SWAZILAND: Strikes, protests shake monarchy

Issue 

BY PETER LIMB

Mass strikes and protests have shaken Africa's last absolute monarchy. A movement, led by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), political and student groups, has been demanding labour and democratic reforms. In response, King Mswati III's regime banned meetings and strikes, and reactivated a law allowing 60-day detention without trial.

On November 10, Mario Masuku, president of Swaziland's People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) was arrested for "insulting the king, sedition and treason" after being physically prevented from delivering a petition to prime minister Sibusiso Dlamini demanding repeal of a royal ban on political parties.

Swaziland's workers on November 13-14 staged crippling mass stayaways. Most schools and some factories in the capital Mbabane and industrial town of Manzini were closed. The country's vital sugar companies and Matsapha industrial estate were virtually shut down.

In Big Bend, eastern Swaziland, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesting sugar workers; at Mhlume, angry workers burnt fields after police attacked a mass meeting. Some 8000 teachers boycotted classes and students joined the stayaway.

The strike was outlawed. Leaders Quentin Dlamini of the Swaziland National Association of Civil Servants and Sandile Bhembe of Swaziland Youth Congress were arrested. After Jan Sithole, SFTU secretary general, told strikers "the time to liberate yourself is now", he was overpowered and placed under house arrest. Swaziland's university was closed indefinitely.

Monarchists announced the imminent launch of the Timpisi ("wolves") Movement, a sinister body to "defend" the monarchy.

Background

In October, soldiers forcibly evicted 200 rural residents from their homes at night, dumping them in remote guarded camps with little access to medicine, food and water. Some escaped, and sought refuge in South Africa. The king ordered the action when he installed his brother as local chief.

The evictions sparked peaceful mass protests at which police injured scores of people. On October 22, the Swaziland Youth Congress called on the king to step down. The next day outside the king's palace, police violently dispersed hundreds of protesters led by teachers, injuring several.

Such methods are typical of the royal dictatorship. Since 1973, Swaziland has been under a state of emergency. Political parties are outlawed. Swaziland's royalty exploits subsistence farmers' forced labour. King Mswati survived protests in 1995-97.

On November 5, after rallies were banned, 2000 workers crossed the border and met in Nelspruit, South Africa. They adopted a declaration that demands the repeal of the 1973 emergency decree, an end to evictions and forced labour, and scrapping of the repressive new Industrial Relations Act.

The Nelspuit Declaration called on the Swaziland Democratic Alliance (which includes PUDEMO, smaller parties, the SFTU and supported by the international Swaziland Solidarity Network) to elect an interim government.

The alliance between the labour movement and liberation forces has been strengthened and the regime's rural base weakened by mass struggle. The evictions have led to wide questioning of royal authority.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions has strongly supported the Swazi people's mass action. On November 14, COSATU condemned the "brutality of the Swaziland police against defenceless citizens during the stayaway" and "the illegitimate governing system". It demanded the immediate release of those arrested. COSATU intends to support a border blockade on November 29-30. While the ANC has condemned human rights abuses in Swaziland, little government action is expected from Pretoria.

PUDEMO's Australian and Asian-Pacific representative Jabulane "Arafat" Matsebula has called on all governments to demand that King Mswati III immediately:

  • allow evicted residents to return to their homes unconditionally;

  • revoke emergency laws and other instruments of political repression;

  • facilitate a genuine transformation from dictatorship to democracy;

  • institute land reform; and

  • drop all charges against PUDEMO's Mario Masuku, SFTU's Jan Sithole and release all political prisoners.

Matsebula appealed for broad international solidarity to urge governments to economically and politically isolate the Swazi regime, provide asylum to Swazi refugees and to alleviate suffering by monitoring the situation in Swaziland.

Solidarity support and inquiries for information can be made via telephone/fax at (08) 9295 5121, or email at j.matsebula@cowan.edu.au and pudemo@yahoo.co.uk. Visit the web site of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions at <http://www.cosatu.org.za/sftu>.