15 September 2011
Pretoria's Conditions Tie Mbabane's Hands
The relative restraint shown by the Swazi government during the five days of rolling protests across the country last week demonstrate Mbabane's increasing recognition that survival hinges on how it is seen to be handling the democracy demands of its citizens.
Though many within the Swazi pro-democracy movement initially lambasted South Africa for agreeing to the R2,4-billion (US$351-million) bailout for Africa's last monarchic autocracy, they recognise that the first basket of conditions attached to the loan, dealing with general democratic reforms, has forced the Swazi government to give a freer rein to opposition protests.
Swaziland remains in desperate financial straits that well exceed what the loan from South Africa could cover. Despite profligate spending on capital projects deemed by international finance institutions to be unwarranted, budget payments of some R300-million each year to the royal household, and footing Africa's highest public sector wage bill - of 18% of GDP - the government is unable and unwilling to reverse its fiscal demise. On top of this, the roughly one-million-strong population suffers the world's highest HIV and TB rates and a devastatingly low average life expectancy of just 31 years.
Since news of the loan from South Africa was announced, the government of King Mswati III has sought to restrain its more overt autocratic impulses. For much of the time, last week's protests, which were designated as a "global week of action" and were coordinated by the umbrella formation the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), had the authorities on the defensive. Though hardly global, the week of actions saw parallel protests in solidarity with Swaziland's democracy movement by groups in the UK, Denmark, Germany and, closer to home, in South Africa.
In Swaziland the events were more confrontational and assertive than at any time before - protesters are more ready to take on the government, ridicule the monarch and criticise traditional institutions that only a few months ago appeared unassailable.
As popular confidence grows, the tinkhundla system of representation within an abstruse system of chieftainships and monarchic control is falling apart. So is the sacrosanct status of the monarch, which has often been used to cow dissent. Mswati was booed and heckled when he attended a football match in Manzini in early August, and during the week of protests he was directly and vociferously lambasted more than at any time during his 25-year reign. This, and the often openly fractious relations between the king and members of the royal family deployed in top state jobs, is increasingly demystifying the royal edifice in the eyes of ordinary Swazis.
None of this can be attributed to a greater tolerance of dissent on the part of all the king's men. Though the king and his advisory council, the Swaziland National Committee, have been meeting behind closed doors to work out how to manage the clamour for democratic change, their efforts have been focused more on damage limitation than on reform.
Whatever leverage South Africa's conditions on lending cash may bring, and no matter how weirdly the brittle royal regime feigns the dexterity of listening to its opponents, the emboldened atmosphere of dissent is clearly rooted in the mounting frustration of Mswati's not-so-loyal subjects.
The government's unsubtle efforts to stage-manage forums of dialogue and political pluralism, offering minimalist versions of the demands of the democracy movement, have been gleefully exposed by the regime's opponents, both inside Swaziland and in exile in South Africa.
It was no surprise, then, that the slogans and chants of the People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and its youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco), both banned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, were conspicuous in the demonstrations, which numbered between 500 and 5 000 supporters.
In Mbabane on the first day of action, protestors burnt the textile images of Mswati that predominate on traditional dress, a previously inconceivable act of defiance. During a demonstration in Manzini later in the week about 1 000 protesters surrounded the city's police station to demand information on the fate of Pudemo member Sipho Jele, who died in police custody following a May Day rally last year. Unlike earlier weeks of action, protests were held in Swaziland's smaller localities, reaching people in rural communities, and organisers say that they were able to reach significantly more of the population.
This was all in marked contrast to previous pro-democracy days of action when the police and security forces constantly had the upper hand. Jele himself had been arrested and allegedly murdered in police custody simply for wearing a Pudemo T-shirt. During the last attempt at mass protest, in April this year, the police thwarted anti-government demonstrators by detaining prominent activists, roughing them up and dumping them in remote parts of the country. So pre-emptive were the government's efforts to stamp out the protests that trade unions, Pudemo and other activists were forced to rethink the wisdom of attempting to hold large-scale rallies in Swaziland's small urban spaces, in which a strong show of force by the authorities would inevitably prevail.
Now, the government is evidently feeling the effects of going through the motions of entertaining pluralistic democratic change - the price of receiving desperately-needed cash. This conditionality is not only a feature of the loan agreed with Pretoria; it is also implicit in any prospects of eventually receiving sizeable non-project budget assistance from the European Union. Brussels has long made clear that in its current state the Swazi government does not qualify for financial aid.
At the same time, the other conditions tied to Pretoria's loan replicate and extend those proposed ad nauseam by the International Monetary Fund.
They include instituting massive cuts to the eye-wateringly large public wage bill and trimming down the civil service by 7 000 jobs. The conditions further pit the government against Swaziland's powerful public sector trade unions, which form the bona fide muscle of the pro-democracy movement. As if this were not enough, the conditions also stipulate against continued government spending on things the king, his ministers and MPs are wholly loath to relinquish. These include forking out the last annual instalments for the R2-billion second international airport at Sikhuphe (Swaziland has no national airline) and doing away with the notorious government Circular 1 of last year, which provides for lucrative financial perks for ministers and MPs.
Devoid of a coherent strategy, the government is reduced to running on the spot. On a few occasions during last week's protests the authorities looked as if they would act according to past form. The police tried to clear several rallies with tear gas and rubber bullets; the leaders of Pudemo and Swayoco were forcibly prevented from addressing demonstrators in Mbabane; student union activists were beaten and detained; and the deputy president of South Africa's Cosatu, who was to speak in Siteke, was detained and deported.
But though gaining in severity as the days of protest unfolded, such incidents were uncoordinated and sporadic.
Government rhetoric against its opponents was also less contentious than during past protests. There was no more talk of "evil forces" or the "enemy within" from the king and the prime minister. Instead it was left to Labour Ministry principal secretary Nomathemba Hlophe to grumble that trade unions had breached agreement that they would confine their demands to taxing the royal-owned investment cornucopia Tibiyo TakaNgwane (Vol 29 No 22) and urging a review of the working conditions of textile employees. Instead, he objected, they had turned the protests into political rallies demanding the unbanning of political parties, return of exiles, freeing of political prisoners and an end to the tinkhundla system.
The more permissive attitude of the government to its opponents is combined with much foot dragging on the reforms supposed to be carried out to secure the three tranches of South Africa's loan (see Mswati stalls on signing in this issue).
According to trade union and pro-democracy leaders this indicates that beneath its apparent quiet inertia the government and the king are frenetically in search of alternative cash sources that have so far proved elusive. They are allergic to the reforms entailed by Pretoria's bailout, but believe they must allow the pro-democracy movement to let off enough steam in order to appease their less exacting critics.
- The creeping paralysis within the Swazi government is increasingly creating a space for new political formations intent on seizing the centre ground of the country's political life. Political parties remain formally banned in Swaziland, but as opposition intensifies, new political players are appearing. Just days before the start of the protests, former Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Jan Sithole announced the launch in Manzini of the Swazi Democratic Party (Swadepa). This coincided with a hasty birth announcement by the National Congress for Democratic Change (Nacodec). Details of the programmes and membership of the new formations remain scanty.
Wary SUDF organisers of last week's rallies barred the new political parties from addressing the protests. The six-month old Communist Party of Swaziland complained that the ban was extended to include its speaking, despite its strong links with the labour movement.
Government spokesperson Macanjana Motsa later said that if political parties wanted to be unbanned they would have to formally apply to the state. This is the first official hint that the government may consider lifting the ban on political parties. It is unclear whether this applies to the Pudemo, which is not just banned but was declared to be a "terrorist entity" in 2009 by Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini.