By Jabulane Matsebula
The government of Swaziland is reported to be using drought relief aid to lure voters to register under a widely rejected system of elections.
Swaziland has had a democracy drought for 20 years after the traditionalist party, Imbokodvo National Movement, advised the late King Sobhuza II to repeal the independence constitution and declare a state of emergency which still remains in force.
Sobhuza II took personal command of the government and civil service. He organised a paramilitary force loyal to himself, abolished political parties and instituted a 60-day detention law.
The scrapping of the constitution was a result of a democracy phobia within the traditionalist camp following the 1972 elections, which gave the opposition a mere three seats in parliament. (The traditional authority had come to power through a landslide victory at the polls in the independence elections in 1967, leaving the opposition without a single seat.)
The significance of the slight upset at the 1972 polls was that it unseated a prince. The winning opposition candidate, Bhekindlela Ngwenya, was eventually deported to South Africa after a hot court battle which he had won.
A new constitution that Sobhuza II had promised to introduce was nowhere in sight when he died in 1982, except that he had reintroduced parliament in 1978 with a new system of elections called Tinkhundla, whereby voters elected members of an electoral college, which then elected parliament. Nobody knows who nominated the candidates for parliament nor the candidates for the electoral college. The prime minister and the whole cabinet were hand-picked by the king.
The major opposition in the post-1973 period is the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), formed in 1982. It took advantage of growing dissent and rivalry over the throne following Sobhuza's death to mobilise the people against the Tinkhundla system.
The young Crown Prince Makhosetive at coronation reaffirmed the proclamation of April 12, 1973. Harassment of democracy advocates took a new twist as some were arrested and charged with sedition, which carries a sentence of 20 years or E20,000 fine or both, or high treason, which carries the death sentence.
Under pressure, the young king announced a review of the Tinkhundla system. The review was later known as "Vusela", which loosely translated means "greet". A committee was sent out to "greet" people about what changes they would like to see in the election system. Those who spoke harshly against the system and the corruption in public offices were reprimanded and some arrested.
"Vusela 1" finished its work and gave its report, upon which "Vusela 2" was set in motion. In an attempt to gain legitimacy and try to appease the opposition, Mandla Hlatshwayo, who had just been elected the national organising secretary of PUDEMO, was selected to be part of the team. Hlatshwayo turned down the invitation, making the whole process look even more desperate.
"Vusela 2" finished its work and reported to the king, who then announced that the electoral college would be abolished and that voters would elect candidates directly to parliament. Parliament was to remain bicameral, with the upper house (Senate) dominated by chiefs and princes. Appointing cabinet and the prime minister were to remain the prerogative of the king.
June 10, 1993, was the official beginning of voter registration. There was a total boycott in the urban and surrounding areas. The Times of Swaziland reported on the third day of registration:
"Registration of voters in the Kingdom's cities continued to trickle yesterday ...
"Registration officers were found at leisure, with only tables, chairs and registration books to explain their presence ...
"At the Manzini Central, one officer said he had registered eight people by 11:45 am ... while at Mjingo which catered for Manzini south only three people had registered by lunch time."
In Siteki, a town with a population of about 10,000 where the opposition was formed in 1982, it was reported that only four people had registered in four days.
It is only in rural areas that some people are registering. This is due to the fact that the opposition has not been able to assert itself there and the chiefs still have a strong hold. But the most shameful fact was reported in the Times of Swaziland — that in one rural area residents were told to register first before they could be given drought relief aid which was donated by different international organisations.
The government has, in desperation, proposed a sham election. It hopes to lure the international community into thinking that Swaziland is on the road to democracy. However, the government has not lifted the 20-year-old state of emergency. The people are still denied their right to organise freely and live in fear of indefinite detention because of their political beliefs. The monarchy continues to be the only legal political party.
Efforts to draw the government to the negotiation table to work out a viable democratic process and prevent further misuse of the country's resources have so far been to no avail. PUDEMO is appealing to the international community to cut financial and material aid to the government of Swaziland. We request countries donating humanitarian aid to monitor the distribution of relief aid to ensure that it is not used to further political interests of the government or any political group.
[The writer is a member of PUDEMO.]