(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Activists threaten to shut down the country

[Swaziland] Swaziland SFTU secretary-general Jan Sithole.
IRIN

King Mswati III's hope of turning next week's Global 2003 Smart Partnership International Dialogue into a celebration of his reign is facing a challenge by pro-democracy groups intent on using the gathering of Commonwealth heads of state as an opportunity to expose what they say is the lawlessness of royal leadership.

"The time has passed for modest demonstrations that are ignored by government," Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), told IRIN.

"We have been demonstrating since 28 November [2002], when the prime minister overturned the rule of law in this country. The Smart Partnership delegates and heads of state must know the truth about their hosts," Sithole said.

Last November, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini issued a statement declaring the government's intention to ignore Court of Appeal rulings that overturned Mswati's power to rule by decree. The move precipitated a rule-of-law crisis that saw the forced retirement or reassignment of high court judges who had ruled against palace interests, the indictment of the director of public prosecutions on conspiracy charges, and the resignation of the entire Court of Appeal bench.

The SFTU, with its sister labour federation, the Swaziland Federation of Labour, and the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations, gave government until 31 July to rescind the prime minister's directive.

The cabinet ignored the deadline, and the labour federations announced a national workers stayaway for Tuesday through Thursday. The three-day strike action coincides with the summit, which begins with a gala banquet on Tuesday and ends with another fete on Saturday.

"This summit is for government elites and not ordinary Swazis," former prime minister Obed Dlamini told IRIN. Dlamini now heads the banned political party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress. He has publicly supported civil servants who threatened to join the workers' stayaway if a long-standing salary dispute is not settled.

The government promised to give civil servants a pay increase on Monday, the day before the summit, although no legal instrument to do so had been issued by Friday.

Landlocked Swaziland stands to be isolated from the world if government security forces are unable to break a border blockade promised by the labour federations, and the foreign ministry fails to convince the South African government to keep the borders open on its side.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has obtained permission from a magistrate's court in South Africa to demonstrate at the six border crossings connecting Swaziland with South Africa. Cosatu provincial secretary for South Africa's Mpumalanga province, Norman Mokoena, said the intention is to stop movement into and out of the country.

Swaziland receives 85 percent of its imports, including all its petroleum, from South Africa. Prime Minister Dlamini assured Swazis that the border crossings will remain open next week. "The only way borders can be closed is during a time of war," he said in a statement.

Sithole scoffed at this. "Worker solidarity knows no national borders. The abuse of workers anywhere affects workers everywhere. Government has no business dictating terms on how we may or may not demonstrate against government," he said.

In addition to returning the country to the "rule of law", the labour federations want a revision of new tax laws they say unfairly tax workers' benefits, while allowing government and royal leaders to be undertaxed. A new national constitution, written by King Mswati’s brothers, prohibits the taxation of the king and queen mother.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela will be among 16 present and past heads of governments who have confirmed their attendance at the Swaziland summit. Others include President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who will not attend, was criticised for not honouring Mswati's invitation by the Swazi Observer newspaper, owned by the royal conglomerate Tibiyo TakaNgwane. In a cartoon, Mbeki was caricatured as a guerrilla leader holding an assault rifle, and draped in ammunition.

The summit's theme, "Towards a Smarter Globe" will be addressed through "dialoguing" sessions intended to prompt government- and private-sector delegates to find possible scenarios for public/private solutions to social and economic issues.

Banned political opposition parties, and legal and business groups that make up the reformist coalition of civil organisations, have criticised the summit as an extravagance at a time when two-thirds of Swazis live in chronic poverty, and about a quarter of the population will be without food by early next year because of anticipated poor harvests.

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