Democracy on a silver platter

Linus (2) blog”When we got our independence from the UK in 1968 it was given to us on a silver platter. The people of Swaziland didn’t understand or have to fight for their democracy”, Linus Mavimbela tells me. Five years after independence, the Swazi king introduced a state of emergency, banned all political parties, and turned Swaziland into a repressive absolute monarchy.

Linus Mavimbela is a leading member of the People’s United Democratic Movement in Swaziland. He was in Copenhagen to follow the Danish elections that were held on June 18, invited by the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy and the Danish political party The Red-Green Alliance.

Politicians are servants, not masters
Amongst other things, Linus Mavimbela visited poll stations and joined the campaign tour of Red-Green Alliance MP Christian Juhl. He was above all impressed with the humility of the Danish politicians.

“You can see that Danish politicians are servants, whereas in much of Africa they are masters. Christian, in his campaign, responded to even the smallest communities and took the time to answer all questions honestly and patiently. And the Danish PM graciously accepted losing the election, which is rarely something you see in Africa”, he says.

Democracy cannot be transplanted
But Denmark is after all one of the richest countries in the world. In Swaziland, on the other hand, most of the population live in the rural areas, and two thirds of Swazis survive on less than a dollar a day. This state of affairs is kept in place by the fact that absolute monarch Mswati III has banned political parties, imprisons and tortures dissidents and generally controls all aspects of Swazi society, says Linus Mavimbela .

He therefore doesn’t believe that democracy can be transplanted wholesale from Denmark to Swaziland.

“The heart of what is wrong in Swaziland is lack of democracy, but if you look at the Danish and Swazi systems, there is nothing that we can immediately use. However, not all that long ago Denmark was also an absolute monarchy just like Swaziland, which shows that there is hope for us too”, he says.

Participants not spectators
Linus Mavimbela believes that democracy must be fought for and practised on a practical level as well as theoretically, and with the population at large as participants, not spectators.

“It is very important that the people of Swaziland understand the value of democracy. But it is equally important that that we build institutions and organisations that ingrain democracy in them and continue the debate about democracy after it has been won. When the people have experienced democracy hands-on they will defend it”, he says.

Win from within
But it is one thing to prepare for democracy by civic education and other means, which has been an ongoing process in Swaziland for many years and which is a necessary precondition for any successful democratisation. Actually winning the struggle against a brutal dictatorship is a different and a more dangerous matter altogether, says Linus Mavimbela.

“We therefore have to engage the regime from all angles. We need more pressure from the international community and governments such as the Danish and other EU governments on issues such as human rights abuses and lack of democracy, for sure. But in the end you can only do so much. We need to fight more vigorously to also win the struggle from within – also to show the international community that we are serious about democracy and worth supporting”, he says.

Danish support
Looking out of his hotel window on the vibrant if cool Copenhagen summer evening, Linus tells me that he is happy that Denmark is in fact doing a lot for the cause of democracy in Swaziland already.

“I hope that one day soon we will be able to repay the Danes by turning Swaziland into a democratic state. But as is the case all over the world, democracy is never granted or given. It must be taken and then fought for every day”.

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