Message-ID: <255560@hermes.Reed.EDU>
Date: 02 Jul 95 16:54:37 PDT
From: Chris.Lowe@directory.Reed.EDU (Chris Lowe)
Subject: Swaziland labor protests

Swaziland labor protests

By Chris Lowe <Chris.Lowe@directory.Reed.EDU>
2 July, 1995

This is summary and commentary on an InterPress Service news report out of Harare, dateline Mbabane June 28, by Jowie Mwiinga, titled "Swaziland-Politics: Tiny Southern African Monarchy in Turmoil".

The story reports that the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) is threatening mass protest action, possibly as early as July 9, unless the government ceases efforts to deport a key Federation leader, Jan Sithole. The report characterizes the threatened deportation as an effort to weaken the labor movement, at a time when the SFTU has taken a leading role in pressing for constitutional reform for multi-party democracy as well as legal changes regarding worker rights and labor conditions.

The immediate background to the threat against Sithole is a nationwide strike which the SFTU staged in March. The strike was a political one "to push for far-reaching industrial and political reforms," according to the report, which also says that the action "culminated in the country's worst ever riots."

Apparently the government is trying to deport Sithole on the allegation that "he is of Mozambican origin". Sithole denies this, and the SFTU position is that the government is harassing him for political reasons. The story quotes Sithole (whom the it calls "fiery") as saying '' I have concluded that this is not about citizenship but a way to test our solidarity. Well, the time has come. It is now or never."

The broader context is that Swaziland's no-party state, in which King Mswati III holds all formal legislative and executive power, is under increasing challenge from within Swazi society. The report states that "several political parties have been formed", and says that the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) are the "most vocal" of these. It quotes a PUDEMO spokesman, Nhlahla Mncina, as saying "Our democratic organisations are in a relentless struggle for the total emancipation of the entire Swazi Nation. Multiparty democracy and peace are our points of paramount importance. We are going to fight until the final victory for the attainment of all our civil liberties from this government."

The threatened renewal of SFTU action comes at a time when the student unions in the country have gone on strike over the past few weeks. According to the report, their demands include "the right of male students to wear hairstyles of their choice and an end to corporal punishment."

The government apparently has responded with harsh rhetoric blaming outside forces with alien ideas for stirring up trouble. So the students are portrayed as being used by "hostile forces, including the opposition, to destabilize the government."

The report quotes Patrick Tsabedze, a member of Parliament, as saying "I would like to warn these political parties not to bother coming to cause trouble here because we will deal with them physically. If they do, then they should first buy their coffins and prepare for a bloody confrontation."

In addition to its internal opponents, the government also blames foreigners for the student strikes, since they import "alien" ideas about democracy and human rights.

In particular, the report says "A Parents-Teachers Association meeting in Lobamba ... resolved last weekend that U.S. officials were directly responsible for the students' behaviour." Apparently in May the U.S. Department of State issued a report condemning the Swazi government for human rights abuses, which included detaining opponents without trial, and discrimination against women legally and culturally. The report drew applause from the opposition and outraged condemnation for interfering in Swaziland's internal affairs from the government and its supporters.

The IPS story also places the political crisis in a context of economic decline of several years duration, and government failure to meet IMF aid conditions. It reports a government deficit of 282 Emalangeni or about $95 million U.S., out of a total budget of $203 million U.S., with 45% of the budget going for salaries when the IMF has prescribed a 40% level.


The IPS reporter does not inspire total confidence since he claims Swaziland is completely surrounded by South Africa, when in fact the country borders Mozambique to the East for nearly its entire north-south length, and he refers to "King Sobhuza the third" when the former king was Sobhuza II (the current king or Ngwenyama is Mswati III). Nonetheless the report rings true broadly.

PUDEMO was not exactly "formed" recently, but rather came out as an open political party, after having been an underground movement in the 1980s. At the time PUDEMO spoke of "unbanning itself" in language modelled on that of the African National Congress of South Africa and its internal allies, with whom PUDEMO has had close ties.

Government attacks on the citizenship standing of opponents has a long history in Swaziland. They were used even in the late colonial period against MacDonald Maseko, a union organizer and opposition party leader who led large-scale strikes in the sugar and timber industries in 1963, which the British government suppressed using the Gordon Highlanders. Many members of the Maseko clan live in both Swaziland and the eastern Transvaal. Likewise King Sobhuza II abolished the independence multi-party constitution and established the no-party state in 1973 following a constitutional crisis, in which his government attempted to prevent the seating in Parliament of a victorious opposition party member on the grounds that his parents were not Swazi. The courts initially rejected the attempt, which led to the crisis and the king's coup from above.

A common theme in the use of citizenship claims and the accusations against outside agitators with alien ideas is the attempt to define all opposition as "unSwazi", and thus manipulate national sentiment through chauvinism.

