King Mswati III on 10 Emalangeni Banknote from Swaziland
Swaziland: is the pressure working?
We’ve been pressing for a change of course in Swaziland for many years. It’s Africa’s last feudal dictatorship. It has the world’s highest rate of HIV-AIDS infection. And it’s one of the worst ten countries in the world to be a trade unionist, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). But are things changing? And is it because of the pressure that’s being applied?
This year has seen: the registration (essentially, legalisation) of the trade union movement, TUCOSWA; the marginally early release of a campaigning journalist Bheki Makhubu and trade union lawyer Thulani Maseko ; and now the freeing on bail of the leader of the opposition Mario Masuku and the leader of the student movement Maxwell Dlamini. Each of these was the subject of international trade union campaigns, e-actions and other initiatives (such as a star-studded letter to the UK foreign office for Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini.)
So what on earth is going on? Has the absolute monarch, King Mswati III, had a sudden change of heart and decided that democracy and liberty are what his kingdom needs? Maybe not.
As well as the global trade union campaigns, we’ve managed to mobilise quite a lot of external pressure. Last year, the US trade union movement successfully persuaded their government to suspend the country from the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants export privileges to Swazi goods, on the basis that trade unions faced considerable harassment and persecution. This year, the European Parliament backed a resolution we helped to draft that urged the European Commission to do something similar with the GSP+ trade privilege policy.
And the Commonwealth has now responded to longstanding calls from us and others to crack down on Swaziland’s non-compliance with the new Charter for the Commonwealth by appointing a special envoy, former Malawi President Bakili Muluzi, to press the Swazis to establish democracy. He is currently developing a political dialogue process and liaising with TUCOSWA and other parts of civil society. And throughout, the ILO has consistently criticised Swaziland for its gross breaches of core labour conventions like freedom of association and free collective bargaining.
Swaziland still needs to do a lot more to establish democracy and trade union rights. It has taken a lot of effort to make Swaziland’s King billy no-mates internationally. And the Swaziland trade union movement needs our solidarity more than ever (we’ll be taking a representative to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta later this year to take the campaign further.)
Swazi trade unionists can be forgiven – after a state of emergency that has lasted over 40 years – for some impatience. As TUCOSWA Secretary General Vincent Ncongwane wrote today when announcing the release of Mario and Maxwell:
“Swazis want democracy, and they want it yesterday!”