Vital lessons to learn from Kenya, Zim experiences
By Lomcebo Dlamini
In between the aftermath of the Kenyan elections and the holding of the much anticipated Zimbabwean harmonised elections, it is appropriate to consider what lessons these experiences and the governance issues they raise, may hold for Swaziland as we prepare -albeit belatedly - for the 2008 parliamentary elections.
A number of debates characterised political discourse in the country raising issues such as the following:
- the tinkhundla system of governance and its ability to deliver a truly
- political power: its seemingly sole entrenchment in the office of the
- Monarchy and the implications of this on democracy;
- the illegality of political parties since 1973 and despite the provisions of
- the new Constitution as well as their ability and capacity to contest for
and effectively exercise political power within the current system;
- the varied positions of political formations and civil society groupings on
whether to advocate for participation or boycott of the 2008 elections;
- the role of the citizenry in participating freely in matters relating to their
self-determination and governance;
- the role of the legislature and the capacity of legislators to perform the
expected duties and responsibilities; and
- the relative political illiteracy of the populace and the need for civic
The national Constitution has raised the level of discussion of these matters due to some of its provisions which introduce some changes the situation that was governed by the 1973 King's Proclamation to the nation, whose provisions and enforcement are largely held responsible for diminishing civil liberties and creating a fear of political activism amongst the populace.
Amongst the significant changes introduced by the Constitution are the recognition of the freedoms of association, assembly and expression, the establishment of an Elections and Boundaries Commission; and the minimum quota of 30% women in Parliament and the procedures aimed at achieving this number.
Despite the commencement of the operation of the Constitution in 2006, to date, there has been no meaningful implementation of its provisions; those relating to the elections are no exception, despite the urgency of the situation.
The main question therefore is with respect to our preparedness to hold elections. In this regard, if one looks at the general expectation that parliamentary elections are usually held in October, and that according Section 134 (2) Subject to the provisions of subsections (3) and (7) Parliament, unless sooner dissolved shall stand dissolved five years less two months from the date of first meeting of the House following a general election...'the delay in the appointment of the Elections and Boundaries Commission will be to the detriment of the elections process. In addition, the legislation governing elections - namely, the 1992 Elections Order, Voter Registration Order and Establishment of Parliament Order - precedes the Constitution and therefore does not incorporate the changes introduced by the Constitution.
Further, it is important to appreciate that the conduct of elections is a complex process, involving intricate and extensive planning.
For instance, processes such as confirmation of inkhundla constituency boundaries, voter registration, the preparation of the voters' roll, the training and deployment of electoral officials to undertake the various activities required such as the nominations and voting for the primary (at chiefdom level) and secondary (at inkhundla level) elections at the various polling stations, and preparation of ballot papers are lengthy and require close attention in order to attain as much accuracy as possible and limit post-election conflict. Yet, none of these processes - including civic and voter education - has begun.
In fact, the nation presently knows nothing about the conduct of this year's election. There are speculations, but nothing official - except the appointment of the Elections and Boundaries Commission which itself has been a source of controversy - that has been released to the populace regarding this critical national issue. It will be difficult for the citizenry to engage with the process if it continues to be shrouded in silence.
Another of the main concerns that often accompany elections is that regarding whether an election was ‘free and fair’ - the meaning of which has been considerably debated.
However, regardless of how it is interpreted, it is important to realise that the notion of ‘free and fair’ should not be invoked only to pronounce on the atmosphere or political climate on the actual election day(s) but must be interrogated in a holistic manner, taking cognisance of all that leads up to those days in which Swazis cast their votes.
There has been various commentary on how the "free and fair" question cannot be applied to Swaziland because of the nature of the tinkhundla system of governance where, due to the individuality of the candidates, their allegiance to the King and the absence of mechanisms to ensure accountability, there really is no possibility of introducing changes to government, because while it may be new faces, government (and its policies and lack of power) remains the same creature.
Nonetheless, the reality is that it is the system that obtains and will govern the elections and therefore must be subjected to these questions of ‘freeness’ and ‘fairness’.
It is submitted that Swaziland's political history - characterized by the repercussions of the assumption of supreme political power by the former King Sobhuza II and inherited by King Mswati III which saw political upheaval, and the suppression of political dissent - cannot be ignored because its legacy has created a populace that seems apathetic to political engagement, an apathy that has been nourished by the experience of harsh recrimination of those who challenged the system and their labeling as ‘unSwazi’.
In a society such as ours, particularly if there is sincerity in the assertion that we are now in a new democratic dispensation, it is critical that there be extensive civic education - not just for purposes of the election, but also for purposes of empowering the citizenry on the meaning of being a citizen and the importance of citizen participation as part of governance if the ‘damage’ inflicted on the political awareness of the population over the past 34 years is to be undone and the expected "freeness and fairness" is to be attained.
Apart from the national obligations in accordance with the Constitution, Swaziland is also party to the SADC Declaration on the Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Election. According to the declaration, 'SADC Member States shall adhere to the following principles in the conduct of democratic elections:
i. Full participation of the citizens in the political process;
ii. Freedom of association;
iii. Political tolerance;
iv. Regular intervals for elections as provided for by the respective National Constitutions;
v. Equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media;
vi. Equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for;
vii. Independence of the Judiciary and impartiality of the electoral institutions; and
viii. Voter education.
ix. Acceptance and respect of the election results by political parties proclaimed to have been free and fair by the competent National Electoral Authorities in accordance with the law of the land.
x. Challenge of the election results as provided for in the law of the land.
Juxtaposing the above principles with the preceding discussion on the existing situation, it is submitted that Swaziland is already in violation of some of the principles and in danger of violating others if the situation is not adequately corrected.
For MISA, as an advocacy organization that aims to contribute to the greater exercise of democracy through promotion of the freedom of expression, in particular through the media, it is important to note that the media is critical in the electoral process.
It will be through the media - both print and electronic - that the large majority of citizens will obtain information about the elections - the preceding processes such as voter registration and the dates for the election.
It will be through media coverage that potential voters will know about the candidates contesting the elections. It will be again through the media that issues related to the elections are discussed, and clarified.
It will, therefore, be important that the media also be adequately prepared and capacitated to closely monitor the electoral process and give qualitative analyses on it. It is common cause that the media itself faces constraints and impediments in conducting its work under the current conditions where there remain a variety of restrictions - legal as well as socio-cultural - on its ability to do its work effectively.
Nonetheless, this period should provide an opportunity for the media to also expand its horizons in ensuring access to information and being a platform for discussion of issues of national importance. It is hence critical that media takes advantage of opportunities or capacity building in this area and also learns from the media coverage of the various electoral processes that have occurred in the region as well internationally.
As we consider the challenges confronting the country, it is also important to note the opportunities to change this situation where, and if they exist.
The reality is that these elections are being conducted in a climate where there is an absence of consensus as to the political system and the appropriate political direction of the country.
The question therefore arises as to how best to contribute towards change within this context: should one participate in the hope for incremental changes to the system or should one refrain and seek other alternatives?
The holding of the elections is inevitable and hence this is a question that each Swazi will have to ask herself or himself and regardless of the choice that is made, it will influence the political evolution of the country.
Lomcebo Dlamini is Chairperson – MISA Swaziland
First published in Khulumani, the newsletter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Swaziland chapter, issue 11 (January – March 2008).