Swaziland: Parliament told to rethink sections of new draft constitution

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

MBABANE, 13 July (IRIN) - Less than a month after Swaziland's new draft constitution was passed, King Mswati III has ordered parliamentarians back to the drawing board to reconsider sections dealing with women's rights, religious freedom and the recall of MPs.

Mswati urged parliamentarians, the clergy and traditional leaders to meet in an emergency joint session to iron out their differences.

Since it got underway eight years ago, the constitutional review process has been dogged by controversy - rights groups have wholly rejected the final draft document, saying the drafting process was undemocratic.

"Consensus must be reached on certain clauses of the constitution, because the Swazi people must live with the outcome for a long time to come. His Majesty needs to see that everyone is in agreement before he can affix his signature," an official at the justice and constitutional affairs ministry told IRIN on Wednesday.

Political analysts said the disagreement between different interest groups centred on the extent to which the kingdom's cultural traditions were acknowledged in the new constitution, which largely reflects modern international human rights codes and norms.

Professor Nomthethu Simelane, a political science lecturer at the University of Swaziland, said, "Culture must be subsumed under the constitution - cultural claims must not be permitted to take the lead."

Simelane said one of the major concerns was a move by the Swaziland National Council Standing Committee earlier this week to delete references to gender equality in "cultural life" from the constitution.

Clause 29 of the draft constitution reads: "Women have the right to equal treatment with men, and that right shall include equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities."

Gender lobbyists later advocated for the inclusion of equal rights within the "cultural" sphere of society, much to chagrin of traditional leaders.

Jim Gama, governor of Ludzidzini royal village and the country's highest traditional authority, told the local press: "It would be wrong to make people equal culturally, because in Swazi culture you cannot appoint a female to be a chief. Also, a woman cannot pay lobola [a dowry of cattle], so it would be an unworkable situation if men and women would be equal culturally."

Although there are a number of Swazi village chiefs who are women, they have held the office in an acting capacity, as these positions are traditionally filled by men.

"There needs to be more debate on this issue - women have been contesting equal rights for a long time," said Simelane, adding that she supported Mswati's order to Parliament to hold a joint session to consider some of the more nettlesome sections of the constitution.

Parliamentarians rejected a clause allowing discontented constituencies to recall MPs they felt were performing badly; they also deleted a clause giving Mswati the power to dissolve parliament at any time.

"At issue is parliament's independence. They need autonomy; if they do not have autonomy, they are not very useful to the electorate," Simelane commented.

The king has also ordered parliament to re-debate whether Christianity should be the official religion.

Mswati, who supports religious freedom, met with Christian leaders last week in an attempt to resolve their differences.

Pastor Justice Dlamini, a prominent Christian leader, said Islamic leaders had aggressively lobbied for removal of the clause designating Christianity as the country's official religion. So far, Swaziland's estimated 10,000 Muslims have stayed out of the constitutional debate

No date has been set for promulgation of the constitution.


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