Democratisation in Swaziland must come from below

The repression and persecution of the democracy movement in Swaziland has increased. “Repression in Swaziland has historically come in waves, and the appointment of the acting Prime Minister was a message to the democracy movement that it would be increasingly pressurised”, says Morten Nielsen from Africa Contact.

On the positive side, there has been a attitudinal change in Swaziland that can be seen in the strikes by 10-20.000 women in the textile industry in 2008, as well as in the of the steady progress of the democracy movement.”These strikes violate all gender and cultural norms in Swaziland”, says Morten Nielsen, “and the democracy movement is gathering strength. The regime is worried”. Amongst other things, this change in attitude is due to the increasingly repressive nature of the regime and because the Swazi economy is “in free fall”, he claims.

This has led to cuts in public services and benefits such as pensions, education and the health system, which in turn has led to “an increasing social anger in Swaziland that can be felt when speaking to Swazis, although people are also scared”.

Internal and external pressure on the regime
If this attitudinal change is to lead to a significant strengthening of the democratic movement, and consequently to a democratisation of Swaziland, however, both internal and external pressure is necessary. But internal pressure will only come about if the democracy movement is united and external pressure must especially come from South Africa. The strength of the democracy movement and the likelihood of support from the international community is interlinked, says Morten Nielsen, and the more the regime is criticised by other leaders and the foreign media, the less likely it is to be repressive. “Jacob Zuma has clearly stated that the Swazi regime is of no interest to him. Therefore the regime can continue to repress the Swazi population more or less unhindered. South Africa is the key to international focus on Swaziland because South Africa has so many allies around the world”.

He sees the increasing number of right-wing governments in Europe as an impediment to the cause of the democratic movement, as right-wingers are traditionally less inclined to interfere with the excesses of royals than the left-wing. Moreover, the solidarity movement outside Swaziland is weak, even though he sees the creation of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign as a big step forward. “Only a few countries, such as Denmark, focus on Swaziland. The are many humanitarian organisations that have projects in Swaziland but foreign humanitarian organisations are not politically minded and do not interfere in political matters as more activist organisations like Africa Contact do. Admittedly, doing political work in Swaziland is dangerous, especially for Swazi citizens. They risk jeopardizing their education, their work, their land, and ultimately their lives in doing so. Being politically active takes a lot of courage and character, and the poverty and Aids-prevalence that many Swazis are faced with means that they must focus on survival”.

The democratic movement
The democratic movement in Swaziland has tended to excessively mimic the traditional rhetoric and strategies of other liberation movements, says Morten Nielsen. They need to find their own way of dealing with their unique situation, as the revolutionary tactics and rhetoric that brought down the colonial administrations of the sixties and seventies, as well as the apartheid regime, will not work in present-day Swaziland. “There are important differences between Swaziland and the rest of Africa, amongst other things in mentality.

The Swazi population, for instance, has a strong sense of loyalty towards its traditional culture, even amongst those who are part of the democratic movement. Simply copying the revolutionary rhetoric of the ANC is therefore not helping the cause of democratisation. The language is too militant. That the ANC and SACP still use such revolutionary terms and songs is more because of an historical affection for them than because of their message and meaning. Such rhetoric is therefore not relevant for the democratic movement in Swaziland”.

Many other democracy movements in Africa have experienced that broad slogans have not helped in creating an inclusive and participatory democratisation. “If the poor are to be included in a militant struggle, the issues at hand need to be properly explained, and they haven’t been properly explained so far. The democratic movement needs a concrete and basic common political platform to be able to do so, and such a platform is also not fully in place. Moreover, the movement needs to have discussed and agreed upon what it means by ‘democracy’ and ‘democratisation’ to be able to sell their idea of an alternative Swaziland to the Swazi population.

The bottom line is that the views of the movement need to be based on a concrete set of policies that relate to concrete issues such as land policy or educational policy, and that people can therefore relate to”. Such a political platform will help promote the movement as a credible political alternative to the present regime, both inside and outside Swaziland. Morten Nielsen insists, however, that to be a true alternative to the regime, the movement must also “be seen to be on the side of the poor an not big business by truly and clearly advocating profound social change”.

Africa Contact
Unlike many other NGOs that work in Swaziland, Africa Contact helps facilitate such an inclusive process through its projects in Swaziland. “Other organisations that support the democracy movement have a different agenda than we do at Africa Contact. They tend to compromise or make short-cuts in seeking to help bring about democratisation. But without popular ownership, democratisation will only end up replacing the present autocracy with a top-down led government that is no more likely to listen to the population than the present regime.

It might be more time-consuming and difficult to change the attitudes of people than to let an elite section of the democracy movement control the struggle, as has happened in many other other African countries, but it is the only way of truly democratising a country. Democratisation essentially means that as many as possible feel ownership towards the society they live in and are able to work for a better life for themselves, their family and their local communities”, Morten Nielsen concludes.


The days of absolute monarchy are numbered, CounterPunch, 25 August 2010

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