Australia, Asian and the Pacific Region
August 14, 2006
State violence against SWAYOCO: a reflection on Commonwealth and Sibahle Sinje complacence about political repression in Swaziland.
For ten years the Commonwealth Secretariat has been misleading the international community by promising that a new constitution would bring about political change in Swaziland. It refused to listen to public concerns about the arbitrary and discriminatory approach to the constitution making process. The process excluded political party participation and was purely driven by the royal family and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Consequently, the new constitution is a product of a negotiated deal between the royal family and the Commonwealth. Many Swazis have come out to disown it.
PUDEMO and its youth wing, SWAYOCO, reaffirm the people’s commitment to continue the struggle for a system of governance that reflects the public’s aspiration for a new culture of responsible governance and respect for human rights. The recent peaceful protest led by SWAYOCO on August 5, 2005 is a reflection of this commitment. Since the adoption of the new constitution, PUDEMO and SWAYOCO have organised numerous peaceful protests which were all violently suppressed by the police. Surprisingly, no public statement was ever issued by the Commonwealth calling upon the government to stop this brutality. However, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon was quick to condemn the so-called bombings in Swaziland. The government and the local media accused and persecuted our members of “bombing” state infrastructure between 2005 and 2006. A total of sixteen PUDEMO and SWAYOCO members were charged with High Treason and are now on bail awaiting trial under the new constitution supported by the Commonwealth. Under this Constitution, a conviction of High Treason can result in the death penalty.
When King Mswati III signed the controversial constitution in February 2006, the Commonwealth Secretariat renewed its commitment to support the dictatorship. On behalf of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, pledged further support to assist the Government of Swaziland to implement the constitution despite widespread public rejection of this law. Ultimately, this means that the Commonwealth is fully behind the application of the death penalty and would support the execution of our members if convicted on these trumped up charges.
In many of its deceitful statements, the Commonwealth Secretariat hid behind inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the constitution. The assumption is that the Bill of Rights guarantees and protects basic freedoms such as freedom of expression, association and assembly. We argued that the Bill of Rights will have no meaning and effect under the current political order. The royal family made it clear throughout the constitution making process that it is opposed to a Bill of Rights. It was only adopted as a deal between the Commonwealth and the royal family to give a semblance of respectability to the constitution. In this regard, the Commonwealth acted as a political spin-doctor for the regime and never, at any stage, showed any deep concern about the protection of basic rights and freedoms in Swaziland. Hence, to the general population these freedoms and rights remain an illusion. The judiciary is helpless because it has limited powers to enforce the Bill of Rights. Past experiences show that when the judiciary takes decisions to protect citizens against abuse of power by the state, the royal family moves swiftly and aggressively against such decisions and attacks the judiciary itself.
In 2002, the royal family government responded ruthlessly to the High Court’s decision to hear a case against the abduction of a school girl. It was alleged that she was abducted in order to forcefully marry her to King Mswati III. The government ordered the High Court to abandon the abduction case.
In the same year, the royal family responded ruthlessly to the Court of Appeal’s ruling to protect 200 families from Macetjeni and KaMkhweli who were cruelly evicted from their homes. In this case, the government ordered the police to disobey the Court of Appeal’s ruling. This threw the rule of law into crisis at the time when public dissent against the constitution making process was particularly intense.
As Swaziland teetered on the brink of becoming a failed state, its parliament failed the country completely. Not a single member of parliament questioned the eviction and the vicious attack on the administration of justice because it was sanctioned by the royal family. Under the new constitution, King Mswati and his family continue to enjoy total immunity from legal prosecution and political scrutiny. The courts will not prosecute him if complaints are levelled against him in his capacity as a head of state and overseer of government business. Parliament is under his iron grip and will not, under any circumstances, challenge or investigate his decisions.