In 1978 King Sobhuza re-established a parliament as a purely advisory body, partly appointed and partly indirectly elected, from which a Prime Minister and Cabinet are drawn, who run a bureaucracy descended from the British colonial administration. A separate hierarchy of local chiefs and princes, and a hierarchy of "tinkhundla" (royal offices headed by _tindvuna_ which cover 3 - 5 chiefdoms and which mediate between the "traditional" and "modern" arms of the state), relate to the king and his inner circle of advisers independently of Parliament (although many chiefs serve in Parliament).

The IPS report does not describe the March "riots" nor the respective actions of unionists, police or military forces, or other possible participants, such as student activists. Nor does it define what it means by "worst ever". In 1990, in response to a student strike at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA), police and army forces sealed off the campus and invaded it, beating hundreds of students ferociously, many of them in the University Library where they had taken refuge. At the time there were reports that 4 students were killed in the assault; I am not sure if those reports were ever confirmed.

The current student strikes appear to involve secondary school students rather than University students, based on allusions in the IPS report. In the late 1980s Swaziland schools had a reputation at UNISWA for being authoritarian and rote- oriented. The main national newspaper reported community accusations that male teachers were sexually exploiting female students with some regularity.

Swaziland has seen increased union militance since the mid-1980s. Strikes and protest actions have involved workers in industries including timber, railways, sugar, along with service sector employees in banking, teachers and civil servants.

In the late 1980s, the white-collar workers were among the most militant, and several times union leaders were detained without trial. The social composition of the Swaziland opposition resembles that of the forces which engaged in rebellions in various South African bantustans toward the end of the apartheid period.

The prominence of service sector unions in labor and political protests also reflects the fact that pressure for constitutional reform is particularly strong in urban areas. As PUDEMO's name suggests, multi-partyist opposition is a cross-class populist phenomenon, which includes many in managerial and professional jobs, along with students who aspire to them. However, it probably would be a mistake to make too much of the rural- urban divide. Although urbanites are probably about 20-25% of the population, studies of Swazi rural homesteads in the 1980s found that about 80% of homesteads had one or more members in town. Many people circulate frequently between rural and urban residences owned by themselves, kin, or friends. In rural areas, royalist chiefs and royal _tindvuna_ (officials) exercise tight political control, by controlling land access and other patronage resources.


Two responses to the part of Jabulane Matsebula's article which Peter Limb posted.

One is that I think the politicization of the Swaziland unions' activity involves both the state as employer, as Mr. Matsebula says, and also its role in setting the terms of labor struggles and negotiations. Examples include the shape and jurisdiction of industrial courts; defining required, permitted or forbidden bargaining mechanisms; required, permitted or forbidden labor practices, dispute tactics etc. (The Swaziland unions have been much influenced by SA union struggles over such matters, is my impression.) The latter often fit under "anti- popular measures", no doubt, but the distinction might still be a useful one.

If as Matsebula says the trade unions have a political responsibility "as members of the community", they also need to be able press members of other progressive sectors and organizations to take up their reciprocal responsibilities and pay attention to workers' interests as workers. Swaziland still faces its versions of the workerist/ populist debates, perhaps, and I wonder if post-1993 developments in SA don't throw a little more weight on the workerist side of the scale? Anyway, Peter, if Jabulane M. is going to revise this, tell him at least one reader would be interested to learn his thinking about that question more explictly.

Another question which I would like to know the answer to is, how much have the Swaziland unions changed in their attitude toward the monarchy? Back in 1988 and 1989 a number of them had a very interesting tactic of marching to the King when employers would stall in the industrial courts, or when the government would try to define certain issues out of bounds. Some observers took this to be pretty much a sign of influence of a hegemonic traditionalism which was an obstacle to the unions achieving their aims. To me it always seemed more complex.

Defensively, it helped insulate the unions from the "unSwazi" charge. Conceivably the need to do that could reflect a rank and file in thrall to hegemonic traditionalism, and in any case it could be argued to contribute to legitimating royal authority, but still I thought critics ought to pay more attention to the unions' defensive needs.

Beyond that, I thought it put the King in a very interesting and awkward position which had some possibilities. The basic political contradiction of the royalty is that it represents itself as the disinterested arbiter of all interests in the Nation, acting for the good of the Nation as a whole, when in fact it is quite partial. The tactic of marching to him made a claim like this: "The government is partial and is siding with the bosses unfairly. You say you are fair to all. Thus you must not agree with the government." The King faces a choice. He either has to repudiate his own government to some degree, or reveal that it is his government, and that its partiality is his partiality. At this point, the possibility that the tactic might actually erode traditionalist hegemony emerges.

So my concrete question is, how much has such erosion occurred? If it has, does it take the form of general anti-royalism, of the idea that this king is bad but kingship is still good, or of the idea that the king is good but misled?

I also second Peter's request for more facts if anyone knows any.


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