Swaziland: 'The people are getting angrier'

Issue 

B.V. Dlamini, deputy secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, spoke to Ingrida Kerusauskaite about the way forward for the sourthern African nation of Swaziland, which is ruled by an absolute monarchy.The article is reprinted from London Student, Europe's largest independent student newspaper.

What is the political situation in Swaziland?

The country is ruled under a dictatorship, where there is no separation of power: the judiciary, legislative and executive powers are all invested in the king, to the extent that the government cannot properly advise the monarch.

First, they have to know what he wants to hear, and then they tell him what he wants to hear, not what he has to hear.

The distribution of resources in the country is very uneven: 69% of the population live under the poverty line, despite the fact that Swaziland is regarded as a middle-income country by the international financial institutions. There are also serious violations of human rights.

Swaziland has an international reputation of being an 'ideal tourist destination'. What effect does that have?

There are high levels of cultural indoctrination — where culture is used in a way to ensure the royal family's stronghold on power. Moreover, there has been this misplaced self-congratulatory outcome where the rulers say: "Look, people are coming to the cultural festivities, then that means they endorse the way we are governing, they are happy with the way that the country is being governed."

While in other countries, indoctrination manifests itself in political terms, party political ideologies, in Swaziland it is very strong in the cultural form — that we need to be seen as a cultural destination for the West.

In Swaziland, you can often hear: "You are not expected to behave like this, it is un-Swazi. Listen to your leaders, pray for your leaders, make sure your leaders do not have trouble in ruling the country."

I think it inhibits people's development. I haven't seen anybody who participates in the activities and comes out saying "my life has improved".

People take part in these cultural activities not because they choose to, but because they are intimidated by various fines and sanctions. I know people who have had difficulties in accessing tertiary education institutions because the traditional chief [of the village] wouldn't sign their application for a scholarship form, on the grounds that they had not been seen in some of the traditional festivities.

They just say "you are not an obedient citizen, we summon people to the royal calling, and you are not there".

So you believe that only a democratic republic could significantly improve the situation in Swaziland?

I think a democracy is fundamental to propel the country forward.

But within the context of Swaziland, we are calling for the repeal of all oppressive laws, the separation of powers — where the judiciary must remain independent, the legislature must be able to enact proper laws that would develop the people, and the executive must run the country.

We are not saying the king must be removed, he should remain as the unifying figure and play a certain role in terms of governance, like for example in Britain.

The king's participation in the day-to-day running of the country causes very serious problems. Certain projects known as "white elephants" are very dear to the king, however destructive to the country's economy, and no one was able to stand up and protest against them.

For example, we are currently building a big international airport, which we will not be able to sustain as there is not much air traffic into Swaziland.

Even now, with a small airport, we are struggling to get people to fly on the small jetstream plane between Johannesburg and Manzini, and we are building a very big international airport that will accommodate Boeing 777s and Airbuses.

So who is going to fund it? A lot of public resources had to be moved as no international investors were willing to invest in the project.

It will be a failure. And that is just one example.

Right now the king has 13 wives. It is becoming increasingly expensive, because each and every one of them is having a palace built for them, they all have these nice cars and escorts, they go shopping all over the globe — Las Vegas and Kuwait, Dubai, London, New York … Just living a life of luxury, in the face of abject poverty.

At the end of the day it will only work against them, because people are getting angrier and angrier, as they are hungry while seeing these people living large.

I'm saying that if we democratise the country, then all these problems of poverty, dilapidated health system, poor infrastructure could be solved. We would be able to direct the resources to where they could best be utilised.

Swaziland is a member of the United Nations and has ratified numerous international conventions, but it seems to be abusing them.

Swaziland is a UN member and a signatory to quite a number of international conventions and international charters, but violates all of them.

Even though Swaziland is always one of the first countries to sign any convention that comes around, it is also one of the first ones to do exactly the opposite to that particular convention.

You are free to associate as long as you associate with people that agree with the government. You are free to express yourself as long as you say things that they want to hear.

The government has also signed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on workers' rights and trade union rights, and subsequently violated them. Recently, the International trade Union Confederation has issued a report on the southern African countries, stating that Swaziland is the worst violator of workers' rights in the region.

A good example is the fact that village chiefs make their communities work their fields in the name of tradition. The leaders own subsistence farms, which require labour power, so they call the people of the village to do that work.

They do the work for free. It is "tradition".

We say that this is forced labour. We say that if it is tradition, then people must have a choice whether to take part or not. It mustn't be a situation where those not wishing to participate are then punished — in the form of not being able to access certain rights and privileges.

What are the views, structures and objectives of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, and why is it sometimes in conflict with the government?

The trade union movement is actively involved in the pro-democracy struggle, calling for a multi-party democracy and a democratic constitution-making process. We want a people-driven, people-centred constitution.

We advocate for the rights of workers, whose conditions are often unbearable: they work until they drop. Some women workers have even given birth inside the factories.

We believe that such conditions are abusive, in violation of workers' rights, ILO conventions and human rights. These rights are being violated by employers, with the help of the government.

When workers go on strike, the government sends the police to beat the hell out of them. There are even cases where police agents were shooting the workers just because they went on strike, demanding better working conditions.

The government said that it was "not going to tolerate [strikes], because it will chase [away] investors".

What is the situation for students in Swaziland?

The extent to which students are free in Swaziland is very limited. They face legislative challenges, because it is very difficult to register a student union in Swaziland.

The country is characterised by immense poverty, which means that most people can't pay for tertiary education.

There are a very limited number of government scholarships available. The problem arises out of misplaced priorities, and to address that problem, we have to address the problem of governance.

Student unions are told to concentrate on students, not political issues. There are also issues of academic freedom. You can't express yourself within the university while outside the gates of the university you can't be free.

You should be able to publish your views. But if those views are not favourable to the government, publishing them would be putting yourself in jeopardy.

Sometimes students embark on action, but they are beaten down. The institutions themselves are a microcosm of what happens in the working class.

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