The manner in which the Commonwealth dealt with the judicial issue in Swaziland was appalling. Its primary concern was to avoid a complete collapse of its constitution making project. In order to appease the royal family, it took up the role of travel agent to rebuild the damaged image of the royal family government in the international arena. Commonwealth officials told the international community that the government was doing its best to resolve the crisis. In September 2004, the government and the Commonwealth announced that the crisis was now resolved yet this was far from truth. The abduction case was never reopened and the evicted residents of Macetjeni and KaMkhweli were not allowed to return under the conditions set by the Court of Appeal. Ultimately, they returned to their homes under the conditions outlined by the royal family. Two senior police officers, including the Commissioner of Police, were found guilty of contempt of court because of their actions in blocking the execution of the Court of Appeal’s order. However, they have never been arrested and there has never been any attempt to bring the executive to account for its actions in denying the authority of the judiciary and bringing the rule of law to the point of collapse. When The Director of Public Prosecution, Lincoln Ng’arua, brought charges against the Attorney-General for his role in this matter, he was summarily dismissed from his job.
In its approach to the judicial crisis, the Commonwealth showed no concern about the gross violation of basic human rights and naked abuse of state power in Swaziland. The organisation did not concern itself with the evicted families and it offered no humanitarian assistance. We are yet to find public records of any Commonwealth expression of serious concern about the culture of bad governance in Swaziland and the poor human rights reputation of this regime. There is no substantial evidence to suggest that the existence of the Commonwealth-sponsored constitution has had positive impact with regard to the way in which Swaziland is governed. Violation of human rights, bad governance and political repression continue unabated.
As long as there is no political will and no commitment within the royal family to genuine political change in Swaziland, the Bill of Rights will remain meaningless. As has been shown by the recent police violence and determination to suppress demands for multi-party democracy, the state will continue to undermine the Bill of Rights with impunity. This clearly demonstrates the political bankruptcy of this regime. A regime that violates its own laws is morally and politically bankrupt. This is the prominent feature of the royal family government and the Commonwealth.
As we have stated on numerous occasions, the Commonwealth’s support and approval of a repressive political system in Swaziland is in stark contrast with its principles outlined in the Harare Declaration of 1991. It calls into serious question the ethics of the Commonwealth, particularly the Secretary-General who described the constitution “as a brilliant piece of work” (Swazi Observer, March 17, 2006). McKinnon honoured “…His Majesty King Mswati, who deserves our admiration for his own vision and statesmanship in having made it possible for this Nation to embrace constitutional rule” (Swazi Observer, February 19, 2006).
McKinnon must come to terms with the political reality in Swaziland. There is no constitutional rule in Swaziland. The government is cherry-picking in applying the provisions of the constitution, particularly when this concerns freedoms and rights. Why would police violently suppress peaceful protests with impunity if there is constitutional rule in Swaziland? What is the Commonwealth doing about this?
There is, therefore, demonstrated evidence that the Commonwealth and the royal family were not sincere when they included the Bill of Rights in the constitution. The primary object, it seems, is to trap and appease critics into believing that something good had at least come out of a bad process. This was the Commonwealth Secretariat trump card which it used successfully to mislead the international community. The Commonwealth continues to peddle this lie about the Bill of Rights. It recently told a Canadian Member of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick that the constitution is working well and political parties are now allowed in Swaziland. This statement is misleading at best and deceitful at worst. There is no mention of political parties in the constitution and there is no provision for parties to contest elections with the aim of winning over government. There is no single political party that has been legally registered in Swaziland. The government rejected an application for registration by the Ngwane National Liberation Congress (NNLC) - one of the pro-democracy movements.
It is irresponsible on the part of the Commonwealth not to inform the Canadian Member of the Legislative Assembly that the constitution making process does not enjoy the blessing of the majority of Swazis. Consequently, its legitimacy is highly questionable. A significant section of the population, including all pro-democracy groups, the labour movement and the church, has disowned the constitution. Even the chiefs, the most trusted ally of royal family, have now come out to disowned the constitution.
