Zimbabwe’s embattled trade unionists were aghast this week when they heard that a Southern African Development Conference (SADC) meeting, dealing with Zimbabwe, was convened in the royal palace in Swaziland. Without a hint of irony it was announced that the SADC “troika organ” comprising Angola, Tanzania and Swaziland would be hosted by King Mswati III to discuss the state — or lack — of democracy in Zimbabwe.
This tri-national grouping is responsible for politics, security and defence within the regional body. As such it is another of the peculiarities of SADC, because political parties have been banned in Swaziland since 1973 and the country is ruled by an absolute monarch.
A voting system, authorised by Mswati, does exist. Known as Tinkhundla all voting for nominated individuals is done publicly and monitored by chiefs and headmen who have the power of patronage and are appointed by the king. Mswati also appoints the government, controls the judiciary, and exercises veto rights over all laws passed.
As Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven notes: “It is bitterly ironic that a conference to discuss democratic elections in Zimbabwe should be hosted by an autocratic monarch who stages elections that are no more free and fair than those staged by [President Robert] Mugabe.”
The Swazi unions and other pro-democracy forces in the mountain kingdom now hope that the issue of Zimbabwe will focus greater attention by governments and the public on the issue of democratic rights throughout the region.
That Swaziland remains a member in good standing of a regional grouping professing to promote and support freedom of association and parliamentary democracy is seen as hypocrisy within the labour movement. It is one of the reasons that Cosatu has, in the past, staged protest blockades of the Swazi border.
Plans for similar action along the border with Zimbabwe, which are likely to have wider local union backing, are now underway. This will also have the support of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which represents 168 million trade unionists organised into 311 federations worldwide.
Earlier this month, at conferences of both the Commonwealth Trade Union Group and the ITUC it was resolved to intensify pressure on the Zanu-PF government in Zimbabwe. While there has been much media concentration on violence and harassment of members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), many of these individuals have been trade unionists.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), its affiliates and members have been specific targets of the regime. None more so than members of the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTUZ) who acted as polling station monitors during the March 29 elections, won by the MDC.
The ITUC this month lodged another official protest with Mugabe about the sacking of a regional PTUZ office and the severe assault of union members on June 8 and 9.
ITUC has also protested about the May 19 arrests of ZCTU president Lovemore Matombo and general secretary Wellington Chibebe. With the presidential run-off election still on the cards, they were released on Z$20 billion bail each, restricted to their homes and banned from addressing any political gatherings.
They appeared in court again on Monday this week. According to the prosecution they “communicated falsehoods” and “incited the public to rise against the government”.
“These are not charges per se, but they amount to accusations of treason,” says a ZCTU official who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. The case against them was again remanded, this time to July 30.
So July 30 is likely to be a focus for international trade union protest. But the beatings, abductions, torture and killings continue.
“All I can hope is that the situation in Swaziland does not have to degenerate to that stage before SADC acts to help us,” says Mario Masuku, president of Swaziland’s major — and still legally non-existent — pro-democracy Peoples’ United Democratic Movement.