Swaziland: uprising in the slip-stream of North Africa

A new, well-educated generation of Swazis have been inspired by the uprisings in North Africa, as well as compelled by their own increasingly desperate situation of mass-unemployment and poverty, to try and replace the undemocratic and corrupt absolute monarchy that is Swaziland with a democratic and fair system.

The know-how and tactics of these youths, combined with the mass mobilisation for democracy and socio-economic justice that has taken place for decades in Swaziland, that together comprised the campaign or uprising on April 12-15, appears to be a significant breakthrough. It may not have brought about immediate democratisation but it is surely “the beginning of the end,” as a poster held by a demonstrator on April 12 proclaimed.

There are at least three common factors of the Swazi uprising in April and the North African uprisings that preceded and influenced the one in Swaziland: That no one had expected them, that they happened because of a combination of financial turmoil, youth unemployment, a year-long democratic mobilisation, the use of new social online tools such as Facebook and Twitter, that meant that the demonstrators could bypass the highly censored national media, and that they depended not on one or a few leaders, but on many, meaning that the regimes could not simply shut the uprisings down by arresting a few key people.

One of the main differences between Swaziland and North Africa in building a successful protest movement is that the technology available to the masses in North Africa, that was crucial in keeping the masses informed, simply is not there in Swaziland yet. Only about 5% of the Swazi population have an Internet connection, although mobile phones with Internet connections are becoming increasingly available.

Swaziland: An absolute monarchy

Swaziland is a small land-locked country in Southern Africa, bordering South Africa and Mozambique. Swaziland is nominally a middle-income country, but this is due to a few Swazis living in luxury whilst the majority languish in poverty. Swaziland has the highest Aids rate in the world, one of the lowest life expectancies, and two thirds of the population survive on less than 1 dollar a day, hundreds of thousands on food aid from the world food programme.

Human rights and political rights are routinely disregarded in Swaziland, even though Swaziland has signed e.g. the African Charter on Human Rights. According to Amnesty Internationals 2010 International Report, Swazi “police and other security officials, including informal policing groups, continued to use excessive force against criminal suspects, political activists and unarmed demonstrators. Incidents of torture and other ill-treatment were also reported.” And Freedom House gave Swaziland a political rights score of 7 in 2010; the lowest there is, concluding, “Swaziland is not an electoral democracy.”

Since independence from Great Britain in 1968, Swaziland has been run by an absolute monarch. King Sobhuza II, the father of the present monarch Mswati III, suspended the constitution, banned all political parties, and proclaimed a state of emergency (that has yet to be lifted) on 12 April 1973. The King appoints and dismisses the government and Prime Minister at will, and in effect runs the country as the landlord would his farm in medieval Europe, deciding over everything from land allocation to the budget through a traditional system of chiefs and headman,.

The Swazi monarchy thereby in effect crushed the ambitions of all Swazis, besides that of a small parasitic elite based within the monarchy. The ambitions of the middle classes were curtailed by banning political parties and those of the working classes by suppressing the labour movement. The monarchy also enhanced its power grip over society in general by controlling mineral royalties, business, and land administration.

Media criticism of the regime and monarchy has been muted by the fact that one of the country’s two large newspapers is owned by the King, its editor having vowed never to criticise him, and the other is mainly funded by advertisements, of which the government is the biggest provider. Subsequently, all the official media in Swaziland employ a great deal of self-censorship.

“I found that during the three years I have lived in Swaziland that if I want to really know what’s going on in the kingdom, I should not bother with the Swazi media,” as former associate professor at the University of Swaziland Richard Rooney, who edits the widely read, foreign-based, Swazi Media Commentary, said recently.

According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the unfortunate tendency of the Swazi media to refrain from criticising the regime was particularly obvious in the days leading up to April 12 2011. “The only independent newspaper in the country, the Times of Swaziland, has managed to give government almost free reign to spread their propaganda … In all the protest coverage, the protestors were not given an opportunity to respond to the many accusations from the government/traditionalists.”

