Earlier this month, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, toured southern Africa, and visited several Commonwealth countries. He also visited an entirely imaginary country which he called Swaziland, but which bears only a nominal resemblance to that country.
The country the Secretary-General visited is an idyllic land based on consensus, the Commonwealth values of democracy and respect for human rights, and one in need only of a programme of assistance with initiatives such as e-government; enterprise skills training; and performance management in the public services (honestly, I’m not making this up – it’s all in the Commonwealth’s current programme of technical co-operation.)
As opposed to the real Swaziland, where two thirds of the 1.2m population live below the UN poverty line of $2 a day but the royal family spends millions on foreign shopping trips; where the highest rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world has actually produced a shrinking population; and where trade unions and political parties are banned by the last feudal dictatorship in Africa. The reporting of Sharma’s visit risks turning the Commonwealth into a laughing stock or worse, and trade unions will be seeking to make that point very forcibly to him when we back the Global Week of Action on Swaziland at the start of September. For a start, far from praising Swaziland’s ‘progress’, the Commonwealth should suspend it until democracy is introduced.
The extent to which the Secretary-General had lost touch with the reality of the situation was revealed in his gushing statement on departing the country:
“We are committed to working in support of the Commonwealth’s values and Swaziland’s national priorities with vigour, and in particular to support Swaziland’s efforts to build consensus and to become a more resilient, democratic and prosperous society. … Our priority in the next few years will be on strengthening further some of the key institutions of State on which the confidence of society and protection of all citizens’ interests can be advanced.”
This must have been music to the ears of Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, who ended a banquet in the Secretary-General’s honour by saying:
“We do take our membership [in the Commonwealth] seriously and seek at all times to respect and enhance the fundamental Commonwealth values, as well as implementing the resolutions of Commonwealth Heads of Government.”
As the Open Society Institute of South Africa’s Richard Lee commented:
“Obviously the Commonwealth head is not going to sign his name to a press release that condemns the authoritarian and repressive government of Swaziland in stringent tones but surely there was room for a little more reality?”
Swazi trade unionists – united earlier this year in the Trades Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), which the Swazi Government refuses to recognise - support suspension as a key step in isolating the regime of King Mswati III (the TUC and ITUC support that call). Recent strikes by public sector workers seeking a 4.5% pay rise in a country with 9% inflation were met with tear gas, beatings and illegal threats of mass sackings (until the courts over-turned them). That’s the standard Swazi Government response to anyone seeking to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of association, assembly or speech. So is the tactic of rounding up union leaders the day before planned demonstrations, driving them into the countryside and dumping them miles from anywhere to disrupt their organisations. Trade unionists face arrest and intimidation just for displaying the TUCOSWA name or logo on clothes or bags. This is the sort of behaviour that has led the ILO to criticise the Swazi Government in the strongest terms they can.
The Swazi King and his Ministers like to paint a different picture, and the Commonwealth Secretary-General seems to have swallowed it whole. On a recent visit to Namibia, Mswati pretended to care deeply about his immiserated subjects. Speaking during a state banquet hosted by Namibian President, Hifikepunye Pohamba, the King congratulated the brave men and women who fought for the liberation of Namibia (unions and human rights groups demurred). He said leaders of today have a struggle of a different kind from which to liberate their people:
“It is the struggle to liberate our people from poverty, disease and economic stagnation. I truly believe that if we combine our efforts to sweep this struggle away from our doorsteps, we will succeed in emancipating our people socially and economically.”
Meanwhile, the King and his harem of wives – some offered up to him as teenage virgins by a population keen to do almost anything to escape their poverty – sit on a fortune reputed to be over $100m, spend lavishly on foreign shopping trips, and starve the public services of resources.