Swaziland national flag. Photo: WHL Travel
ITF seeking strong action on Swaziland
“Speak up!” The order was snapped at us by one of four prison guards who flanked Basil Mthwala. “He can hear us.” we said. “But I can’t,” the guard said. “I am writing down everything you say.”
Last week, I was a member of an International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) mission to Swaziland with Tabudi Abner Ramakgolo, of the South African transport union SATAWU, and the ITF Africa Regional Secretary Joseph Katende.
One of our main aims was to visit Basil Mthwala, the Legal Assistant of the Swaziland Transport and Allied Workers Union (STAWU) in the Manzini Remand Centre. Basil is serving a two-year prison sentence under the country’s notorious Public Order Act after being arrested on a union picket line in a bus workers’ protest in July 2010. The Public Order Act is one of a raft of repressive laws which ban most democratic activity in a country which is ruled as an absolute monarchy. Political dissent and all political parties are banned by law and the government will not recognise the national union centre.
The union has faced a period of sustained attacks by the government. Several SATAWU leaders have charges hanging over them for holding union protest meetings. The mission met with government officials but clearly they did not want to listen. We raised the case of Basil with the Labour Commissioner but incredibly she claimed not to know anything about it, despite having signed the order banning the protest on which he was arrested.
The government may, however, be in for a shock. On May 15 an important trade agreement with the United States called the African Growth and Opportunity Agreement (AGOA), which gives Swaziland significant trade privileges, is up for review. When the agreement was first formulated, US unions insisted that the US Department of Trade should insert labour rights standards as a condition. The ITF is coordinating with the ITUC and the US union movement to pressure for these trade privileges not to be renewed for Swaziland unless the government undertakes radical labour reform.
In the meantime The ITF has been discussing solidarity actions with our affiliates. Swaziland is a landlocked country and much of its exports are loaded through Maputo, Regent’s Bay and Durban. In the week before the mission the Mozambique rail and port unions agreed to undertake support actions. South Africa unions are currently looking at what actions to take. As Tabudi Abner Ramakgolo of SATAWU told leaders of the transport union in Swaziland during the mission “an injury to one is an injury to all.”