Posted on October 2, 2010


As May Day 2008 looms, the army of the working poor and the legions of the unemployed are being force marched to still greater hardship. Nowhere more so than in Africa’s last feudal monarchy, Swaziland, which is impacted directly by rising inflation in South Africa..

This year, the May Day celebrations in the tiny landlocked kingdom will take on a special significance: they should provide the first indication of whether the long-promised unity of the fragmented labour movement has been achieved. In recent years the country’s two labour federations and the two large independent unions of civl servants and of teachers have staged separate May Day events.

However, all, certainly at a rank and file level, tend to support the demand for democratic reforms. Signs of greater unity on the labour front should, therefore, provide a significant boost to the pro-democracy movement.

It would be a move welcomed by unions throughout the region and especially among Cosatu affiliates which have staged protests, including border blockades of Swaziland, in support of the pro-democracy movement.

“We, of course welcome any move to greater unity,” says Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven. Cosatu was also aware that the new constitution introduced two years ago by King Mswati III — and hailed by governments in the region as a “step in the right direction” — had merely provided a flimsy democratic facade for what remains an absolute monarchy.

The fact that the king retains the right to appoint the prime minister and several ministers as well as the right to veto any decisions of parliament makes a mockery of any democratic process.

“Even if we had a legitimate, free and fair voting procedure, it would still be meaningless,” says Mario Masuku, president of the officially illegal Peoples’ United Democratic Movement (Pudemo).

Pudemo is also currently in talks, not only with the labour movement, but also with other pro-democracy groups in an effort to establish a united front before the next Swaziland elections, scheduled for October. In order to highlight what it terms the “farcical nature” of the elections, Pudemo has announced a boycott.

At the same time, repression within the country does not appear to have eased. Even the generally supportive United States state department has noted that the Swazi regime’s human rights record is poor.

The repressive nature of the state and the signs of growing unity among pro-democracy forces, together with the promised electoral boycott raise the spectre of turmoil along the lines of that in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

This is something that has been spelled out by Pudemo to various governments in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc). Because of this awareness by Sadc of the situation in Swaziland, and the regional organisation’s demands for democratic processes, there were no protests at President Thabo Mbeki’s official visit to the kingdom earlier this week.

In their post meeting public statements neither Mswati nor Mbeki made mention of the thorny issue of democracy; they talked instead of closer ties and trade. But this did not overly concern the pro-democracy movement which tend to see this as an example of more “quiet diplomacy” at work.

“Given the Sadc guidelines and against the background of Kenya and Zimbabwe, we are sure the matter must have been raised with the king,” says Masuku.

Not that the local opposition is looking to South Africa or the region for salvation. “We say, as we always have, that the struggle must be won by the Swazi people themselves,” says Masuku. But, he adds, “with the solidity and support of others”.

That solidarity and support has been pledged by the regional and international trade union movement. May Day should reveal whether Swaziland’s pro-democracy forces are starting to achieve the unity necessary to take full advantage of such support.

Because there will be no column next week, I take this opportunity to extend May Day greetngs to all readers.

Posted in: Archive - 2008