Swaziland: A tiny kingdom with a big problem

Pambazuka News
Comment and analysis

A firebomb attack on a policeman last Friday was the latest in a series of six similar explosions targeting state institutions that have hit the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland in the last month. The attacks have been blamed by Africa’s last remaining ruling monarchy on banned political groups and come at a time when there is growing criticism of King Mswati III’s extravagant lifestyle in parallel with widespread impoverishment and the world's highest known rates of HIV/AIDS infection. Pambazuka News sent some questions on the situation in Swaziland to Bongani Masuku, Secretary General of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, an umbrella body of groups working for democracy in Swaziland. Zimbabwe is not the only problem country in the region, Masuku reveals.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What's the mood like in Swaziland these days with regards to electoral reform and democracy?

BONGANI MASUKU: A mood of both despair and anger is the only way I can try to intrepret the situation on the ground. The people feel a sense of despair, because they, for the meantime, are not able to stop the royal regime bulldozing and imposing its interests on the whole nation, knowing well that it has at its disposal all the instruments of force, whilst the progressive voices have no adequate support to mount a sustained offensive against this, at least for now. The international community is vocal elsewhere - where its own interests are at stake - and silent on Swaziland, where it is not interested or where its interests are best secured by the current regime, which is part of the double standards we see everyday in realpolitik.

The anger is informed by the fact that when all nations of the world are discussing serious ways to develop themselves and confront major issues like poverty, HIV and AIDS, unemployment, human security, sustainable livelihoods, participation of women and economic justice through redistribution, we have a situation in our country where the opposite is true. We are still rooted in backward and primitive ways that safeguard the selfish and greedy interests of a royal minority and their friends, all in the name of culture. We are still unable to enjoy even the most basic rights that other people elsewhere are beginning to take for granted as given and inevitable, such as the right to form and belong to an organisation of your choice, particularly on the basis of shared political opinion.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: A post-9/11 anti-terrorism bill has been tabled again in the Swazi parliament in the wake of two recent fire bombings in the capital, Mbabane. Opposition groups are worried that King Mswati III might use the legislation to stifle dissent. Are there grounds for this concern?

BONGANI MASUKU: Concerns around the Anti-terrorism Bill relate to the fact that the definition of terrorism is not legitimate, neither is it broadly agreed to, but is rather an attempt to stain the legitimate activities of the progressive movement. PUDEMO, together with its youth wing, SWAYOCO, have been the main victims in the past of this label, for obvious reasons. In this regard, the regime is still looking for ways to legitimise its illegitimate attack on the activities of the progressive movement, which have become understood by every democracy-loving person all over the world. It is trying to secure a space in the global atmosphere characterised by insecurity, as a partner in the search for peace, but in the process it is also seeking to use that space to crush the democratic movement. It has used such acts for years, such as the definition of political activities as criminal activities or outlawed/illegal activities. These are the crude methods it has used to maintain itself in power, hence the obvious fact that this is not meant to target some terrorist somewhere, but the "terrorist", as defined by the royal regime.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The government branded the firebomb attacks as "terrorism". Where they?

BONGANI MASUKU: While we are not sure about the firebomb, we can only assume that these are the legitimate expressions of accumulated anger by the people and their response to the sustained wave of violence, state terror and naked brutality being meted out by the regime against the people. The people are not limited in the way they respond to state-enforced terror, they respond in the manner they deem appropriate to defend the cause they stand and believe in.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Swaziland's parliament consists of a 65-seat House of Assembly, 10 of whose members are appointed by the king, and a 30-seat Senate. All the senators are appointed, either by the House of Assembly or the king. In this context, there have been calls for electoral reform. What progress has or is being made in this area?

