December 13, 2002

SWAZILAND: Strike plans to highlight anger over Govt policy

Swaziland's labour federations are determined to prove the legitimacy of the first mass action they have called in years to protest the governance of sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy.

"The workers of Swaziland will ratify the national stayaway 48 hours before it begins on 19 December. This will prove we are properly mandated by the workers for the mass action," Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) said. He was confident that the federation's 80,000 membership would support the executive's strike call.

The vote will also be carried out among the 4,000 members of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, which is co-sponsoring the strike with the SFTU. Political observers told IRIN the vote was necessary in response to government's assertion that only a handful of radical union leaders wanted the strike, while the rank and file were indifferent to its goals and hostile to the notion of possibly losing wages at holiday time.

Government's point man in its handling of the strike, Enterprise and Employment Minister Lutfo Dlamini, has questioned the legitimacy of the stayaway, telling the local press that half the participants at a meeting announcing the action were not involved in the union movement.

The meeting was attended by political activists like former prime minister Obed Dlamini, currently the president of the banned political party the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress. The congress is a member, along with the labour federations, of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance. The body incorporates human rights groups and other political parties that are outlawed by a royal decree that prohibits organised opposition to palace rule.

Mario Masuku, president of the proscribed political party People's United Democratic Front, was also at the union meeting. He told IRIN: "I was invited as an observer. I told the workers the time had come to speak up again about national issues."

Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini has declared illegal the first national stayaway since 1997. The specific issues five years ago were fundamentally the same as those behind next week's mass action: the unions feel government policies are undemocratic and a threat to workers' welfare.

"Government's political decisions are costing workers jobs," one union leader affiliated with the SFTU told IRIN. He said the mass action was called to press government to drop its plans to purchase a US $72 million luxury jet for King Mswati III, and to abide by two Court of Appeals decisions the palace has refused to recognise. "I know of several companies that have held off expansion plans until the court crisis is resolved. Investors only have the courts to protect their interests, and government is showing its contempt of the courts. Thousands of jobs are being lost because the business community is insecure," Sithole said.

"Investors will shun Swaziland because rule of law has been compromised. This is what people mean when they say Swaziland is the next Zimbabwe in the making," said attorney Lucas Maziya. Maziya recently won a court case against government, when the Court of Appeal ruled that Mswati had no power to decree laws without parliament. Prime Minister Dlamini said government would ignore the decision.

The Swaziland Chamber of Commerce and Industry released a strongly worded statement condemning government's dismissal of court decisions, and noted the probable impact on foreign direct investment, currently at a 10 year low. However, the chamber also criticised the workers upcoming mass action, which the business community views as pointless. "Government is not going to reverse its intent to buy the king's jet or to ignore court decisions because of a strike," a company executive at the Matsapha Industrial Estate told IRIN. Even critics of the workers stayaway concede the action will prove the unions are again a political force to be reckoned with.

The Times of Swaziland, the only national news medium independent of government control or ownership, has come out against the strike. But an editorial comment this week noted: "It is by no means an exaggeration that the SFTU was almost bed-ridden until government gave it a new lease on life (by providing it with issues)." The newspaper also criticised government for politicising the annual national prayer ceremonies, called the Incwala, by saying through a traditional leader that no real Swazi would desecrate the sacred time by participating in an illegal strike action.

"We respect people's religious beliefs," Sithole told IRIN. "We are not saying don't go to the Incwala. We are saying, don't go to work."

Government security forces have recently purchased two new armoured riot control vehicles. In a statement, police spokesman Vusie Masuku said the tank-like vehicles would serve a number of functions. "They can tow cars in traffic accidents," he said. But the vehicles will likely be pressed into service next week during the stayaway, as roadblocks will be erected and army personnel will be posted in urban centres to keep order.

"We have never been violent," Sithole said of SFTU's workers. "We do not intend to become violent now." (IRIN)

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