Swaziland: not even pretending to be free
The first week of September was a week of action in Swaziland, for democracy and freedom. It was chosen by the opposition to the last feudal dictator in Africa, King Mswati III, because 6 September is the anniversary of Swaziland’s independence from Britain on 1968. But as the opposition – including the banned trade union movement, TUCOSWA – says, ‘independence doesn’t mean freedom.’
A point that the Swazi authorities rammed home by arresting TUCOSWA General Secretary Vincent Ncongwane, banning protests on independence day, and breaking up the Global Panel of Inquiry planned by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on ‘Independence Day’, and expelling the foreign members of the Panel – notably former South African Minister and founder General Secretary of COSATU, Jay Naidoo.
Like so many other dictatorships, the Swazi regime is not blessed with an understanding of irony!
Swaziland badly needs democracy and freedom so that its people can escape the twin evils of poverty and HIV/AIDS which Bandula wrote about as the week of action began. In particular it needs a free trade union movement to secure better wages and decent work. But the Swazi regime continues to reject the recommendations of the International Labour Organisation, and has derecognised TUCOSWA on flimsy and contradictory legal grounds. It uses this derecognition to harass trade unionists and prevent demonstrations and public meetings that would challenge the regime’s authority and the laughable exercise of patronage that the King calls “monarchal democracy” (he says the idea for it came to him when God spoke to him during a thunderstorm.)
Early on Thursday 5 September, Vincent Ncongwane was followed to his office by ten police officers in plain clothes. Once there, he was arrested and taken to the police station without any explanation or an arrest warrant. After three hours at the police station, he was put under house arrest. The ITUC complained immediately to the Swazi Prime Minister. Ncongwane had been due to lead a protest march in the capital, Mbabane, that day, and arresting organisers and leaders is a common method used by the Swaziland authorities to prevent protest.
Because we got the news immediately, by 11am, a delegation led by Action for Southern Africa, Unison and Swazi political exiles were able to hand a protest letter from TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady to the Swazi High Commissioner in London. They were told that the arrest was due to Vincent’s political activities and nothing to do with being a trade unionist, but the fact that the High Commissioner had a story ready is suspicious. Usually such diplomats merely agree to investigate – it’s possible that the High Commissioner knew about the arrest before Vincent did…
Then on 6 September, an ITUC Global Panel of Inquiry was due to take evidence at the New George Hotel in Manzini, Swaziland’s second biggest city, about the situation facing workers in the country. It was due to be chaired by Jay Naidoo, one of the best known figures in the labour movement and civil society of Southern Africa. Other members were Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama, South African Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn and Swaziland’s Centre for Labour Education and Research director Nomthetho Simelane.
The panellists and the ITUC staff with them had been followed by the Swazi police since entering the country, and asked to postpone the event so that the Swazi government could take part, but it appeared that the regime were ready to let them hold their meetings. However, as soon as the Panel started hearing evidence, the event came to a dramatic end when Swazi police surrounded the building. Senior police officers then entered the venue and demanded that participants stop the event immediately and leave Swaziland. They were escorted out of the country into South Africa through the Oshoek border post, where several other COSATU leaders were refused entry to Swaziland. At the same time, armed police raided the TUCOSWA offices.
Later, Police National Commissioner Isaac Magagula excused their actions – there’s a pattern here – as being designed to stop political interference in the election process:
“We wish to state that as far as our careful analysis of the bigger picture is concerned, the organisers are being economical with the truth in relation to the actual purpose of the meeting. This is because all factors surrounding it suggest that it was not merely intended to discuss bread and butter issues for workers, but it was part and parcel of a broader agenda to further ulterior political motives aimed at breaching the peace and causing anarchy and instability in the country.”
Vincent Ncongwane told the ITUC:
“The government is trying to intimidate people, especially when they learned of our planned Global Inquiry Panel. This is what we have always been saying; the state tries to intimidate people from engaging in trade union activities. They knew both local working people and foreign trade unionists would come to the global inquiry and for that they increase harassment.”
This demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that Swaziland is a repressive regime that breaches the most fundamental rules of the Commonwealth that it belongs to. Unions will be raising its appalling human rights record in the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this November in Sri Lanka.