The Foundation of the democratic movement in Swaziland

The struggle for democracy and human rights in Swaziland has to be fought on many levels and from many angles and must therefore include an array of different organisations. But if the democratic movement in the country wants to implement real democracy, and not simply democratic structures that are not tied to or founded in the grass roots level of society, then education of the population in democracy and human rights is vitally important. And it is equally important that these concepts are related to the real, everyday situations of ordinary people, and linked to what is happening on a national and global level, so that they can relate the education they receive to their own situation and thus hopefully see their part in the struggle for democracy as vital for the advancement of both their country and themselves. As has been proven time and time again in both Africa and in other parts of the world (including European countries such as Denmark, where democracy for all citizens only took root over 60 years after it was officially announced), democracy cannot be implemented from above but must be nurtured from below.
A strict traditional hierarchy and conservatism, illiteracy, lack of access to education, and poverty in general, have hindered democratic and rights-based consciousness in the rural areas in Swaziland. Furthermore, a repressive society such as Swaziland’s is domesticating, so to speak, as the oppressed tend to internalise the oppressor’s image of themselves and become fearful of freedom. Civic education in Swaziland’s rural areas is therefore essential, not only for the struggle for democracy, but also to ensure that a mental liberation precedes a physical one, and that the nature of a future Swazi democracy is inclusive and ultimately successful once the fight for democracy has been won.

The Foundation
Until recently, however, there has been no programme focusing specifically on inclusive civic education. For this reason, the Foundation for Socio Economic Justice was founded in 2003 as an organization to initiate “broad civic education programmes to encourage democratic participation and raise awareness on human- and constitutional rights amongst the rural populations, with an understanding on how this leads to poverty eradication”. The overall goal of the Foundation is to “build a mass-based democratic force” through a bottom-up approach that includes partnership with, and capacity building of, marginalized, rural based organisations. In a sense, the Foundation is therefore a complementary organisation to the largely urban-based political organisations such as the newly founded Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), both because it looks at the preconditions for the processes that these organisations are trying to implement and because it is politically non-aligned and welcomes people from all political persuasions and organisations.

Rural Civic Education
The Foundation’s Rural Civic Education programme is the cornerstone of the Foundation’s work and the civic educators are in the front-line of its work. The educational team covers a variety of democracy- and rights-related subjects on e.g. the history of Swaziland, the history of the unions, the political history of Swaziland, and issues about rural community organisation. The discussions that this education spawns also covers more concrete issues such as the lack of health facilities, schools, classrooms, water and employment that are then tied to the more overall topics. The conditions under which the lessons are given are difficult, however. Community leaders and Chiefs in some places victimize the educators and participants as they are seen as a threat to their authority and there is police surveillance of most meetings.
The result of this education can be seen in the fact that people to a much larger degree dare speak up in the presence of authorities such as headmen, chiefs and police officers, and that some have even stopped partaking in the traditionally sanctioned system of forced labour by i.e. refusing to plough the chief’s land for free. The civic education team have thus made great strides and progress in areas where the discussion of political issues or standing up to the authoritarian traditional system was previously impossible.

Partner organisations
The work of the civic education teams is complemented by the partner organisations, together with whom the Foundation helps mobilize those previously not organised, encouraging groups working on similar issues to merge in order for them to speak with a strong and unified voice. The Foundation has also begun educating the partner organisations on e.g. organisational sustainability, institutional image building, advocacy and lobbying, conflict and stress management and leadership and management skills, all to ensure the strengthening and durability of the organisations. The Foundation’s partner organisations all attempt to attack the economic and democratic deficit from different angles and by different methods. But as Swaziland is one of the most unequal societies in the world, where two thirds of the population survive for under 1 $US a day, the common denominator of all the partner organisations is that they all attempt to address the socio-economic imbalances that the population face.

The Swaziland National Ex-Mineworkers Association (SNEMA) is one of the success stories of the foundation. SNEMA came about as result of different pockets of Ex-mine workers organisations coming together with the support and advise of the Foundation on 8 March 2007. Initially a fragile and somewhat disorganised organisation that mostly focused on lobbying the Swazi and South African state for unpaid pensions, SNEMA has over the past few years been remarkably successful in assuming a more multifaceted approach. The organisation has won a successful court case against the state on the right to free primary school education and educates people in their branches on human rights, democracy, and poverty eradication. These successes have consequently seen its membership increase to over 1000 registered members.
As with most other organisations in Swaziland, many people are afraid of participating in meetings and other events as the police monitor the organisation closely. In the Southern part of Swaziland, the stronghold of the organization, one Member of Parliament even banned the organisation from holding its meetings although the strong support of the community enabled SNEMA to defy this ban. Despite this fear of participating in meetings and heavy state repression, the organisation through its capacitated membership was recently able to organize an Ex- Mineworkers Day at Bosco Youth Centre, Manzini, where 250 participants from all branches of the organisation attended together with most of the leaders of the democratic movement, regardless of the presence of several police officers. To ensure the sustainability and growth of the organisation, SNEMA is presently working on establishing income-generating projects with support from networks they have established, such as the Mining Development Agency.

