Swazi unions attacked again
In ten days time, I’ll be travelling to Johannesburg to take part in global trade union movement discussions about building solidarity with trade unionists in Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Both countries will see elections within the year. But while the party set up by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions – the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – will be contesting those elections, in Swaziland, political parties are banned. And while the ZCTU will run election awareness campaigns and promote a vote for democracy and social justice, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) is facing the most sustained attack on its legitimacy and capacity to protest, and has announced that it will boycott the election.
The contrasts don’t end there. In 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth after its most flawed election, and when the Abuja, Nigeria Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) confirmed the suspension at the end of 2003, President Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth altogether. But Swaziland, which has never had a free election, and is the last feudal dictatorship in sub-Saharan Africa, remains a full member.
Other countries which have seen democracy overthrown have been treated like Zimbabwe – Nigeria, Pakistan and Fiji, which is still suspended. When we have questioned Commonwealth officials about the apparent contradiction, they have told us that it is the abrogation of democracy that has led to suspension, and Swaziland has never been a democracy, so it has escaped that sanction. Now, however, the rules have changed, with a new Charter of the Commonwealth, and one of the key issues being discussed in Johannesburg will be how to campaign for Swaziland’s suspension, something TUCOSWA and the ITUC called for at the last CHOGM in Perth, Australia, in 2011. There is another CHOGM coming up later this year in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and we’ll be pressing for action then.
The attacks on the Swazi trade union movement – which this week celebrated the first anniversary of its unification as TUCOSWA – are mounting. Last month, the courts ruled on a Government attempt to deregister the confederation. In a confusing and contradictory ruling, judges decided that the Swazi constitution guaranteed freedom of association, but the trade union law did not provide a mechanism for registering a confederation, only individual unions. TUCOSWA maintain that this ruling requires the Swazi Government to amend the law to allow registration. But the Swazi authorities insist it simply leaves TUCOSWA banned, like all political parties have been since 1973.
As a result, when TUCOSWA organised a prayer meeting in the Catholic Centre in Swaziland’s capital Manzini on Saturday, to mark the anniversary, the police declared it an illegal gathering, surrounded the Centre, and prevented the ceremony from going ahead. That breached further rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of worship, all, like freedom of association, guaranteed under the Swazi constitution and, significantly, the new Charter of the Commonwealth.