When rights clash with tradition

Posted on September 21, 2014


Is South Africa on the brink of a clash between the egalitarian concepts embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the demands to retain undemocratic, feudal and colonial hangovers of the past? If so, it may be Swaziland that will provide the catalyst.

This much became clear over the past week in an series of events that threw into sharp relief the myriad political contradictions that exist domestically. They were highlighted in the labour movement-led demands for human and democratic rights in Swaziland at the same time that increasingly closer links at a political level were forged with the brutally autocratic regime in that country.

Last week, for the first time, the leadership of the entire ANC-led governing alliance unanimously condemned the actions of the monarchy in Swaziland. The ANC, Cosatu, the SA Communist Part (SACP) and the National Civics Organisation (Sanco) have insisted that “the people and government of Swaziland speedily move towards democracy”.

In a statement issued after its September 12 meeting, the governing alliance called for the release of all political prisoners in Swaziland and demanded: “South Africa must confer refugee status on those fleeing from political persecution in their home country.” Agreement would put South Africa on a diplomatic collision course with the mountain kingdom.

Significantly, this meeting and statement came only hours before that gargantuan political princeling and nephew of President Jacob Zuma, Khulubuse, established another link with the royal house of Swaziland. In what was described as a “king-size wedding” Khulubuse married Princess Fikisiwe Dlamini, a niece of Africa’s last absolute monarch, Mswati III.

In attendance were ministers and other leading members of the ANC as thousands of guests sang songs praising President Jacob Zuma and vilifying public protector Thuli Madonsela. Mswati’s brother, Prince Mbuyusa Dlamini, hailed the union as further cementing the relations between “the Zulu and Swazi nations”.

What it also did was to provide another slap in the face to the nearly 5 000 Aurora miners who have waited five years for wages owed to them by the company in which Khulubuse was a major figure. At least one of the miners, Marius Ferreira, owed R170 000 and having lost his house, car and all his possessions, committed suicide.

But the fate of the miners is clearly less important, in media terms, than the extravagant matrimonial carryings on of traditional and putative royalty. Only months earlier, and to considerable fanfare, the effective civil servant monarch of the Zulu kingdom, Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu also sealed a matrimonial link with the Swazi house of Dlamini when he married his sixth wife and mother of two of his 28 children, Zola Mafu.

President Jacob Zuma has also, for more than 11 years, kept his fiancee and intended fifth wife, the half-sister of Mswati, waiting for the final matrimonial summons. In all these cases, tradition, with its acceptance of the Swazi regime and of hereditary rule, is dominant.

Local monarchs and lesser royalty may be on the state payroll — the cost of Zwelithini’s household, for example, is estimated at more than R63 million a year — but they remain unelected rulers of often large tracts of land and of the people who reside on them. And both Zwelithini and Mswati have indicated that they have their eyes on considerably more real estate.

In South Africa, Zwelithini’s new claims and the manner he rules his existing fiefdom continue to created problems for rural land reform. As a recent commentary noted: “A medieval, patriarchal and undemocratic system of governance [has been] super-imposed on an already complicated land problem.”

Mswati has no problems with land reform and, in terms of finance, he also leads the way: he uses the national treasury of his country as something of a personal piggy bank. Mswati epitomises what traditional, patriarchal and feudal rule means: his word is law. The only law. Yet this autocrat is accepted as the national representative of his people at gatherings of the at least nominally democratic members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Can this — and should this — continue? But if the South African government acts to support democracy and human rights in Swaziland, will this start a process to examine the myriad political contradictions that exist domestically? Even down to the existence of the House of Traditional Leaders?

This is what the latest decision by the alliance secretariat indicates. It opens a can of worms politically. But perhaps one that needs to be opened.

And since, on the basis of support for parliamentary democracy, the government has been willing to intervene in the affairs of Lesotho, why should Swaziland be any different? It is a perfectly logical question — and one that begs an answer.