When the Commonwealth, through its representative Chief Adefuye, tried to bully us into accepting the constitution, we refused to participate in our own oppression. We reminded the Commonwealth of its obligation to the Harare Declaration of 1991 and that we will hold the organisation responsible for the continued repression and total neglect of the wellbeing of our people. By participating and continuing to support a constitution which gives false hope, the Commonwealth has turned against our people. This is a dereliction of political responsibility and duty of care to our people as citizens of the Commonwealth. It is a rude departure from the core principles of the organisation. We regard this position as a commitment to assist repression in Swaziland. It is a reflection of a determined world body to stand by the dictatorial regime as it bullies our people and suppresses political dissent.
Since the signing of the constitution into law, business has gone on as usual. PUDEMO and its youth wing, SWAYOCO, have been ruthlessly suppressed through false accusations and naked displays of violence. Recently, SWAYOCO peaceful protests in different parts of the country were violently crushed by trigger-happy police. Two of the peaceful protesters sustained serious gun shots and scores more were injured. Attempts to get medical treatment were not successful because the hospitals in Swaziland have been run down because of government neglect. As usual, the recent police violence escalated to indiscriminate attacks against members of the public who had not even participated in the protest, including children. We hold the Commonwealth responsible for this violence against our people.
Whilst the police were breaking up the SWAYOCO protest, the royal family’s surrogate political organisation, Sibahle Sinje, enjoyed all the luxuries associated with Swazi royalty during its 10th anniversary. Commonly referred to as a cultural organisation, Sibahle Sinje has declared itself a political movement. Its primary intention is to further entrench the absolute powers of the royal family in Swaziland politics. It was not surprising that the government spokesperson, Percy Simelane, immediately invited Sibahle Sinje to register with the government as a political party. This is bizarre given that the same government rejected NNLC’s application. Most importantly, there is no provision in the constitution for the registration of political parties.
Like the Commonwealth Secretariat, Sibahle Sinje pursues a double agenda. On one hand, it claims to advocate democratic change and on the other hand it is committed to the protection of the very system that resists calls for democracy. Similarly, the Commonwealth Secretariat prides itself as an organisation founded on strong democratic and human rights principles yet it actively encourages and assists human rights violations in Swaziland.
In its involvement in Swaziland, the Commonwealth Secretariat has aggressively pursued the idea of changing the system from within. It has bullied political organisations opposed to this approach and awarded those which share its ideas. The tactics used by Sibahle Sinje to recruit from the ranks of the ruling royal elite and to participate actively in formal politics, are consistent with the Commonwealth’s agenda. Ironically, Sibahle Sinje was established in 1996 when the Commonwealth actively entered Swaziland politics to rescue the royal family from a major crisis of political legitimacy. At the time, the regime was crumbling under sustained mass uprisings led by the labour and pro-democracy movements. Sibahle Sinje saw this as a threat to the monarchy and launched an aggressive fear campaign arguing that the movement for democracy would erode the nation’s cultural identity.
The use of culture as an ideology of fear and source of political power in Swaziland has a long history. It was used in the pre-independence campaign to delegitimise pro-multi party democracy movements such as the NNLC. In his infamous Proclamation to the Nation of 1973, Sobhuza II, father of the current king, used culture to justify his ruthless attack on basic political and human rights. Sobhuza II argued that multi-party parliamentary democracy and individual freedoms are unSwazi and would generate cultural disharmony. As evidenced by the recent police violence against SWAYOCO and the prohibition of political party participation in governance under the new constitution, this Proclamation remains effective. Culture remains a powerful ideology of fear and oppression, particularly in rural areas where 75% of the population lives under the watchful eyes of traditional chiefs.
By proclaiming itself to be the guardian of Swazi culture, Sibahle Sinje seeks to reproduce the repressive powers of this ideology. There is great desire within this organisation to monopolise the interpretation of our culture and hold the Swazi nation hostage of cultural practices that promote violations of basic rights and freedoms. By so doing, the organisation is actively participating in closing space for cultural growth. It is holding back the cultural intellectual development of the Swazi nation which is so vital in nation building and prosperity. When Sibahle Sinje was established, it echoed King Sobhuza’s views by publicly declaring that multi-party parliamentary democracy was culturally unacceptable. It denounced the growing number of Swazis calling for this system of governance as ‘not true Swazis’.
