Swaziland: Putting the unity back in the United Democratic front

The Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) was formed in 2008 in an attempt to coordinate and unite the efforts of the democratic movement in Swaziland and subsequently attempt to expand its political space. The South African United Democratic Front (UDF) that fought apartheid in the eighties and nineties relied on the strong South African trade unions to make the country ungovernable through marches, strikes and boycotts. The SUDF seemingly wants to play a similar, if initially less confrontational, role, although there are several obvious differences between the South African and the Swazi struggle.

One of the most important of these differences is that the UDF and its member organisations in South Africa received international financial support, not least through its church organisations, whereas the SUDF doesn’t receive any financial support. Most of the money presently given to the Swazi struggle is given to the more top-down focused, negotiation-willing, and less progressive Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, although a recently initiated project between the SUDF and Danish organisation Africa Contact will change this. The issue of money is not only important during the struggle, however, but also in a future democratic Swaziland where a royalist party will not only command the loyalty of the army, but also almost unlimited resources.
Another important difference is that the struggle against the white minority regime in South Africa was easier to understand and “market” than that of the small, culturally homogeneous nation of Swaziland. It is also important to remember that it took decades to build a strong anti-apartheid movement both within and outside South Africa. PUDEMO president  Mario Masuku insists that the connection between the two struggles is important, however, “Swaziland will be liberated by its own citizens, but aided by solidarity organisations in the way that South Africa won her freedom aided by the anti-apartheid movement”.

Unfortunately, the progress of the SUDF is being hindered by several outstanding issues, something that the leaders of the various movements within the SUDF and the democratic movement as a whole acknowledge. Mario Masuku believes that “the SUDF lacks a clear political vision”. Jan Sithole sees the problems of the democratic movement as being with the leadership. And SWAYOCO president, Wandile Dludlu, sees the problems as being related to personal ambition and lack of communication.“Usually the problems within the democratic movement are not with the members or to do with different ideologies, but to do with personal relations within the leadership”. There is a “generation gap” in the movement where “the three generations within the movement do not necessarily speak the same language”. “This is not necessarily a big problem”, he claims, “but the bubbles or cocoons that everyone seems to have settled into need to be shattered. The generational issues are often related to personality and an individualistic culture within the movement”, says Dludlu. Africa Contact’s Morten Nielsen points to another, more insoluble, problem with the movement as a whole. “There is a lack of discipline and decent behaviour within the democratic movement. Some people are frustrated by the lack of action taken by the international community, as well as the in-fights within the movement itself. These people will not simply stop their indiscipline, however. There will always be 25 or so people who will resort to throwing stones and criticize. The movement must therefore stop using them as an excuse for arguing amongst themselves.”

“But why do we allow organisations that want the same overall things not to cooperate?”, asks  Wandile Dludlu, rhetorically. He believes that a show of strength by the democracy movement is vital in showing the regime that a majority of Swazi’s are discontented and that they mean business. A united and strong SUDF is a prerequisite for such a show of strength as none of its member organisations are strong enough to do so individually. Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation magazine, points to the negative aspects of the previous lack of consciousness and action within the population in claiming that “the King is in power not because he took his power from us, but because we gave it to him and keep accepting that he has it.” Wandile Dludlu  believes that such action is possible now due to the change of consciousness within the Swazi population in recent years, however, if only the leaders are willing to unite and lead the progressively more politicised masses. “People have been politicised. The democracy movement must unite and together pressurize the regime”. This politicisation can be seen in all areas of Swazi society, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the street vendors organisation. During a conference of the street vendors organisation on 1. September, member after member addressed the meeting with clear political analyses of their plight as victims of one of the most unequal societies on earth. “We need a president in this country. And we need democracy. The solution to our problem is people-driven democracy, not just democracy when it suits our leaders.” Such analyses and outbursts from Swaziland’s poor would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

A proper and continuous analysis of the situation is thus one of the main issues, from the masses as well as from the leadership. “What the SUDF needs is a correct political analysis of the situation: When to be aggressive, when to be diplomatic, and when to negotiate. The worst thing that can happen is for the SUDF to use the masses to create change without changing the fundamentals”, says Wandile Dludlu. “And the SUDF is one of the few organisations that seriously and consistently advocates democracy. The SUDF doesn’t just criticise single issues such as the King’s luxurious lifestyle, but criticises the system as a whole”. Knowledge and the ability to analyse must not be kept within the confines of the leadership, however, says SFTU secretary-general, Mduduzi Gina. “We have a knowledge gap at the moment. The leaders know more than the people they are meant to lead. The educational material is therefore important as it will help define the direction of the struggle”.

As we have seen, most of the disagreements within the SUDF are seemingly not political but more strategical and personality-based. There are no easy solutions to this although moving forward as a unit is important. But as Wandile Dludlu points out to me, “unity and unanimity is important, but not at any price. There is no where else to go but the SUDF”. On the other hand, it is  important not to overemphasize ones problems, but rather to focus on solutions. “We must address these issues but also remember that these issues are temporary whereas our cooperation is lasting”, concludes Vincent Ncongwane, secretary-general of the SUDF.

On the positive side, the mere fact that the SUDF has been formed is a promising step in the right direction, as is the appointment of Vincent Ncongwane as its secretary-general.  Africa Contact’s Morten Nielsen sees Ncongwane as having an important role to play as he is “an authority, and a neutral presence within the front as he is not part of any of the political groupings.” What the SUDF needs now, he says, is “the structural and financial capacity to enable the leadership of the SUDF to concentrate on leading. Africa Contact’s project with the SUDF will hopefully give this space and thereby enable the front to grow on its own terms”.
It goes without saying that the SUDF and its member organisations would benefit from further funds from other international donors. This would not only enable the leadership to concentrate on the issues at hand, but could also help strengthen one of the fundamental reasons for the consciousness boost in Swaziland, the civic education teams. But whatever happens in the future, the role of the SUDF is too important to let it crumble. If this was to happen, it will take years if not longer to build another unified front.

This article is based on meetings with the following people between 30. August and 5. September 2010: Mario Masuku, PUDEMO president; Wandile Dludlu, SWAYOCO president; Jan Sithole, former SFTU secretary-general; Bheki Makhubu, The Nation editor; Morten Nielsen, Africa Contact; Mduduzi Gina, SFTU secretary-general; Vincent Ncongwane, SUDF and SFL secretary-general; and a Street Vendors conference on 1. September.


Where now for the SUDF, Swazi Media Commentary, 18 September 2010

4 Responses to Swaziland: Putting the unity back in the United Democratic front

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