Labor protests in Swaziland: when no news is not good news

On Sunday there were no reports of teargas, arrests and beating of democracy activists in Swaziland. Having worked with African unions since 2006, I got used to the annual reports of abuses of trade unionists and other democracy activists calling for democracy on April 12. It was always followed by international solidarity actions, including faxing protest letters to current ruler, King Mswati III. This year there were no April 12 protests in Swaziland.

King Sobhuza II set aside the constitution April 12 1973, declaring a state of emergency and proclaiming  all executive, judicial and legislative functions his prerogative. The little landlocked kingdom between South Africa and Mozambique is the last absolute monarchy on the continent with no guarantee of basic human or trade union rights. The Swazi democracy movement has used April 12 as a day of protest and call for democracy; a date dreaded by the government.

The 2005 constitution did not change the status of the King. Additional anti-terror acts have worsen the situation for the democracy movement, in reality prolonging the state of emergency and where political parties are still banned. The biggest opposition party, The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), operates partly underground, partly from South Africa, and when sticking their head out: Facing the police.

The trade union movement has spearheaded the democracy movement. Since the two federations SFTU (Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions) and SFL (Swaziland Federation of Labor) started close cooperation in 2010, they also blew new life and vigor to the democracy movement and the April 12 protests. Further ignited by the Arab Spring and the many protests in Sub Saharan Africa, the April 12 Uprising of 2011 was the biggest mobilization in the history of the protest, described as a war-zone, followed by forceful clampdown from army and police. The arrest and torture of the student leader Mazwell Dlamini, sparked the international student and solidarity NGOs to action.

When SFTU and SFL merged to form one joint confederation, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), in March 2012, it took the government only a month to find a loophole: The 2005 constitution provides for the right to organize trade unions – but there is no reference to trade union federations: hence it cannot be legal. TUCOSWA was deregistered to massive protest from solidarity organization and trade union bodies. For a while, it looked like the government would back down. The unions did not back down, and April 12th 2012 saw another democracy protests followed by arrests. After this is it gradually more and more silent in Swaziland on April 12. Last year, there were some minor protests.

Yesterday, there are no reports of protests. TUCOSWA is still banned and continuously disturbed by the police, despite repetitive protests from the international union movement, and a host of United Nations bodies. But they have little leverage on the kingdom. There is a dangours silence from the most important actor: South Africa. COSATU has been one of TUCOSWAs most ardent supporters, but internal troubles have hampered its international and solidarity work. To add to it, the South Africa’ government has many ties, in addition to the personal and cultural (the Zulu-Dlamini connection) and direct investments by the ruling ANC. To quote an old adage by the late Steve Biko (who is also the inspiration for student protests over curriculum, name changes and public symbols at universities in South Africa), the Swazi workers are on their own.

Despite the troubles, Swazi trade unionists do have the spirits (and some international support) and is actually an inspiration of unity and commitment, on a continent sadly characterized by splits and disunity in the trade union movement.

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