The Street Vendors Association is another of the partner organisations that has come a long way in a relatively short period of time under the tutelage of the Foundation. Initially, the members of the organisation, most of whom are illiterate women who support their families more or less single-handily, were not reflected nor outspoken about their situation. This has changed, as a recently held Street Vendors conference in Manzini proved. Here their precarious situation was clearly linked to the undemocratic and exclusive nature of Swazi society. “The solution to our problems is absolute democracy, people-driven democracy. Not just democracy when it suits our leaders”, insisted one of the participants of the meeting, where there were several calls for marches and other action to show the government that they meant business. The organisations chairwoman, Molta Vilakati, further noted that they “have been excluded and ignored by the government and are treated as outcasts”. On a more practical level, the organisation has been able to organise some workshops and marches, although it is still finding it difficult to organise and arrange meetings due to members having to tend their stalls during the day to be able to make ends meet.

The Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), an organisation for tertiary students in Swaziland, is yet another partner organization which is growing in stature. SNUS has survived the brutal repression of the regime since its formation in the early eighties and has gone on to feed various Swazi youth organisations with qualified activist leaders. SNUS has been active both within and outside Swaziland,  supporting the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as well as organising protests and demonstrations within Swaziland itself. Due to the organisation thus being very much a part of the democratic movement, the Swazi regime has repeatedly attempted to suppress SNUS.  The role of the Foundation has therefore been to support and strengthen the organisation to enable it to continue to fulfil its role in organising debates, political lessons and protests. SNUS has subsequently been able to both increase its membership and activity.
One of the more recent, successful, actions was in February 2010 where SNUS organised a student boycott of classes and held several demonstrations with thousands of marchers in demand of free education for all and government recognition of the organisation. The SNUS leaders were subsequently kidnapped, beaten or tortured but were released without charge due to pressure from both Swazi and international organisations. SNUS leaders and members are often harassed by the police and the authorities, either physically or by dismissing them from university and forcing them into exile, meaning that practically a whole generation of capable student leaders live in South Africa.
Even though many of their protests have formally been about education, SNUS see the main problem as being the lack of democracy in Swaziland. The organisation believes that only pressure from civil society movements such as their own will bring about democracy in Swaziland, and therefore deems it necessary to be “geared to confront the socio economic and political challenges of the country”. Regardless of the challenges and harassment that the organisation faces, the student movement continues to grow stronger through the support of the Foundation, something that was seen at the organisation’s recent congress held on September 25 2010 that was attended by 110 delegates.

Problems, such as the increasing repressive nature of the regime, can also be seen as or become opportunities, as the more repressive the regime, the easier it is to argue the case against it. But if the political space becomes too restricted or if the Foundation and its partner organisations are banned by the authorities, this will obviously not be the case.
There is also the problem of the a lack of methodology in the population to turn their acquired knowledge into action, although the first step of making people aware of the reasons for their poverty is the first step towards making them act. This step has been taken largely thanks to the Foundation. These problems are exacerbated, however, by the Foundation not going public with its successes or statements and therefore not having sufficient access to the media, by people being scared, by apathy in the population, and by lack of resources and international support.

The future

The nature of the future planning of the Foundation must be related to its problems as wishing to expand and thereby broaden its political space might create animosity with the democratic movement, especially if the Foundation is seen to be further “trespassing” on other organisations within the movement’s “territory”. The fact that such “trespassing” has been necessary until now is perhaps more due to the weakness of especially the political parties and the vacuum that they have left, however, than any purposeful intrusion by the Foundation, and in the present situation the democratic movement must use whatever means open to it to promote consciousness, mobilisation and democracy.
The Foundation needs to look to expand its activities to take it to the next level, especially in more fully taking on the role of a resource, research and education centre. The Foundation should consequently be better at taking the credit for its victories, although it has previously chosen to keep something of a low profile to enable it to grow without too much government interference. Perhaps now is the time to focus more on publicity to ensure both the expansion of its programmes in Swaziland and the developing of networks and contacts outside the country. Generally, given the small number of donors that work with non-aid related issues such as democratisation in Swaziland, the work of the Foundation is certainly a good example to the international donor community and other potential benefactors of how much can be achieved on a very small budget. But the Foundation needs to make sure that both as many potential participants in its programmes and as many donors are aware of this fact as possible to ensure its continued growth.

15 Responses to The Foundation of the democratic movement in Swaziland

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