Swaziland: Could Southern Africa go the way of Northern Africa?
The end of the second global week of action for freedom in Swaziland has suggested that the end might at last be on the way for the last feudal monarchy in Africa. In an echo of the Arab Spring that spread across Northern Africa earlier this year, protesters began to resist the security forces where once they would have scattered.
Solidarity action was mounted in twenty other African countries as well as on other continents – including here in London where the TUC handed in a protest letter to the High Commission. Protests in South Africa – led by COSATU, whose delegation to Swaziland was summarily deported – focused on the South African Reserve Bank R2.4bn bail-out that has provided a last lifeline to the Swaziland Government, and which South African trade unionists have roundly condemned, including for containing no conditions such as requiring human rights be observed. COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said “We are saying it was a mistake… that’s our tax money you are giving to them.”
For the first time, protests spread from the administrative capital Mbabane to other towns around the country – Manzini, Nhlangano and especially Siteki where the COSATU delegation was seized by security forces. The protesters claimed that the spread of demonstrations into the countryside un-nerved the regime, which is used to protests in the capital. As well as the core of the democracy movement – trade unions, students and the effective opposition party PUDEMO – other parts of civil society joined in the protests, including the judiciary who have been outraged by attacks on their independence by King Mswati’s Government.
The country has a population of just over a million, but, unusually, the population is falling due to the highest levels of HIV/AIDS in the world, and chronic poverty among the majority of the ordinary people (while the King lives in luxury). Demonstrations were attended – according to the protesters – by 30-40,000 people, far more than are usually willing to take the risk of demonstrating openly in such a repressive country.
Usually, demonstrations like those mounted this week are banned, undermined by arrests and dispersal of the leaders ahead of the planned date, and then brutally attacked by the security services (in 2010, protester Sipho Jele was found hanged in the police station where he was taken for questioning). But this year, the security services held back – and on one occasion were actually forced back, and made to let a demonstration reach its natural conclusion. According to the protesters, this was partly so as not to embarrass the South African government so soon after the bail-out; and partly because of the increased attention being paid to the human rights record of the Swazi government by the UN and ILO.
With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) coming up in Australia in October, the Swazi Government must also be worried about the reaction of one of the only multilateral bodies which is willing to suspend countries – most recently Fiji – who don’t meet its democratic rules. Swazi trade union leader Mduduzi Gina will be one of three global trade unionists accredited to attend CHOGM.