Port of Spain day 4

Tuesday, 24 November 2009:

Mduduzi Gina is the Secretary-General of the Swazi Federation of Trade Unions. Like most Singaporeans, I have never met anyone from Swaziland before, so I seized the opportunity to sit down with him for half an hour to learn something about the situation in his country, particularly in the area of his work and expertise.

Swaziland is a landlocked mountainous country nearly surrounded by South Africa. There is however a short border with Mozambique. Its population of about 1.1 million nearly all belong to the Swazi tribe or ethnic group. It has been an absolute monarchy since the 1973 decree that placed all executive and judicial power in the hands of the king. Currently, he is Mswati III. This political arrangement was recently reconfirmed by the 2006 constitution.

There is a rubber-stamp parliament, but political parties are banned and even trade unions are treated as the opposition. As an example of how powerless the parliament is, in 2003, the Speaker elected by the House of Assembly was forced to resign because he had personal differences with the king, and the latter simply would not recognise his elected position.

Undergirding the autocratic system is a tradition that refers to the king as “He who does not lie”, in effect seeing the monarch as inerrant. Not only is this doctrine embedded in the culture, it is actively promoted in schools.

The result is an attitude that if one questions the acts of “His Majesty’s government”, then one is questioning the king himself. Consequently, even well-founded criticisms of governmental acts are quickly blown up into allegations of sedition. Human rights is seen as “un-Swazi” and anti-monarchy. Many non-government organisations (NGOs) are understandably affected by the heavy-handed reaction of the government to whatever they want to do.

Particularly misused is the Supression of Terrorism Act. Under it, the police demand to sit in on union meetings, otherwise they would raid and disrupt meetings altogether. How do the police know that a union meeting is planned? Employers are apparently required to inform the police of any union meeting they know of as part of their civic duty to help suppress terrorism – or so it is phrased. Things have gotten so bad that in June this year, the International Labour Organisation put Swaziland in a special category of countries with a shockingly bad environment for labour rights.

Knowing that the authorities view trade unions with great suspicion, employers naturally exploit their privileged position. Disputes, e.g. about terms of employment, are hard to resolve through negotiations, and workers often have to resort to strikes to compel a compromise. Two problems then arise:

Firstly, the law mandates a 74-day waiting period before a strike can be called – this is far too long, when workers have a grievance, e.g. if their salaries are not paid.

Secondly, the police get rather brutal with strikers. They are arrested and sometimes tortured. Tubes are inserted into their noses and plastic collars are put around their necks; both designed to give a sensation of suffocation. Some detainees are beaten and assaulted. There have also been unexplained disappearances.

In other words, a small enterporise-level dispute is typically escalated into a national-level problem, making it even harder to solve.

Few of the arrested persons are ever charged in court. In other words, they don’t even get the chance to be heard and vindicated in court. One unusual exception was the case of some workers who were wearing trade union T-shirts, and on that account, were hauled to court to face charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.

Labour problems are just one aspect of far bigger social problems facing Swaziland. With a high literacy rate, aspirations are rising. Yet the unemployment rate is around 35 percent. About 70 percent live below the internationally recognised poverty line of US$2 per day. The HIV prevalence rate among adults is 43 percent. How can a government that refuses engagement with its own citizens and civil society hope to deal effectively with these problems?

Generational change is eroding the old habit of seeing the king as inerrant. Younger workers and trade unionists now sing songs critical of the king at their rallies, a behaviour that the older generation find abhorrent. Mass protests are increasingly directed against the king and the system rather than just the employers. In fact, this is splitting the trade union movement with the younger leadership prepared to take the bull by its horns and question the political system as a whole.

Gradually, a broad movement for change is coalescing, involving trade unions, banned political parties, NGOs, the church, youth and student movements. They share a dream of a more democratic society, with checks and balances. With luck, the traditional kingship will evolve into a constitutional monarchy, but if push comes to shove, what follows may be a republic.

The fear however, is that violence will become the most attractive option by which to obtain change. In the middle of last year, an attempt was made to plant a time bomb under the bridge near the palace, a bridge that the king often uses. The bomb detonated prematurely, killing the persons trying to plant it.

* * * * *

To Singaporean readers, I would like to ask you where you think there are points of similarity and points of difference between Swaziland and our country. I think you will see that there are at least some issues that resonate with us. At the same time, we don’t have a 35 percent unemployment rate or 70 percent under the poverty line. If it is the fruit of the government we have, then we shouldn’t hesitate to give credit where it is due.

On the other hand, we don’t even have independent trade unions. If we did, would our police behave just like the Swazi police? How do our authorities behave towards ill-treated migrant workers, for example? Would independent organising of local or migrant workers be seen as a form of terrorism too?

Talking to people from other countries, particularly non-Western countries, is something I feel we should do more of. It gives us a better perspective on where we are today, a more realistic assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. But what I find most refreshing is the chance it gives me to question what grounds we have to feel superior, which alas, too much of our political rhetoric encourage.

Thank You, Mduduzi, for the opportunity to learn and to think.

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