Swaziland national flag. Photo: WHL Travel
Swaziland: one of the terrible ten worst countries for workers’ rights
Swaziland makes the top ten worst places for workers because of its repressive regime of intimidation, police violence and imprisonment. Trade unions are also banned and authorities have used anti-terrorism laws to crack down on union leaders under the guise of national security. Two activists are currently still in prison after a year since their arrest without verdict. One is 65-year old diabetic Mario Masuku who contracted pneumonia in detention.
Heavily armed police intimidate striking workers at ANC-owned mine: Some 250 workers went on strike on 24 November, after the mine management refused to negotiate over a US$ 72 housing allowance with the Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (ATUSWA). All legal requirements were observed by the striking workers, and even though the strike was peaceful, the workers were surrounded by police equipped with riot shields, protective headgear, guns and teargas.
During the strike, management refused the workers access to water, toilets and medical facilities. Chancellor House, the investment arm of the ANC, owns 75% of the Maloma mine, with the remaining 25% owned by the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a fund controlled by King Mswati III, who is one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs. The Swazi government announced an immediate ban on all trade union and employer federations, in violation of international labour standards.
Prime minister threatens trade unionists: In August 2014, the Prime Minister of Swaziland, Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, publicly threatened Sipho Gumedze from the Lawyers for Human Rights and TUCOSWA General Secretary Vincent Ncongwane because of their participation in the US Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington DC. Prime Minister Dlamini made the following statement during a speech in Parliament: “They leave your constituencies and do not even inform you where they are going and once they come back and you find out that they are from your constituency you must strangle them.”
Suppression of Terrorism Act used to stop trade union activities: Police use the Suppression of Terrorism Act to legitimise interference in trade union activities. For example, the Act was used in May 2014 to arrest and charge activists who spoke at TUCOSWA’s May Day celebration, including student leaders Maxwell Dlamini and Mario Masuku. Both activists remain in jail and have been refused bail. Amendments were submitted for the consideration of Parliament in February 2014 but have not yet been considered. The Suppression of Terrorism Act defines terrorism extremely broadly as an act that “involves prejudice to national security or public safety… and is intended, or by its nature and context, may reasonably be regarded as being intended to intimidate the public or a section of the public; or compel the Government…to do, or refrain from doing, any act.” The terms “national security” and “public safety” are not themselves defined, leaving them open to wide and potentially subjective interpretation. Not only are these concepts capable of broad, subjective interpretation but, in addition, the element of intention is not required. Moreover, the act affords the Minister absolute discretion over the classification of organisations as “terrorist” without making this decision subject to judicial review.
Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu imprisoned: Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and the Nation Magazine editor Bheki Makhubu were arrested on 17 March 2014 and 18 March 2014 respectively for writing articles about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of government vehicle inspector Bhantshana Gwebu and the integrity, impartiality and independence of the Swaziland judiciary. The legality of the arrest, detention and charges was successfully challenged before the High Court, resulting in their release from custody for two days. However, they were rearrested and detained when the State appealed the ruling and are therefore again in custody. While Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu were charged with “contempt of court”, the judge convicted them to two years imprisonment instead of the ordinary 30-day sentence on 25 July 2014. Judge Mpendulo Simelane argued that “seriousness of their crimes, their moral blameworthiness and their lack of remorse or regret justify lengthy sentences of imprisonment”.
Police interfered in a peaceful protest: Police interfered in a peaceful protest march organised by TUCOSWA and attended by broader civil society groups against the King’s Proclamation of 1973 and its impact on freedom of association and civil liberties. The King’s Proclamation was decreed on 12 April 1973 and vested the King Sobhuza II with absolute powers and at the same time criminalised political parties and similar bodies.
“I, Sobhuza II, king of Swaziland hereby declare that, in collaboration with my cabinet ministers and supported by the whole nation I have assumed supreme power in the kingdom of Swaziland and that all legislative, executive and judicial power is vested in myself and shall, for the meantime, be exercised in collaboration with a council constituted by my cabinet ministers. I further declare that, to ensure the continued maintenance of peace, order and good government, my armed forces in conjunction with the Swaziland royal police have been posted to all strategic places and have taken charge of all government and all public services […] Political parties and similar bodies that cultivate and bring about disturbances and ill-feelings within the nation are prohibited.”
TUCOSWA requested permission to hold a march but on 4 April 2014 the Manzini Municipal Council denied the federation permission by stating that “April 12 is one most contentious date on which peace and stability in the country is threatened.” The march was intended to proceed from Jubilee Park to St Theresa Hall in Manzini on 12 April 2014. Vincent V. Ncongwane, TUCOSWA General Secretary, and Sipho Kunene, TUCOSWA Deputy President, were arrested at a security roadblock mounted at Mhlaleni in Manzini on 12 April. They were detained at the Manzini police headquarters and were denied access to legal representation. Vincent Ncongwane was transferred to the Mafutseni police station 20 kilometers from Manzini. The police further arrested other groups of workers at all the various security checkpoints mounted on the roadblocks leading to Manzini, detained and later dropped them off in remote places with some having to travel long distances on foot at night to get to the nearest public road. Amongst them were the President of the National Public Services and Allied Workers Union, Quinton Dlamini, and the General Secretary of the Private and Public, Transport Workers Union, Bheki Dludlu.
Mario Masuku, President of PUDEMO, and Maxwell Dlamini, Secretary General of the Swaziland Youth Congress were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act (2008) after delivering a speech during the 2014 May Day celebrations organised by TUCOSWA. In their speeches, Mr Masuku and Mr Dlamini addressed questions with respect to the socio-economic governance of the country and chanted the slogans “Viva PUDEMO” and “We don’t want this system, we don’t want this system.” Now, they may be facing up to 15 years of hard labour in prison, if they are found guilty. More than one year has passed since their arrest but a verdict has still not been delivered. Their application for bail was denied twice even though Mr Masuku is 65 years old, suffers from diabetes and caught pneumonia during his time in detention. Mr Dlamini, who is a student at the University of Swaziland, has been deprived from his right to education as a result of the prolonged detention.
The Terrible Ten:
At the ILO conference earlier this month, the International Trade Union Confederation launched its 2015 Global Rights Index, detailing the ten worst countries for workers’ rights abuses in the world, and reporting in detail violations in those and many more. Stronger Unions is profiling one of the terrible ten each day.