SA Government Wide off the Mark on Swaziland

By Anna Majavu · 29 Jan 2013

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Picture: King Mswati III courtesy Kollmeierf/Wikimedia.
Picture: King Mswati III courtesy Kollmeierf/Wikimedia.

With the Swazi king planning another round of bogus “royal elections” this year, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign will launch a campaign for democratic elections this weekend. Meanwhile the South African government’s soft diplomacy props up Swaziland’s absolute monarchy.

Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati III, one of the last absolute monarchs in the world. According to the Forbes 2009 list of the World's Richest Royals, Mswati is worth at least R670 million. There have been no democratic elections in the country of 1.2 million people since 1973 – political parties are banned and the King appoints the prime minister and cabinet. Unions are also banned, political prisoners languish in the jails, over 70% of Swazi citizens live below the poverty line, and life expectancy is a horrific 31 years.

“Imagine all of this, and yet we are asked to vote for a royal minority regime and their puppets who - in stark contrast - live in a world of their own wealth and riches with impunity,” said the Swaziland Democracy Campaign in a statement announcing its anti-Tinkhundla (royal election) campaign. 

The campaign said the Tinkhundla royal election model was nothing more than “a despicable mechanism to entrench royal supremacy under the cosmetic design of democracy, yet clearly aimed at serving and retaining the power and illegitimacy of an inherently undemocratic, backward and parasitic regime”.

The ANC’s already discredited “soft diplomacy” approach towards the Swazi monarchy is more of a failure than ever. In 2008, former president Thabo Mbeki embarrassingly wished Mswati success after Mswati assured him that the Tinkhundla elections then were free and fair. There has been a rapid rise in joblessness and poverty and more repression from the royals ever since. Last month Swazi royals instructed police to invoke an 1889 law against women who dressed “indecently”. Wearing hipster jeans that “reveal the upper buttocks”, miniskirts, cropped tops and vests will now be seriously policed, and women who don’t comply with the 1889 law will face six months in prison.

The South African government has failed to respond to this latest attack on the Swazi people, in line with their usual mild approach to the brutal dictatorship on South Africa’s doorstep. One of the government’s major worries is not the human rights situation of the Swazi people, but that South Africa will be “flooded” by another one million refugees if poverty and joblessness in Swaziland get any worse. Our ANC-led government also knows that the situation in Swaziland will not improve until the monarchy is removed, But it is unwilling to acknowledge that this is the only option - and act on it.

Most of South Africa’s policy towards Swaziland would probably be even milder if it was not for the fact that there is a steady stream of leaked information from government to Swazi activists. In 2011 when news leaked out that the Swazi government asked the South African government for a R10 billion loan, there was an immediate public outcry from trade union and solidarity groups. This outcry led to our government offering a smaller R2.4 billion loan, to be paid in three tranches, on condition that the Swazi government implement “fiscal reforms” and agree to a vague “dialogue process” with all its citizens, which would “determine appropriate reforms”.

Our government must have known that having already borrowed R70 billion from the IMF and World Bank, King Mswati III was hardly likely to change his ways for a lousy R2.4 billion but decided to give him the money anyway. Perhaps fortuitously, Mswati failed to meet the conditions, instead choosing to take a large group of people on a lavish trip to London for the Queen of England’s silver jubilee. The loan was not released but this did not disturb the Swazi regime much.

Swaziland Solidarity Network spokesperson, Lucky Lukhele, explains that the Swazi government raised the money it needed by introducing a 14% value added tax (VAT) and started taxing imported edible oils and other staple foodstuffs. This has hit the majority of Swazi residents hard.

The extra R12 billion raised by these tax hikes is likely to go to “the king, his numerous wives, children and relatives, while a disproportionate amount is left for social needs such as health, education, grants and general subsidies on crucial needs” says Lukhele.

In the meantime, repression of Swazi activists continues. The Swaziland Democracy Campaign has planned a series of protests and summits in Swaziland between now and September, including a May Day rally. These protests are bound to be attacked by police as they were in April 2011 when Swazi activists organized a day of revolt against the monarchy. Mcoliso Ngcamphalala, the national organiser of the Swaziland Youth Congress, was arrested and reportedly “beaten and kicked while handcuffed, throttled and suffocated with a plastic bag” while many others were beaten, and the South African solidarity activists deported.

The presence of South African solidarity activists in Swaziland at Swazi-led protests is vital. Social movements should also be invited to support the border blockades. With the Swazi government/monarchy snubbing the South African government’s loan conditions so blatantly, it is now time for harsher measures. Lukhele says the ANC government must institute “smart sanctions” against the king, queen and their close relatives, to bring an end to the monarchy for once and for all. However, our government shows no sign of being willing to institute sanctions. It is more likely that it will instruct the departments of Defence and Home Affairs to come up with a way to prevent Swazi people from crossing the border into South Africa.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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