And public criticism has also been muted by the fact that anyone expressing a remotely nonconformist view about the current regime is seen as terrorist, and either left to languish in jail on trumped up charges, or simply beaten up by the police.

Any genuine information or analysis about the regime and the potential of democracy in Swaziland therefore has had to come from other sources, such as the independent magazine, The Nation, foreign based online websites such as Swazi Media Commentary, debate forums such as that of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, new social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and the sharing or photocopying of foreign, mainly South African, newspaper clips about Swaziland.

The problem for Swazis who want change, and want to read analyses about how this change will come and be implemented online, is that only about 5% of the Swazi population have an Internet connection. A magazine like The Nation is not widely read, maybe because it is too expensive or highbrow for the average Swazi, and even copying newspaper articles can be seen as a criminal offense, as was the case with the young man who was taken to court over having copied and distributed an article that was unfavourable towards the regime from a South African newspaper.

Many Swazis, especially in the rural areas where three quarters of the population live, therefore get their political information and analysis from a combination of word of mouth, political party and union activities, and the civic education.

The important role of civil society

Civil society in Swaziland works for democracy from all angles, including by way of consciousness-building, at the political level, through the labour movement, by coordination of the democratic forces, by campaign work and by cooperation with like-minded organisations in South Africa.

Especially the unions and the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) were an important part of the April 12-15 campaign or uprising, as they played an integral part of planning it. But the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice (FSEJ), the Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC) and The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) were also fully behind the campaign, the latter issuing a press statement that saluted “the workers and the people of Swaziland for standing up to the hostile regime and press[ing] through with their demands.”

The Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice (FSEJ), formed in 2003, has built a mass-based democratic force of conscious individuals and organisations through civic education about democracy and rights, especially in the rural areas that are traditionally conservative and comparatively loyal to the monarchy. The organisation has thereby played a vital role in making the uprising possible by enabling those who receive civic education to link their poverty and lack of freedom to the policies of the present regime and vent their anger at the root cause of their troubles, the regime. The consciousness-building of FSEJ and others is also vital if Swaziland is not to become yet another African democracy ruled by the political and financial elites.

The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) has been the main political movement for democratic change since it was founded in 1983 and will probably form or be part of a future multi-party democratic government. PUDEMO’s manifesto, written in 1985, is clearly in opposition to the present regime in stating that the movement is “fully dedicated to creating a democratic Swaziland”, that “the countries wealth shall be enjoyed by all citizens and shall be shared equally”, that “the land shall be given to all those who work it”, that there shall be “free, compulsory, universal and equal [education] for all children” and that “Human Rights shall be observed and respected”.

Regardless of its peaceful and democratic nature, however, PUDEMO’s leadership and members have repeatedly been charged with anything from wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt to high treason for alleged “terrorism”, beaten up, tortured and even on rare occasions killed by the Swazi state and police. This has more or less neutralised the movement and forced its members to advocate democratic change in one of the democratic movement’s other organisations.

The Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) was formed in 2008 by a number of civil society organisations, trade unions and political movements, including PUDEMO. The founding of the SUDF resulted from a belief that to create a strong civil society that could work actively for democratisation and poverty eradication, there would have to be political education, mass mobilisation and more unity and coordination among the pro-democracy forces in Swaziland. “Unity for democracy is ultimately what triggers change. The secret lies in mass mobilisation,” as Sikelela Dlamini of the SUDF puts it.

“But the SUDF has assumed a more underground role than when it was established in February 2008,” says Sikelela Dlamini. “It has had to ‘delegate’ its leadership of the overall push for democratisation to its labour federation affiliates, including the SFTU, SFL and SNAT. Any other way has prompted the state to swiftly use its courts of law or security apparatus to declare workers’ demonstrations and protests illegal and stop them on the basis that they are of a political nature. The SUDF therefore played a subtle yet central role in the organization and actual carrying out of the April 12-15 demonstrations.”

