Swaziland: Doubt over legality of protests keep Swazis at bay, for now

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MBABANE, 16 December (IRIN) - Ambiguity over the legality of protests kept Swazis away from most political rallies and anti-government demonstrations in 2005, say pro-democracy groups battling to prompt reform in a country run by sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.

But the situation could change next year, when a bill of rights comes into effect.

Pro-democracy groups have had a dismal year in terms of attendance at rallies: a nationwide worker's stay-away in January failed to attract interest even among union members; a march called last month was cancelled at the last moment on the pretext that government was willing to engage its critics on constitutional issues.

"If things are so bad here - with over 40 percent unemployment and about a fifth of the population HIV-positive, and more than one out of three Swazis dependant on foreign donor food aid for their survival - why aren't people protesting like in other countries?" asked civil servant Bheki Dlamini as he joined other government workers at a poorly attended march on Wednesday.

"We called all civil servants to leave their posts and join us. Instead, we got reports from marchers that their colleagues stayed in their offices and peeked out windows at those who did come," remarked Quentin Dlamini, president of the Swaziland National Association of Civil Servants.

Street marches and political demonstrations are illegal in Swaziland unless permitted by the commissioner of police, who routinely turns down such requests because political organising is banned under a 1973 emergency decree.

Paul Shilubane, president of the Swaziland Law Society, told IRIN, "There still is ambiguity in the law about whether it is legal to protest. If there were an unambiguous right to demonstrate, you would see more people doing so. Right now, they are afraid of police reprisals; even me - I am a lawyer - but if I was assured it is my legal right to do so, I might be persuaded to join a march."

The decree is due to be supplanted by a new national constitution next month, which contains a bill of rights allowing freedom of assembly, provided the king does not find it in conflict with the "public interest".

University students were beaten and gassed by police in 2005's liveliest street demonstration, and their agenda was not even political. Students were irked by the government's bursary cutbacks and marched to the ministry of education.

"I remember at the height of the rule-of-law crisis [when the Court of Appeal judges resigned in 2002 to protest government's refusal to abide by court rulings], there was a big debate in the legal fraternity. Lawyers were saying we should take to the street, while other lawyers were saying, 'no, to do so would be to break the law, and we could not be seen to be breaking the law'," said Shilubane.

He feels that change may come when the new constitution comes into effect.

"Once a bill of rights is in place, I am sure we will see some attempts to protest under its protection - I am sure we will see more action in 2006. I am gearing up for some test cases," Shilubane noted.

The last major anti-government mass demonstration, held in November 2000, attracted 6,000 protestors. After further demonstrations were banned in Swaziland, the venue was moved across the border to Nelspruit, South Africa, which organisers felt contributed to the good turnout.

One of the organisers, Muzi Masuku, who runs the Swaziland chapter of the NGO, Open Societies Initiative for Southern Africa, recalled, "Although security forces tried to block the highway, there were big buses and many vehicles bringing people. We asked who these people were, and they were civil servants, town people; people who would not turn out for a demonstration in Mbabane [the Swazi capital] because of the undercover police taking photos."

However, Masuku felt that even if demonstrations were legal they would still fail to evoke enough confidence in Swazis to participate in protests, as most people were unaware of their rights and fearful of losing their jobs.

"Times have changed since the 1990s, when there were the mass workers' stayaways called by the labour federations and the student protests. That was a time of democratisation in Africa, but our economy was better. Now the economy is poor, and people want to protect what they have and not risk losing their jobs", he said.

Masuku felt the Swazi people needed to be educated about their civil rights in the new constitution. "This is not a litigious society, but there will be some test cases as people experiment with their rights," he predicted.

Government spokesman Percy Simelane, who covered the mass protests in the 1990s as a broadcaster, conceded that times had changed, and Swazis, with their well-known easy-going manner were even less inclined to take to the streets, but blamed the leadership of the political opposition for failing to inspire followers.

"People are suspicious about the leadership of today's unions and political parties. The Swazis I talk with say these leaders are in it for personal reasons. The heads of the teachers' and civil servants' unions got government to give them pay rises, but failed to get the same for other union members," Simelane observed.

This sentiment was echoed by Mandla Mabuza, a builder in the central commercial city, Manzini, a former site of political protests.

"Swazis ... are suspicious of people who call themselves leaders, whose motives they don't know," he commented. "They say, 'I will just stick with government, because I know those people'." Mabuza considers himself politically aware but has never joined a protest march.

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