BONGANI MASUKU: With regard to the reformation of parliament and general electoral reform, what we have seen is attempts to subvert legitimate demands or calls for electoral reform through diversion, confusion and reconfiguration of the people's legitimate intentions to suit the purpose of the regime in seeking to maintain the fundamental bases of the system, but interfere with some of its manifestations in such a way that it appears that there has been a change in the way things are. In other words, the regime seeks to announce change, but resists change in actual fact. It changes the gowns of the rapists and not the character of the rapist, but parades the rapist as a new person. This includes the fact that multiparty democracy is still illegal, the media is still royal-controlled, the judiciary is still royal-stage-managed and all structures of society are still coerced, through overt and covert or subtle means.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: The Central Bank of Swaziland reported in its annual review in September that the economic situation in the country had deteriorated over the last year. Swaziland is believed to have one of the worst rates of child poverty. Why is this?

BONGANI MASUKU: The issue of the deteriorating situation and poverty in the country is a hallmark of the system's generalised crisis levels. Many people have downplayed the extent of the crisis in Swaziland, but daily they are being forced to admit that the country is collapsing, and in the process shaming all those who had always claimed that all is well and that the only problem in the region is Zimbabwe. The royal family has caused so much economic bleeding that the country's economy can no longer take it anymore. The royal parasites are milking the cow to death, hence there is no way it can survive, however fat it is. The country's reserves shall be depleted sooner than many people think and soon, public servants will not be paid, as already many services, particularly public social services have totally collapsed, such as health, education, and basic community needs. The indicators to the extent of the poverty crisis are reflected in the fact of the following; HIV and AIDS levels at 38%, unemployment levels at 40%, high illiteracy levels, high child mortality rates, landlessness and the general state of social conditions of life, as well as the crisis of privatisation and retrenchments.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: A flood of textile imports from China has hit Southern Africa hard. What has been the impact on the labour force in Swaziland?

BONGANI MASUKU: The flood of textile imports from China which has hit Southern Africa have had a dramatic impact on the labour force of Swaziland, hence the closure, if not increased rate of exploitation, in most textile companies. This is related to other matters such as the loss of preferential trade rates in the world market, which have threatened at one point to cost 15 000 jobs in such a small country and in one sector only. But it would be narrow minded to just isolate China, because the fluidity in the global market has imposed a particular amount of fragility, such that poor countries have been the ultimate losers. So it is a combination of factors, amongst others, the disinvestment by rich countries in productive sectors, as well as extreme and unregulated capital mobility, which, together impact negatively on the economic situation in the country.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What is the path forward suggested by the Swaziland Solidarity Network in terms of moving the country forward?

BONGANI MASUKU: The Swaziland Solidarity Network suggests a process that could move the country forward underpinned by the following factors (our perspectives are underpinned by the historic PUDEMO document, entitled ‘Way forward towards a Constituent Assembly through a negotiated settlement’). In summary they state that:

a) There must be a commitment by the monarchy to a genuine process of fundamental transformation in the form of a memorandum of intent; and to a process underwritten by a credible international organisation to safeguard against the tendency of the royal regime to renege on commitments;

b) This must be followed by a preliminary process, which shall be inclusive of all formations in the country, which is popularly known as the talks about talks on the critical issues facing our country. It is at this stage that there will be formal removal of all laws that militate against democratic progress and free political participation;

c) The next stage should be a negotiation stage, where the actual negotiations about the kind of society Swaziland should be must take place and all stakeholders must agree to a clearly defined process of transformation in political and constitutional terms. The outcome of this process shall include the draft constitution which shall guide the elections of a Constituent Assembly;

d) The Constituent Assembly is the democratically elected body of political representatives, mandated to formally write a constitution for the country;

In broad political terms, this is part of the critical process needed to drive forward the constitutional debate out of the current political quagmire and structural dilemma into which years of royal misrule has plunged our country. However, we also need a clear and workable alternative political process, which seeks to unite all the progressive organisations around a clear and viable framework for fundamental change in Swaziland.

This requires leadership of stature, advanced political and organisational foresight, mass mobilisation and a properly co-ordinated international solidarity movement, to support the genuine cause of the struggling people of Swaziland.