Sunday, November 10, 2013

Little changes in Swaziland

 King Mswati III of Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarch, was claiming to have received a vision from God. Coming in between two rounds of parliamentary elections, the King's spokesperson announced that Mswati said he had been told by God to make his kingdom a "monarchial democracy". Many of the country's opposition groups and activists - many of whom are exiled in neighbouring South Africa - ridiculed the news, highlighting the monarch's undemocratic record and criticising the elections as superficial window-dressing.

In the final round of Swaziland's parliamentary elections in September, over 400,000 Swazi voters cast their ballots to elect 55 MPs. However, the vote was again held according to an electoral system known as tinkhundla, which was implemented in the 1970s and under which political parties are not allowed to participate. In protest, Swaziland's main opposition party, the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), boycotted the elections, calling the polls a farce and a sham designed to maintain the King's absolute rule.

 Last week when Mswati summoned his kingdom to a sibaya (a cultural gathering) at his royal residence where he re-appointed Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini as Prime Minister for a fourth time, and perhaps dashed completely when it was announced yesterday that the new cabinet would include eight members of the old guard.

Indeed, keeping with tradition and continuity following the election, Mswati selected 10 MPs in addition to the elected 55, and re-appointed Dlamini, of the Dlamini clan, as Prime Minister. Mswati's unsurprising choice of a tried-and-tested monarchist and conservative to head government further cements the Dlamini clan's political legacy. Establishing their dominance through military conquest, absorption and subjugation of other smaller or weaker clans since the 1400s, the Dlaminis in present-day Swaziland continue to rule and dominate as its members occupy influential positions as traditional chiefs, royal advisors and top-ranking civil servants thereby reinforcing Mswati's power.

PM Dlamini is himself a member of the royal family and one of the country's longest-serving premiers. Meanwhile, the new senate composed of 30 senators - 20 chosen by the king and 10 elected by parliament - consists of six of the King's brothers and sisters as well as 14 loyalists including the controversial acting chief of KoNtshingila, Gelane Zwane, whose senatorial appointment sparked protest in her southern district of Shiselweni resulting in a heavy-handed state intervention. With a selection of family and trusted allies to keep a watchful eye on things, the King appears keen to maintain the status quo rather than yield to calls - whether domestic, international, or other-worldly - for democratic reform. Dlamini's return to the helm does not bode well for an improvement in labour relations. Many are mindful of the hostile relationship between the state and the unions.

As well as packing decision-making positions with loyalists, Mswati also seems to be trying to curb any potential influence the few opposition figures who managed to get elected might have. Following the announcement of the election results on 21 September, Dlamini banned all private meetings between newly-elected MPs. On several occasions legislators tried to hold private lunches to discuss voting strategies for electing their ten members of the senate, but they had to be cancelled after the prime minister threatened police action if MPs held meetings other than those convened by parliament. Like their predecessors, it seems Swaziland's new MPs' wings have already been clipped.

Much has been made of the election of trade unionist and anti-government activist Jan Sithole; the new MP for Manzini North is seen as a potential reformer and voice of dissent. Apart from Sithole, former teachers' union activists, Phineas Magagula and Saladin Magagula, as well as controversial youth activist Titus Thwala could be among those calling for change.  Shortly after their election, both former teacher activists quickly withdrew their previous criticism of the monarchy and promised to serve dutifully. Phineas Magagula was rewarded by becoming Minister for Education, a position which could suggest open-mindedness on the part of Mswati, but can also be seen as a way to ensure a potential dissenter toes the line. Meanwhile, at last week's official introduction of legislators to the King, Sithole pledged his allegiance to the Crown, raising eyebrows in both pro-monarchist and opposition circles. It is too early to predict what this might mean, but it is important to remember that given the overwhelming majority of monarchists and moderates in government, it is unlikely a minority will change the system from within no matter how outspoken.

Last year, during a wave of industrial action in the education and public transport sectors, thousands of members of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) took to the streets calling for a 4.5% salary increase. After weeks of striking, other workers unions marched in solidarity demanding the same increment. However, rather than engage in dialogue with the protesters, the state, commanded by Dlamini, responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and widespread arrests. The salaries of striking teachers were slashed by 33% and government sought a court order to declare the strike illegal and have SNAT's leaders imprisoned.

Click here for Tendai Marima’s full article

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