Absolute monarch in talks with banned political parties

Mario Masuku_smallSwaziland has been an absolute monarchy for decades, but absolute monarch King Mswati III is being pressed by both the country’s democratic movement, the Commonwealth and the EU to discuss democratic reforms.

“At the moment the king regards us as people who want to destroy the country, but once we have talked with him he will know what the people want”, says president of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Mario Masuku. He is speaking of the possibility of a meeting, talks or even negotiations between Swaziland’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, who has ruled Swaziland almost single-handedly for nearly 30 years, and the country’s Democratic Movement.

The prospect of any dialogue between PUDEMO, Swaziland’s arguably largest pro-democratic party or movement that, like all other parties in the country, is banned, and the absolute monarch who has banned them and who treats them as terrorists, has been brokered by the Commonwealth. The intergovernmental organization has previously criticized the rule of Mswati and recently sent a delegation to Swaziland to meet with Swazi civil society.

”The Commonwealth had said to the king that there are people who are not happy with the way the country is governed. The king wanted to know who and why and was told that it was members of civil society. The king then asked for a meeting that we believe may evolve towards a dialogue of sorts”, says Mario Masuku.

Conditions for dialogue
Regardless of how and when such a meeting takes place, PUDEMO has several demands if they are to attend.

“Every person attending must have a right to express themselves at such a meeting. The king must commit himself to the dialogue in the form of a declaration that cannot be renounced. All laws that hinder progress must be removed, including the Suppressions of Terrorism Act”, says Masuku, who is himself charged under the act for shouting “viva PUDEMO” on May Day 2014. He could face 15 years in prison if convicted.

Other conditions are that all political parties must be unbanned, intimidation of political activists and human rights defenders must stop, all political exiles must be allowed to return to Swaziland unconditionally, and the 1973 proclamation where the king’s father assumed supreme power in Swaziland must be annulled. “These are the main issues that need to be resolved for us to have a proper dialogue”, insists Mario Masuku.

Nevertheless, he is hopeful that if PUDEMO actually get to talk to the king and if there is a “climate of open doors” and a national dialogue, then progress can be made. But any progress will have to point towards and lead to multi-party democracy, he says, guided by a road map and time frame for a process towards democratic national elections in 2018.

“The end result must be free and fair national elections, starting with talks about talks behind closed doors. The outcome of these talks should be a national convention where all the organisations will make up a constituent assembly. This assembly will in turn give birth to an electoral committee, after which we will be able to hold free and fair elections”, says Masuku.

Talks and mobilisation go hand in hand
Dialogue, talks and negotiations are just one part of PUDEMO’s strategy and struggle for multiparty democracy in Swaziland, however, Mario Masuku says.

“Negotiations are part of our strategy towards this end goal. But we will not abandon our mass mobilisation, our empowerment of our members, or promoting our cause internationally. We understand that we will only be successful if we have some kind of leverage. The ANC’s leverage was the armed struggle, our leverage is the masses on the ground, not guns and bombs”, he says.

He also insists that ordinary Swazis will be a guiding force for PUDEMO if actual talks and negotiations, that include PUDEMO and the rest of the democratic movement in Swaziland, take place.

“The people on the ground will let us know if these talks are a waste of time. If we are not talking about how they will be represented in parliament and how we can help the poor, the talks will not be a success”, he insists.

Growing pressure on the king
So why has the prospect of dialogue, and potentially emerging from such a dialogue, talks and negotiations, come about now?

According to Mario Masuku, the reason is a combination between internal pressure and a growing pressure from outside Swaziland.

“There has been pressure from the ILO, especially in regard to amending the Suppression of Terrorism Act and other laws. There has been pressure from the EU, who are big trading partners, give substantial amounts of money to Swaziland, and who are not happy about the human rights situation in the country. And there has been pressure from the USA, who withdrew Swaziland’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act with all the benefits that went with it for Swaziland. The international pressure has helped and inside Swaziland there is noise too”, he says.

Masuku believes that this pressure has manifested itself in a pattern of progress recently that includes the unbanning of Swaziland’s trade union congress, TUCOSWA, the release of political prisoners Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, the sacking of corrupt chief justice Michael Ramodibedi, and the release on bail of himself and youth activist Maxwell Dlamini.

But king Mswati does not seem willing to just hand over power of the country that he has ruled with absolute power for nearly three decades. A delegation from Swaziland is currently touring Europe to try and convince EU politicians to try and avert EU threats of sanctions against Swaziland if the country does not reform its political system, says Mario Masuku. And such a delegation might conceivably also try to twist the truth about the human rights and political situation in the country.

Land, health, education and climate
But should dialogue end up leading to talks, talks to negotiations, and negotiations to multiparty elections that PUDEMO end up winning, what is PUDEMO’s vision for a democratic Swaziland, what do they believe are the most pertinent and important issues to be solved?

“The first issue is that of land”, says Mario Masuku. “The majority of people in Swaziland live in the rural areas without the right to the land they live on and cultivate. They are evicted by chiefs doing the king’s bidding at will. People must own their own land”.

“Health is equally important. Many people in Swaziland suffer from curable diseases such as tuberculosis. In my area there is no clinic within a radius of 10 kilometres. You cannot live a life like this”, says Masuku.

Another important matter is that of education, he says.

“People can’t afford scholarships to university. And those who do manage to finish their degree find that there are no jobs for them. We need a plan for how many teachers and engineers we need, so that there are jobs for them when the finish their degrees, and we need free primary education”.

Finally, Mario Masuku mentions the environment as an important and all-encompassing issue that needs to be resolved by a future democratic government.

“There is little being done now on the environment. Before we start properly industrializing, we must ensure that we consider things such as biodiversity and global warming, as these matters are of the utmost importance for both us and future generations”, concludes Mario Masuku.

Negotiations will be a battlefield
Before PUDEMO are able to wield any parliamentary power, there almost certainly lies a long and difficult road of dialogue, talks and negotiations ahead of them.

And regardless of the pressure and subsequent progress that is being made in Swaziland towards such dialogue with the absolute monarch, Mario Masuku is still only cautiously optimistic.

“It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well our king treasures authority and power, as well as his immense resources, and will not easily give them up. Any negotiations will therefore be a fierce battle, and we are yet to see how he will react to talks of taking away the power he wields or his private investment funds”, he says.

“And even if the king agrees to become a constitutional monarch, he still wields a lot of power through the traditional authorities. All these matters must be resolved before any process towards a democratic Swaziland of the future can be set in motion”, says Mario Masuku.

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