The unions have played a leading role in the struggle for democracy and socio-political rights; both in the recent spate of demonstrations and historically, not least because they are the only organisations legally allowed to hold demonstrations through the Industrial Act. Swaziland has ratified all International Labour Organisation conventions, giving Swazi workers the right to e.g. union membership and strike action, although strikes are more or less impossible to organize legally in practice, and employers discriminate against union members. The two main union federations, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL), with a combined membership of over 85.000, have, together with the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), recently formed a new common labour federation, the so-called Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).

The unions are not officially politically affiliated to any party or movement, although the SFTU, SFL, SNAT, and now TUCOSWA, are part of the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), and openly advocate democratisation and socio-economic justice.

The Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC) was formed in 2010 and is “a broad coalition of progressive organisations inside Swaziland and in South Africa united around the demand for multiparty democracy in Swaziland,” aiming to create international attention on Swaziland. The connection with South Africa has been forged as a “common cause against oppression,” according to the founding document of the SDC, and is important because of the concurrent campaign in South Africa, Swaziland neighbour and main trade partner, by the SDC.

One of the important things that these organisations, not least the more party-political PUDEMO, need to have in place is a clear, concrete and coherent set of policies. Both so that they can “sell” the idea to the masses as a superior alternative to the present system, and so that they will succeed after such a system has been realised.

This also means that the democratic movement must focus on both the overarching political goals of democracy and the more limited, but tangible, daily goals of improving the conditions for the many poverty-stricken Swazis, and that they must ensure that any reforms are won from below by the efforts of the masses, not given from above.

“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,” says Morten Nielsen from Africa Contact, one of the few foreign NGO’s to work with and support the Swazi democratic movement. “And this set of policies for a future democratic Swaziland is not really there at present.”

Another important matter is that of democratic inclusivity. Without allowing the masses to play a major part in the democratisation of Swaziland, the democracy that will be the result of this process will be but an empty shell. True democratisation cannot be a top-down process. This is why civic education and increasing the internal democratic nature of the membership organisations (to serve as a concrete lesson in democracy and a framework for a future democratic society for members) is so important. And the importance of the yearlong consciousness building from below could be seen in the way the April 12 uprising was led, not by the few but by the many, and how it continued even after the entire leadership of the democratic movement was detained.

The April 12-15 uprising

Clearly worried about the scope and potential of the April 12 campaign and demonstrations, the regime and its police and security forces took many precautions. Its preparations for the April 12 uprising started well before the actual event. The Swazi army was sent for training in Pakistan and huge quantities of military hardware was recently bought (the military budget now being equivalent to the health budget). “We are spending a lot on the army but we are not anticipating what is happening in North Africa. The army is there to avoid such situations,” Finance Minister Majozi Sithole told French news agency, AFP.

The Swazi Senate had also mandated the Minister of labour and Social Security to try and prevent the demonstrations from happening, the Swazi media, perhaps pressurized by the regime, only quoted government sources and generally discredited the campaigners in what the Facebook campaigners called a “smear campaign,” and security forces were searching high and low for anyone suspected of being involved in the campaign.

The regime clearly also tried to intimidate Swazis into not participating in the demonstrations. Swaziland’s Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, had warned anyone considering doing so that his security forces would “crush the protests”, and police commissioner Isaac Magagula stated, “everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise.”

The regime is known for arresting people who are suspected of having any relation to the democratic movement whatsoever. That the Swazi police forces and armed forces do this with impunity is in no small part due to the 2006 constitution, which in effect declares all political parties to be terrorist organisations, and the Suppression of Terrorism Act, which defines terrorism in very sweeping terms. Swazi legislation thus gave the police and security forces almost unlimited powers to clamp down heavily on peaceful demonstrations on April 12 – powers that were widely employed.

