This week, trade unionists in the impoverished southern African monarchy of Swaziland have been leading a week of action for democracy in the last feudal dictatorship on the continent. King Mswati III has presided over the highest HIV-AIDS rate in the world, and staggering levels of poverty. Unions have been at the forefront of the campaign to allow multi-party democracy, freedom of speech, assembly and association, and greater equality and social progress. In return, union leaders and activists have been harassed, abused and jailed. Government repression marred demonstrations for ‘education for all’ and better health services, but the security services seem to have held back from their usual level of repression because of greater international scrutiny and, crucially, greater turnouts on demonstrations than ever before.
Supporting TUCOSWA in the week of action were churches, community organisations, political parties and groups like the Swaziland National Union of Student (SNUS), whose President Maxwell Dlamini said at the launch of the week:
“Many of our people have died of malnourishment, poverty and hunger which has been orchestrated by the royal tinkhundla system which has pursued skewed and discriminatory socio-economic policies. Poverty and hunger has reached terrible levels hence a total transformation of our society into a democratic dispensation is urgent and necessary so as to create a human society with food security and rid of hunger and poverty.”
In solidarity with the Trades Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), trade unions around the world, including South Africa’s COSATU and the TUC, have been raising awareness of the situation facing Swazi workers. On Swazi independence day on Thursday 6 September, the TUC and Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) called upon the Commonwealth Secretary-General to take action against the regime, suspending Swaziland from the Commonwealth “until or unless it complies with international human rights standards.”
The Swaziland Democracy Campaign, based in South Africa, presented a call for a people’s government to the Swazi High Commission in Johannesburg, and a 600-strong People’s Congress in Swaziland’s main city Manzini adopted a People’s Charter, “a collection of demands that the people of Swaziland from all walks of life want a new democratic government to implement.” Unison, whose International Secretary Nick Sigler was one of the international trade union delegation attending the People’s Congress, were one of the many organisations sending solidarity messages.