December 24, 2002

Poor stayaway attendance, but international diplomats to push for reforms

The poor attendance at a mass stayaway on Thursday and Friday, 19 and 20 Dec, to protest the governance of King Mswati III, was a blow to union organisers and reformists who had hoped to send a strong message to the government and the palace. "Government will view the low observation of the mass action as a triumph, when its failure should more properly be blamed on poor strategy," Dr Joshua Mzizi, secretary-general of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland, told IRIN.

One union official attributed the poor turnout to the strike co-inciding with the days workers received their Christmas pay cheques and bonuses. Most workers would have felt they could not afford to stay away from their jobs.

Armed soldiers patrolled the streets in pairs while most troops were deployed on the outskirts of urban centres awaiting word of confrontations that never came. Buses operated normally and it was business as usual in the commercial and industrial sectors, except for the closure of some post offices and banks. There were reports of normal operations at the sugar estates and timber plantations.

The main reasons for the strike were the government's intended purchase of a US $72 million private luxury jet for Mswati at a time of food shortages and a depressed economy, and the government's refusal to honour court rulings. Vincent Ngcongwane, president of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, told a press conference: "We view the stayaway as a process of engaging government in dialogue. It is not a one-time event," he said. He added that strike leaders vowed to stage a national stayaway for two days every month.

Meanwhile, international diplomats in Mbabane this week said the international community would continue to push for political reforms in Swaziland amid growing concerns over the government's disregard for human rights and the rule of law. "The crisis in the judiciary, the ill-advised purchase of a private luxury jet for the ruler of an impoverished country with a food shortage and an AIDS epidemic, the breaches of human rights like the evictions of hundreds of people who refuse to make way for the king's brother; all of these point to a basic problem in governance that must be remedied through political reform," a Western diplomat told IRIN.

The envoy added that international diplomatic and economic pressure would be exerted in 2003 because King Mswati III was reluctant to introduce political reforms or extend governance through democratisation. "Trade treaties, like the European Union's agreement to purchase Swazi sugar, are periodically reviewed in light of the country's governance record," British ambassador David Reader told IRIN.

Swaziland's ambassador to Britain, Percy Mngomezulu, told the Times of Swaziland on Tuesday that he returned to the country to personally advise Mswati about international concern over his government. "Internationally, we are faced with a crisis, which we need to attend speedily," he said.

In his Christmas address broadcast on the state-owned radio, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini did not mention any of the national problems troubling international observers, but warned against foreign influences the palace believed were behind calls for democratic reforms. "We remain watchful and wary of external threats to the peace in our country," Dlamini said.

Last month, Dlamini triggered current concerns about the breakdown of rule of law in the country when he dismissed two Court of Appeal rulings. Dlamini reportedly considered both rulings ill-advised decisions of magistrates who he said were foreigners unaware of the Swazi way of doing things. The Court of Appeal ruled that Mswati had no constitutional mandate to decree laws, and he had illegally evicted two chiefs and 200 of their subjects from ancestral lands when they opposed the appointment of the king's brother, Prince Maguga Dlamini, as their new chief. The six appeal court judges, all South Africans, resigned en masse last month, citing the futility of serving in a country whose government ignored court decisions. (IRIN)

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