industrial managers have expressed their dismay to IRIN that trade agreements with the US and the European Union may be in jeopardy if Swaziland is again found in violation of human rights. "Tens of thousands of jobs are coming this year through the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), but these investors will pull out if we lose AGOA. And for what? Because some senile prince is upset when a town boy wears an African National Congress (ANC) T-shirt?" said one Matsapha business owner.

A small landlocked country, Swaziland's economy is based largely on agriculture and agro-industry. According to the latest World Bank profile, sugar, citrus, and wood pulp are the major sectors, and asbestos and coal are the major minerals. Subsistence agriculture, practised mainly in the Middleveld and Lubombo plateau, employs about 60 percent of the population. Soft drink concentrate, wood pulp, and sugar are the main exports. The Swazi economy is heavily dependent on South Africa from which it receives 83 percent of its imports and to which it sends 74 percent of its exports. Average real gross domestic product (GDP) grew at over six percent between 1968 and 1993. However, political change in South Africa has eroded some of Swaziland's advantage in attracting foreign capital, on which much growth has depended in the past, and GDP growth has averaged about three percent during 1995-2001.

Apart from jeopardising investment the Internal Security Bill has given pro-democracy groups more ammunition against government. Last Friday Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland announced it would petition the African Commission of Human Rights, which is based in Banjul, Gambia, to declare Swaziland's government in violation of the African Charter, which the government signed in 1991. The charter places an obligation on the government to respect the document's human rights codicils. "For months, the prime minister has promised a new law he described as a makhundu (a traditional fighting club) to use against banned political groups, but government is beating its own self over the head with the Internal Security [Bill]," said attorney Sam Earnshaw, deputy president of the Swaziland Law Society. The organisation has been critical of the sometimes arbitrary and oppressive rule of sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy. The new law, which is expected to be passed by a parliament dominated by royalists and palace appointees, has been described by political observers like Joshua Mzizi, president of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland, as the palace's preemptive strike to avoid public demonstrations that progressive groups planned to mount when the palace unveils a new constitution later this year.

The new constitution will ban organised opposition to royal rule in perpetuity, and strengthen the powers of traditional authorities. "This law attempts to silence dissent and close off any legal challenge to authority," Mzizi told IRIN. Among the measures is a mandatory 15-year prison term for phoning in a bomb hoax, a fine of about Lilangeni 10,000 (US $1,000) for desecrating the country's flag, and a year in jail for refusing to follow a police order. Attorney-General Phesheya Dlamini, whose office drafted the Internal Security Bill, objects to the timing of the lawyers' petition. He told IRIN: "Basic issues like human rights are constitutional issues, and the constitutional drafting process is now going on. This is not the time to jump ahead of an outcome when the process is taking place." Dlamini told the state-owned Swazi-TV that the Internal Security Bill is an anti-terrorism measure. He cited three unsolved bombings on government facilities since 1995 as evidence of terrorist activity in the kingdom.

August Simelane, a member of the Swaziland Youth Congress, the banned youth wing of the outlawed political party the People's United Democratic Front, scoffs at the attorney-general's rationale. "The attorney-general wants it both ways. He can write an oppressive law that touches on subjects that should be handled in a constitution, and do it while a constitution is being prepared. But everyone else must keep quiet," he said. Simelane said the government's claim, that the Internal Security Bill is an anti-terrorism measure, is intended to generate international sympathy during the US-led war on terrorism. He likens it to palace claims during the Cold War that oppression of its political opponents was necessary to contain communism. "The Internal Security [Bill] says that if I wear a T-shirt with a political slogan, I am a terrorist, and I can go to jail for up to five years. This is terrorism, all right. It is state terrorism," he said. (IRIN)

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