The regime pre-emptively detained student leader Maxwell Dlamini and other key figures in the movement before April 12. Many others were detained between April 12 and April 15, the regime detaining the entire leadership of the unions, PUDEMO, the SUDF and the SDC, as well as anyone else they suspected of taking any part in the demonstrations in an attempt to bring the uprising to a standstill. Many people were arrested for simply going about their daily business and driven to far-away forests and left there to find their own way back.

“The security forces are literally grabbing everyone they can lay their hands on from the streets and detaining them,” said an SDC press statement from April 12. That the demonstrations therefore continued after the arrest of the entire leadership of the democratic movement is testament to the success of the democratic movement’s strategy of mass leadership and that the Swazi population are well and truly fed up with the regime.

And yet the protests continued unabated. Maybe because the demands of the protestors were democracy and socio-economic justice, as opposed to the demands of previous demonstrations in Swaziland for more specific and mundane matters such as higher salaries and against redundancies. This time round the protestors dared acknowledge and proclaim that all their previous and existing grievances have been caused by Mswati’s undemocratic and corrupt regime, says Sikelela Dlamini,

“It was pointless to continue to mount piecemeal one-day protests for shortage of hospital drugs, unreasonable electricity tariffs, withdrawal of government scholarships, wasteful public spending, and latterly mandatory pay cuts, etc., when all of these ills emanated from mismanagement inherent in the undemocratic Tinkhundla system of governance.”

That Swazis want democracy seems beyond doubt, although determining anything in a country that does not allow free and fair elections or a free press is obviously difficult. The increasing willingness to demonstrate for democratic change, regardless of the brutal response of the police, the decreasing numbers of voters in the present non-party election system where the king effectively decides everything, and one of the few studies of Swazi voter confidence in 1991, that gave “an overwhelming vote of no confidence [to the present Tindkundla system] by the majority of the people” more or less proves this point.

A Facebook uprising?

Much has been made of the use of these modern sources of communication in the campaign. It has even been claimed that announcing the Swazi uprising on Facebook weeks before it took place was a strategic ploy to reveal the true, brutal nature of the Swazi regime because the Facebook campaigners knew that the world’s press would be following Swaziland closely on April 12, and knew that the revolutionary language of the Facebook campaign would provoke a violent response of the Swazi regime. The brutal nature of the regime would thus become obvious for all to see, internationally and in Swaziland.

This strategy turned out to be something of a double-edged sword, however. “While Swaziland remains predominantly rural with limited Internet connectivity, the hype around an uprising managed to filter throughout the country,” says Sikelela Dlamini. “It generated unrealistic excitement and anticipation on the part of a general citizenry, who became spectators while the bulk of those who generated the Facebook hype also resided outside the country and could not coordinate activities on the ground to actuate their cyber aspirations.”

It also allowed the regime to be much better prepared for the demonstrators that it had been on the last large scale demonstration in Swaziland, on March 18 2011. Here the regime had seemed surprised at the numbers of demonstrators. Between 8000 and 10.000 marched on March 18, making it one of the biggest political demonstrations in the history of the country.

And as people in the mass-movement pushing for multi-party democracy in Swaziland have retorted, uprisings do not just spring up because they are announced on Facebook. They might be lit by a spark, as was literally the case in Tunisia, but they are fuelled and sustained by the years of groundwork undertaken by civil society organisations and political movements such as the FSEJ, the SUDF, PUDEMO, and the trade unions. These organisations have organized, conscientialised and prepared the masses for the moment the spark was lit.

“The years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice by cadres of the progressive movement, civil society and all social forces” are what have “made people aware of their problems,” says COSATU’s International Relations Secretary, and former Swaziland Solidarity Network general secretary, Bongani Masuku.

These organisations were probably also responsible for putting the bulk of the people on the streets that actually managed to bypass and brave the police roadblocks, random arrests and general intimidation and participate in the demonstrations.

