18 September 2008
SWAZILAND: Ignoring protests will not make them go away
MANZINI, 18 September 2008 (IRIN) - Swazi police on Thursday detained trade union leaders and pro-democracy activists attempting to blockade the landlocked country's border with South Africa, to press their demands for political reform in the kingdom.
"Whilst it may be within the rights of workers to engage in protest action, it is certainly unacceptable to exercise this right by disrupting the free flow of goods and services and infringing on the rights of others to conduct their business freely," said Prime Minister Themba Dlamini in a media statement.
Jan Sithole, Secretary General of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, and Mario Masuku, president of the banned political party, the People's United Democratic Movement, were reportedly detained after the government declared the demonstration illegal. Police prevented protestors from getting near the four key border posts with South Africa.
Road freight firms contacted by IRIN said they had taken the blockade threat seriously, but had no choice but to attempt normal operations. Around 90 percent of Swaziland's imports come from South Africa, including all petroleum products. The Congress of South African Trade Unions held demonstrations on the South African side of the border in solidarity with Swazi workers.
The border demonstrations were held on the eve of the country's parliamentary elections, in which political parties are banned from campaigning. King Mswati, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, appoints cabinet ministers from the ranks of elected and palace-appointed members of parliament, and selects the prime minister, who is a member of the ruling Dlamini clan.
The government's attempt to ban demonstrations two weeks ago in the capital, Mbabane, and the central commercial town, Manzini, was thwarted by the largest turnout for a political rally in the nation's history. A combined 25,000 protestors marched in both cities to demand political reform.
The government subsequently ridiculed the event by saying the number represented a small minority of the 970,000 population. Political activists responded by pointing out that fewer people – 15,000 - had turned out for the recent controversial celebrations marking Mswati's 40th birthday and the country's 40 years of independence.
"Both groups are right and wrong. The political demonstrations were historic and should be taken seriously. But the average Swazi is more impacted by hunger, AIDS and unemployment," said Joshua Khoza, a political writer from Manzini. Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world and more than two-thirds of the population depend on foreign food aid.
A Commonwealth Secretariat observer team to the last parliamentary elections in 2003 concluded that the polls were not free and fair.