Swazi union leaders singing. (See video below.)
Dissent is growing in Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy. The country’s two major labour unions recently merged into one federation, named the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), which is now pushing for democratic reforms to the government’s structure. The government officially dissolved TUCOSWA last week, but that did not stop the group from calling for a pro-democracy protest.
The labour activists, joined by students, attempted to demonstrate in Swaziland’s capital Mbabane on Thursday, despite a court order banning the protest. They were not surprised when they were met with large numbers of soldiers and policemen, and had to call off their demonstration.
The date chosen for the failed protest, April 12, is an historically significant one. On April 12, 1973, the former king banned all political parties and the constitution, marking the country’s transition from a British-style constitutional monarchy to a simple monarchy.
Last year on the same date, pro-democracy activists had already tried to stage a protest, which was brutally squashed by the police. Since then, dozens of smaller protests have rattled the country, but Thursday’s show of force seemed to indicate that the kingdom was not ready to tolerate any large-scale expression of dissent.
Delegates of Swaziland's newly-formed (and quickly banned) TUCOSWA trade union congress singing during a meeting.
“The park where we were supposed to meet was full of hundreds of armed troops and policemen”
Vincent Dlamini is the National Organising Secretary of the labour union umbrella group TUCOSWA.
We were supposed to meet in the capital, in Coronation Park. When we arrived there this morning, we discovered it was already full of hundreds of armed troops and policemen. They arrested anyone who tried to enter the park, and put them in police vans that took them away. Several of our leaders had already been arrested last night; more were arrested on the scene. Meanwhile, protesters who were driving in from other cities encountered roadblocks; they were told they were not allowed to go to the capital and were forced to turn back. So around midday we realized we had no chance, and decided to call off the protest.Our federation was recently banned from operating because the government claimed that the merging of two unions did not conform to the law. However, we all know that the real reason for banning us is because we passed a resolution calling for Swaziland to be ruled under a democratic, multiparty system. There are no checks and balances in our current system; the king appoints and fires whoever he wants, and the people have no say. We would prefer a system where the monarch is a ceremonial figurehead, and an elected prime minister would wield the real power. Elections are supposed to be held next year; we’ve decided that unless multiple parties are allowed to run, we’ll call on the 60,000 workers we represent to boycott the vote. [Swaziland has a population of only 1.2 million people.]“We cannot afford to pay more taxes just to feed the family that is running the country”We wanted to hold a protest today for several reasons: of course, to ask for multiparty elections, and to ask the government to let us register as an official organisation again, but also to protest against the imposition of a 14 percent value-added tax on most basic goods, which was introduced on April 1. This tax is impoverishing workers, and we have reason to believe the money won’t go towards bettering life for the impoverished people of Swaziland. [Two-thirds of the population lives on less than one dollar a day]. This country’s corrupt government is grossly mismanaging its finances. [According to the International Monetary Fund, the government has overspent on travel, defence and a brand-new airport, while slashing public services]. We cannot afford to pay more taxes just to feed the family that is running the country and a few other elites.
Swazi diaspora protests in sympathy
Swazi expatriates living in South Africa, as well as others sympathetic to their cause, held a small protest in Johannesburg Thursday in sympathy with pro-democracy protesters back in Swaziland. Photos published on Twitter by GCAP-SA.