They had called for demonstrations demanding socio-economic justice and democracy between April 12 and April 15, whereas the Facebook campaigners had a “more radical and broad approach that seeks to topple the government,” says Thamsance Tsabedze from FSEJ.

“The king must vacate office immediately,” the Facebook campaign stated on their website; “our aim is to remove the king and make sure there’s multiparty democracy,” said one of the instigators of the Facebook campaign, Pius Vilakati, a former Swazi student leader who is now exiled in South Africa, to the Mail & Guardian.

Was April 12 a success?

Judged by the numbers attending the protests or by the concrete results, the April 12 uprising was not as successful as the North African uprisings (although none of these countries have actually democratised yet either). Only a few thousand managed to evade the many police roadblocks and mass-arrests on April 12 and the following days of protest, and the King and his undemocratic regime is still in power.

And this is despite the Facebook campaign promising that “a hundred thousand men” (and presumably women) would “march into the country’s city centres to declare a 2011 democratic Swaziland free of all royal dominance” and the SUDF’s Sikelela Dlamini stating that “we are looking to put at least 20.000 disgruntled Swazis out on the streets.”

But perhaps we should judge the Swazi uprising not as a failed end result. Perhaps we should instead see it as a manifestation of a growing resoluteness amongst the people of Swaziland. PUDEMO certainly seemed to see it this way, saluting “the workers and the people of Swaziland for standing up to the hostile regime and press through their demands,” as a press statement put it.

The uprising was also an important step away from political apathy in Swaziland, an important step in bringing the sometimes-fragmented Swazi democratic movement together in demanding democratisation and socio-economic justice for all Swazis, and an important step in informing the world of the misdeeds of the Swazi regime.

Before April 12 most people outside Swaziland after all thought they knew the kingdom as a peaceful tourist destination, if they knew of the country at all. After the brutality of the Swazi regime on April 12 and the following days has been publicised in newspapers around the world, and condemned by countries such as the USA, the EU and South Africa, it will be very difficult for anyone to cling to this image of Swaziland.

And viewed in this light April 12 was a success that will hopefully prove to be the beginning of the end for Africa’s last absolute monarchy. As Richard Rooney, the editor of Swazi Media Commentary, probably the most extensive source of uncensored information before, during and after the uprising, said, “it might still be the day that led to something else.” Swazis will certainly be far less likely to accept reformist changes from the regime now. “The event sent a clear message to the regime that their end is nigh,” as Thamsanca Tsabedze put it.

Having said this, the democratic movement perhaps will have to reconsider its tactics for the future demonstrations to ensure that those demonstrating are not put in any needless danger and for these demonstrations to succeed in overthrowing the regime and bringing about a true democracy in Swaziland. “I think in the future the democratic movement will have to ensure that the information machinery is well oiled and that people are well mobilized and ready for any challenge,” Tsabedze concludes.

The future

What the eventual outcome will be of the Swazi uprising is perhaps too early to predict, as it is with the other uprisings in North Africa, the Middle East, and in occupied Western Sahara (which was, unbeknown to most people, the first country to experience an uprising in October, when a peaceful protest camp was attacked by Moroccan security forces).

What we can already say, however, is that the Swazi April 12 demonstrations, along with the mass demonstrations on March 18, have seemingly galvanised and incited not only those in the democratic movement in Swaziland, but also ordinary people who turned out in droves for the two occasions.

And what we can hear is that the unions have said that they will continue the uprising with monthly demonstrations against the Swazi regime, that the campaign to make the international community act continues unabated, and that there has been rumours that King Mswati is considering a controlled unbanning of political parties and a transitional system of democratic, multi-party elections in a desperate attempt to cling on to power.

The internal financial turmoil, where the IMF reported in January 2011 that “the debt dynamic [in Swaziland] is becoming unsustainable,” where the Swazi government has revealed that it will not be able to pay the salaries of its over 30.000 civil servants as of June 2011, should certainly ensure an increasing dissatisfaction with the regime and a good turnout for these demonstrations.