The Commonwealth also holds onto this notion of cultural incongruence to advance its double agenda. We have been consistently told by Commonwealth officials that multi-party democracy is not suitable to Swaziland because it is incongruent with the Swazi culture. This rigid view of culture and of democracy has been the cornerstone of the royal family political power. When the Commonwealth and Sibahle Sinje talk about Swazi culture, they speak not of the Swazi nation’s view of what this constitutes but of the royal family’s view of culture. Thus discourses of culture in Swaziland coalesce around the activities of the royal family and its surrogate bodies. The power to speak of Swazi culture authoritatively, what it is and what it is not, is regarded the preserve of the royal family. Organisations such as Sibahle Sinje and the Commonwealth have been steadfast in their commitment to preserve, if not to increase this power. In this context, the views and voices of the general population which offer alternative views are discarded as radical and delegitimised as‘unSwazi’.
Whether or not the similarity of the positions taken by the Commonwealth and Sibahle Sinje is coincidental, these developments run parallel to pre-independence politics. During the colonial era, the British administration ruled together with King Sobhuza II to suppress mass anti-colonial dissent. Referred to under the colonial administration as Paramount Chief, Sobhuza II was instrumental in ensuring corporation with the colonial administration because of his cultural influence among the population. The British government rewarded him by offering full support to his pre-independence campaign for office. Colonial representatives advised and assisted Sobhuza II to form a royal family political party – the Imbokodvo National Movement (INM).
IMN came into existence at the time when pro-independence protests, led by the labour movement and pro-multi party democracy organisations such as NNLC, was gaining influence. As can be deduced from the name Imbokodvo or grinding stone, the idea behind the formation of INM was the suppression and subsequent destruction of the pro-democracy movement. This movement was regarded within the royal family on the one hand, as advancing ideas that were alien to Swazi culture and on the other hand, by the colonial administration as communism. Culture as a political ideology was, therefore, central in INM campaigns and was effectively used to generate mass moral panic which delivered massive electoral victories for King Sobhuza II. In 1973, INM achieved its desire to destroy alternative political voices when King Sobhuza II unconstitutionally repealed the constitution and outlawed political parties and criticism against the state.
Sibahle Sinje, is a reincarnation of INM and thrives on fear of cultural annihilation. Through the politics of fear, today the organisation boasts of significant “electoral” victories. We detest the abuse of our culture for political gain, especially when it is used as a form of ideological terrorism to generate mass psychological terror among the population. In order to advance its cause, the organisation draws its membership from senior government ranks, the royal family and self-made moral entrepreneurs such as the royal palace governor, Jim Gama. Like INM, Sibahle Sinje hopes that it would, with the assistance of the Commonwealth, a British neo-colonial body, repeat history by crushing the nation’s aspiration for multi-party democracy.
If Sibahle Sinje is committed to genuine democratic change, it needs to make this position crystal clear and condemn state brutality against our people. It must rally behind the public’s demand for a fresh constitution making process with popular mandate. The Commonwealth has made its position clear that it does not support democracy in Swaziland. There is no need to involve it in a fresh constitutional dispensation. However, we are committed to persuade all Swazis, including members of Sibahle Sinje, to join hands and drive the new process.
PUDEMO will work with Sibahle Sinje if it is honest with the people of Swaziland by confronting the monarchy as a source of political repression. It has been shown from time to time that the political problems in Swaziland will not be resolved through piecemeal deals and half-baked strategies. Only honesty, boldness, innovation, relentlessness and commitment to the cause will propel us forward. PUDEMO and SWAYOCO have been bold and honest about their political convictions and objectives – the overthrow of the absolute monarchy system of governance and its replacement with multi-party parliamentary democracy. We stared the bull in the eye, frightened the weak and earned the respect of the fearless. Sibahle Sinje and the Commonwealth want us to go back and embrace the monarchy that is responsible for the current social, economic and political misery of our people. We say, NO! We shall not betray our people and principles. Our commitment is solid – improving the general wellbeing of the people of Swaziland by emancipating them from all forms of oppression.
Dr Jabulane Matsebula
Australia, Asia and the Pacific Region