Swaziland workers strike for democracy


By Norm Dixon Workers in the small landlocked kingdom of Swaziland are spearheading a determined campaign for democracy despite threats of violence from traditional supporters of King Mswati III. Swaziland is paralysed by a general strike, which began on January 22, led by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions and banned political parties, most notably the underground People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO). At least four people have died, and several popular union and youth leaders have been arrested during clashes between security forces and protesters. The streets of the capital, Mbabane, reek of uncollected rubbish and rotting supermarket produce after strikers refused to restore the capital's electricity supply. The electricity cuts have forced most businesses, including the state-run newspaper, the Swazi Observer, to cease operations and led to the complete closure of the Matsapha International Airport. Mbabane's petrol pumps have ceased working. Four people died on January 23, when riot police opened fire on demonstrators in the capital. Police seized SFTU president Richard Nxumalo, SFTU secretary general Jan Sithole and his assistant, Jabulani Nxumalo, late on January 22. The three detained trade unionists were released on January 25. PUDEMO and other political leaders had gone into hiding. Other arrests include Mphandlana Shongwe, the chief marshal of the Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco), who was detained in Manzini for supposedly tearing down a Swaziland flag and dancing on it. Boeman Tsela, another Swayoco executive member, was also reported arrested. Swaziland formally became a British protectorate in 1867. When London decided to accelerate the decolonisation process in the region, as a result of the 1961 breakdown in diplomatic ties with South Africa, Swaziland was granted internal autonomy in 1967 and independence the following year. Police brutality and militarisation have continued for decades and can be traced to 1963, when the colonial government and the traditional authorities cooperated to bring in British troops to break up a strike which enjoyed the strong support of the popular-based political movement. On April 12, 1973, parliamentary democracy was abolished when the late King Sobhuza III dissolved parliament, suspended the independence constitution, banned political activities, declared a state of emergency (which remains in force) and proclaimed himself absolute monarch. The king then put himself at the service of apartheid South Africa. Relations with South Africa did not change with the new king, Mswati III. His government openly condemned economic sanctions against Pretoria and harassed anti-apartheid activists. With the backing of the South African regime, state security and the police conducted a vicious witch-hunt of the ANC in Swaziland, murdering activists in cold blood and handing others over to the South African security forces. Local ANC sympathisers were accused of being behind PUDEMO, which was fast gaining popularity and respect amongst the population. In November 1990 a peaceful demonstration by university students in support of PUDEMO was brutally put down by the security forces, who killed five students and seriously wounded scores of others. With the coming to power of the ANC-led government in South Africa, the government can no longer call on apartheid to back its repression. PUDEMO, the SFTU and Swayoco participated in strikes which crippled Swaziland for two days in March 1995. The government was forced to agree to a list of demands centred on a redrafting of outdated 1963 labour legislation, a repeal of the 1973 banning of all political parties and an undertaking from the government to reinstitute democratic structures. The SFTU announced another general strike in November. Government negotiators met union members and again pledged substantial reforms by the new year if the strike was cancelled. The government's repeated failure to implement democratic reforms has led to the most determined assault on the absolute monarchy yet. On January 29, Mswati threatened to mobilise his traditional warriors against the strikers unless they return to work.