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SWAZILAND: Year-ender 2002: Royal rule under challenge

MBABANE, 20 January 2003 (IRIN) - The swirl of dissent around Swaziland's King Mswati III reached unprecedented levels last year, focusing on allegations of the abuse of power by the monarchy.

But as the new year begins, political pundits are asking what the opposition must do to demonstrate that they have real popular support, mandating them to continue their challenge to royal rule. The consensus of opinion is that an unequivocal display of numbers through a march or demonstration must be mounted.

Conversely, what must sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy do in 2003 to prove to a world doubtful of the legitimacy of non-democratic states that the palace should continue to rule uncontested? Many commentators feel regular and free elections, or at least a referendum, must be held.

"The authorities must lift the ban on political parties, and allow the people to choose," Joshua Mzizi, a theologian at the University of Swaziland and secretary-general of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland told IRIN.

The president of the association, Vulendlela Msibi, agreed. "Governments have to be held accountable by the people they serve, and the only way to do this is through national elections," he said.

The new Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, comprised of business and legal groups, has called for elections. But palace sources scoff at the notion that an election must be held to ratify Mswati's reign. "Kings are not elected. This has never happened in history," a senior prince told IRIN.

However, nearly 40 years ago, King Sobhuza II, father to the current sovereign, pressed for a referendum to prove Swazis endorsed his vision for a post-colonial government. Some historians say the vote was flawed because illiterate Swazis were led to believe they were voting for or against the king. A majority of Swazis sided with Sobhuza and his desire for a place for royalty in governance after independence.

"If royalty is so certain that they have the people's support, why don't they just put it to the vote? What are they afraid of?" asked Agnes Kunene, a nurse in the central commercial town of Manzini.

2003 will see parliamentary elections in October, when candidates unaligned with any political parties vie for 55 seats in local constituencies, called Tinkhundla. Because they have no party platforms to follow, candidates will woo voters with promises of clinics, roads and employment-generating projects, none of which MPs are in a position to deliver. Cabinet ministers, all palace appointees, determine development projects.

Parliament does not set national policy or write legislation, which is the privilege of Mswati and is carried out by cabinet. A Court of Appeal ruling in November stripped Mswati of the power to decree laws without parliament, but Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini said government would ignore the decision.

MPs complain they have been reduced to rubber stamps, and that cabinet ministers ignore them even in an advisory capacity. The local press printed a memo from Swaziland's ambassador to the United States to the prime minister noting the perception of the international community that Swaziland has no parliament.

Palace sources say a referendum on royal rule has already been held, and its results will form a new national constitution that is due in 2003. Prince Mangaliso Dlamini led a Constitutional Review Commission that interviewed ordinary Swazis in secret on the type of governance they preferred.

Although the commission released no data on how many Swazis were interviewed or what was said, Dlamini reported to Mswati that an overwhelming majority wished to see the king's powers enhanced, and want his political opponents to remain banned.

Accepting his brother's constitutional report before giving it to another prince to draft into a governing document, Mswati told the Swazi people that they have spoken once and for all on the issue of royal rule.

The Swaziland Democratic Alliance, made up of illegal political groups, progressive labour unions and human rights organisations, has already rejected the upcoming constitution. "It is a farce," Phineas Magagula, president of the teachers' union, told IRIN.

Neighbouring South Africa has remained quiet about governance in Swaziland, but the United States and European Union are expecting political reform, specifically a bill of rights that transcends the power of the king. "This will prove difficult to achieve when the palace is the ultimate authority," said Magagula. "What is required is fundamental change."

2003 is the 30th anniversary of King Sobhuza's ban on opposition politics. In April 1973, he overturned the independence constitution, and gave himself supreme executive, judicial and legislative authority. Mswati enjoys these powers today.

"We will mount a major demonstration to draw attention to this anniversary," Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions told IRIN. "For 10 years we have put the repeal of the king's 1973 decree at the top of our demands for government reform."

For a decade, the workers' federation has led the pro-democracy charge, due to the sheer size of its membership of 80,000 workers. But no mass action has been mounted since 1997. A national workers stay-away called for 23-24 January will be a test of the opposition groups' popularity.

"Without a substantial showing of people taking to the streets to say they want change, the perception is that the pro-democracy leadership is a self-serving urban elite with no popular following," said an attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland.

Public political demonstrations are illegal, and the security forces are experienced at stopping marches before they begin. But political watchers feel some show of popular support for democratisation will have to come to convince the world that Swazis truly want reform.

Themes: (IRIN) Governance


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