That Swaziland will have a system-change seems inevitable at this point. “April 12th – 15th may have come and gone; but its impact in shaping the socio-political direction of Swaziland will be felt many generations to come,” says Sikelela Dlamini. “It is very clear to every Swazi now that a return to multiparty democracy is not just inevitable, but also an imminent alternative. King Mswati III faces the unenviable choice to further resist and risk being pushed aside in Tunisia-, Egypt-, Yemen-, or Libya-style, or make hasty concessions and lose significant ground but save the institution of the monarchy from extinction.”

The only question that remains is thus whether change will come sooner or later, peacefully or not, whether such a new system will be truly participatory or not, and whether it will ensure socio-economic justice for the many poverty-stricken Swazis. If there is no change of system and government soon, the IMF is waiting in the wings, ready to demand the structural adjustments that demand financial, but not democratic, openness and reform (read: cutbacks and layoffs) that has been detrimental to the poor and middle classes in so many other African countries.

Whether the international community of governments, organisations and individuals, that according to Sikelela Dlamini “sacrifices the Swazi people on the alter of silence and shameless indifference,” will follow the lead of the democratic movement and finally start to exert some pressure on the Swazi regime for its crimes before, during and after April 12 is another matter, however.

This external pressure could be by way of smart sanctions, as PUDEMO and others including the SFTU have demanded for some time now, or by other measures. What is clear is that external pressure would probably ensure a more swift and peaceful democratisation, whereas the regime will probably respond with more violence towards the democratic movement if it feels it can get away with it internationally.

The U.S., the EU and South Africa could shut the regime down in a matter of days if they really wanted to. Over 90% of Swaziland’s imports and 60% of its exports are with South Africa, and the U.S. and EU are also significant trading partners.

The same goes for multinational companies such as Coca Cola in particular, who have a huge concentration plant in Swaziland because of the kingdom’s substantial sugar cane production. “Coca-Cola presently contributes about 40 percent of the kingdom’s gross domestic product,” according to Richard Rooney’s Swazi Media Commentary.

But since these countries and companies have chosen not to pressurize the regime on its human rights record and lack of democratisation up until now, and only look like taking small steps towards any public criticism of the Swazi regime after April 12, it will probably take public, civil society pressure from both inside and outside Swaziland to make them change their minds.

There are already voices within South Africa, North America and the EU that have been calling for democratisation and socio-economic justice in Swaziland for some time now, such as ACTSA in Great Britain, Africa Contact in Denmark, and COSATU, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign and the Swaziland Solidarity Network in South Africa.

Those who truly and selflessly wish to help Swaziland achieve these goals must be cautious, however. ‘International support’ and ‘partnership’ are concepts that have often been distorted and misused to serve the purposes of more or less disguised neo-imperialist agendas over the years – not least in Africa.

The foreign governments, NGO’s and others outside Swaziland must understand that struggle for inclusive democratisation and socio-economic justice in Swaziland cannot be dictated from New York, London, Beijing or Pretoria.

For what is the use of all the talk of democracy and human rights if it really means that Swaziland, and other countries in Africa, are to be steered from afar yet again?


Further reading:

ACTSA’s Swaziland campaign: http://www.actsa.org/page-1223-Swaziland.html

Africa Contact’s Swaziland campaign: http://afrika.dk/frit-swaziland

About COSATU’s Swaziland campaign: http://www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=1722&cat=Campaigns

PUDEMO: http://www.pudemo.org/

Swaziland Democracy Campaign: http://www.swazidemocracy.org/home.htm

Swazi Media Commentary: http://swazimedia.blogspot.com/

Swaziland Solidarity Network: http://www.ssnonline.net/

Swaziland United Democratic Front: http://sudfinfo.wordpress.com/

Visit Swaziland unofficial tourist site: http://visitswaziland.wordpress.com


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