Monday, July 28, 2008





Constitution won’t have any impact on elections

By Vusi Sibisi

The dawn of a new constitutional era on 26 July 2005 was not surprisingly greeted by a combination of euphoria, trepidation and generally mixed feelings - depending on which side of the political spectrum one was - across the nation.

For the minions of the Tinkhundla political system, or whatever it is, it must have been fait accompli since from the onset the constitutional reform process was tailor-measured size fits all of them at the exclusion of all other citizens. And in practical terms they provided a ready source for the rented crowds that were essential to rubber stamp the circus that was showcased by the royal appointees driving the process during the so-called gathering of the people's inputs in return for, need I say very rare, hearty meals.

For the proponents of multiparty political system it was the betrayal of the highest order by the ruling class, which, by design, ensured their complete exclusion from and non-participation in the process. And true to form, they were excluded even from the constitution itself hence political parties remain banned even though the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and of association.

For those on the political fence it was a matter of wait and see which ay the wind blows before painting their colours to the mast. And lat is where they remain to date owing to the contradictions of the constitution. They cannot throw their weight behind the obtaining political hegemony because of uncertainty on how the contradictions would be resolved if and when the constitution is challenged in the courts. And for the same reasons they also cannot come out in support of multiparty politics. They would rather remain on the fence because they do not want to alienate anyone on either side of the huge political divide.

Then there are professional and other interest organizations whose take on the new constitutional order was mixed and varied. Amongst these is the media, the so-called Fourth Estate, which is the subject matter at issue in the face of the forthcoming elections. On paper journalists appear to be well protected and secured from the vagaries of the daily grind in that freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution in Chapter III, Section 24 under the protection of freedom of expression of the Bill of Rights as follows;

24. (1) A person has a right of freedom of expression and opinion;

(2) A person shall not except with the free consent of that person be hindered in the enjoyment of the freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press and other media, that is to say

(a) freedom to hold opinions without interference;

(b) freedom to receive ideas and information without interference;

(c) freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons); and

(d) freedom from interference with the correspondence of that person.

And this, 2008, being an election year should be an epoch in the annals of the history of the Kingdom of eSwatini for it would be for the second post-independence election to be held under a constitutional order. The first one, if I recall very well, being the elections for the second and last post-independence parliament that was ousted by the King's Proclamation to the Nation of 12 April 1973 that effectively banned politics within the borders of the Kingdom of eSwatini except if practiced by the governing Imbokodvo National Movement that was behind the coup against the independence constitution.

And if 2008 is the epoch-making year that it is slated to become, what are the expectations from a media perspective? My take is that with or without the constitution and with or without freedom of the press, there is little that will change apropos past elections when the nation goes to the polls slated for later in the year. The reason being that it is still one and the same player that this election is exclusively preserved for and that is the proponent of the Tinkhundla tyranny.

Unless and until proponents of multiparty democracy enter the fray and contest the elections, the conning elections would be a replay of previous elections. Yet participation of the as yet illegal political parties would naturally change the ball game in its entirety, which would in turn also impact on how the media covers the elections. Then there would be an elevation of a national agenda comprising of national imperatives and priorities above the myopic machinations of naive individuals who are clueless about the functions of parliament yet would be campaigning to be elected. Then there would be meaty issues for the media to grapple with if it can creatively spread itself to all the 55 constituencies.

In fact that is the difference between the media's reporting of elections elsewhere in the world where multiparty democracy is now second to nature and, therefore, not an issue and the Kingdom of eSwatini where individuals as opposed to political parties contest elections. Then the media plays a pivotal role in helping people take informed decisions by interrogating party manifestos and their concomitant agendas and priorities relative to national imperatives without having to overextend scarce human and financial resources.

But under the Tinkhundla tyranny, the media operates differently if not impossibly during elections. For one, it has to expend resources it does not have in reporting campaign stops and messages of individuals, some of whom have no clue of what is expected of them except that their primary objective is that fat pay cheque once they have made it to parliament. Thus whatever electioneering is happening, it is impossible to relate it to a national agenda or priorities let alone even those of the concerned geographic area of a particular constituency.

That the Elections and Boundaries Commission has just been appointed will also not help the situation in relation to both the media and the electorate. Part of the commission’s responsibilities is conducting civic education on elections; a task that appears out of the equation at this late hour when even the commissioners are still tackling bread and butter matters of wages. In turn this means the electorate would be lacking sufficient knowledge of and information about and ill prepared for the elections.

The media traditionally plays a vital role in such civic education exercises because of its reach. And without any such civic education one can expect that negotiating the election terrain would be extremely difficult for both the media and the electorate. However, the media can still play a significant role in this respect but it all rests with the Elections and Boundaries Commission and how prepared it is for the task of coordinating such civic education through a multi-media campaign that would ensure that the electorate is provided sufficient information through a media of choice.

If you ask me, the media is facing no different challenges than those it has faced in past elections. In terms, the constitution has not changed anything not least because no one cares if and when it is breached. For BaKaNgwane it might just as well be business as usual without or outside the constitution, so what and who cares!

Perhaps the ultimate challenge the media can oard without any express approval of anyone; that of deciding on and challenging election candidates to debate national imperatives and priorities. May be even under a discredited system such as Tinkhundla, such a platform can provide vibrant discussions and debates.

Otherwise the constitution won't change anything on the ground to influence how the media conducts itself and report on the elections because it is still the politically compromised and patronized Elections and Boundaries Commission that sets the tone and the boundaries of freedom of expression and how, where and when to exercise the same.

Vusi Sibisi is a freelance journalist working in Swaziland.

First published in Khulumani, the newsletter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Swaziland chapter, issue 11 (January – March 2008).

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