From Swazi Media Commentary
Swaziland’s elections this year will be free and fair.
Or they will be if you believe the chief editor of the Swazi Observer. The Observer – the paper that is in effect owned by King Mswati III – reports the king assuring South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki (and therefore the world) that the news Swazi Constitution will ensure that the elections will be free and fair.
The Observer reported today (Thursday 24 April 2008), in a news article written by its chief editor, that the king told Mbeki that ‘under the new constitution, the elections were open to all Swazi adults and that the country’s political system has empowered every Swazi to freely choose what they see as the best candidate’.
The Observer reported that the king challenged all potential MPs to align themselves with the national fight to overcome poverty. What the Observer didn’t report was that these remarks were made at a sumptuous banquet, nor that in Swaziland this past year 600,000 people of the kingdom’s nearly one million population have had to rely on international food aid to fend off starvation.
The Observer did report that the king said that the new Swaziland’s constitution encourages people ‘to nominate and elect on merit, a candidate amongst themselves whom they know best to have the potential of representing their interests in parliament’.
What neither the king nor the Observer added was that political parties are banned in Swaziland, despite repeated calls for them and possible legal action from civil society groups in the kingdom.
Mbeki, who recently refused to acknowledge there was a political crisis in Zimbabwe following the disputed elections there last month (March 2008) said he wished King Mswati, ‘success in the general elections’.
It wasn’t clear what Mbeki’s definition of ‘success’ was. But, Mbeki’s continued support of Robert Mugabe, a despot who is trying desperately to cling on to power illegally in Zimbabwe, may give us some clue.
King Mswati III and the South African President, met during Mbeki’s two-day trip to the kingdom.
While the Observer and other Swazi media were upbeat in their reporting of the visit, some South African media were more realistic.
The SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) reported (23 April 2008), ‘It is believed that pro-democracy groups are putting pressure on Mbeki to raise the question of King Mswati’s absolute rule and lack of reforms.’
SABC added, ‘Meanwhile, the Swazi monarch is expected to raise concern with Mbeki over Cosatu’s [Confederation of South African Trade Unions] call for an economic blockade of the kingdom. Cosatu has pledged solidarity with the Swaziland trade union movement in demanding an end to Mswati’s absolute monarchy rule. Swaziland has been under pressure over the past few years to introduce democratic reforms.’
I don’t know whether this was discussed at the banquet because, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t invited. If such a discussion took place I have yet to see reference to it in the Swazi media.
The Pretoria News (23 April 2008) was less optimistic. It didn’t believe that Mbeki would raise the issue of democracy.
It reported, ‘Swazis feel little hope that Mbeki will press the king for more meaningful political change towards making Swaziland a true democracy.
‘Mbeki’s actions on Zimbabwe have not escaped the attention of political pundits in Mbabane.’
It went on, ‘Even though the political climate in Swaziland is not as volatile as Zimbabwe, banned political organisation Pudemo’s publicity and information secretary Zakhele Mabuza said it would be a sad day for the voiceless and disadvantaged in Swaziland if Mbeki concluded there was also no crisis in the country.
‘Mbeki was last in the country in 1996 when he was deputy president to meet Mswati during a week-long mass stayaway by opposition unions and politicians brought the country to a standstill.
‘When asked by journalists in 2004 why he and Mbeki had never met during the latter’s presidency, Mswati shrugged it off as a mere clash of diaries in their busy schedules. Mbeki later cancelled a scheduled trip over a year ago at the last minute.
‘Mbeki’s failure to visit Swaziland has fuelled speculation that he does not approve of Mswati's leadership style and his suppression of democracy. Yet no one seems to think his long-delayed visit now will influence political change in the country.
‘Vusi Sibisi, a columnist in The Times of Swaziland, wrote: “There is not much we can hope for from his belated visit to these shores. For besides his mishandling of the Zimbabwe crisis, he is a spent force, who a year or two ago, as a leader of a regional superpower, could have counted for something in terms of nudging the Swazi government towards embracing democracy.”
‘A source close to the monarchy speculated that perhaps Mbeki was visiting only now because Zuma is expected soon for his first meeting with Mswati since he became ANC president and Mbeki wants to get in first.’
According to the Swazi Observer, Mbeki ‘promised to return to Swaziland again and again.’ If the Pretoria News is right, Mbeki will have plenty of time on his hands to do just that.
First published 24 April 2008