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In Swaziland, a mobilized ``civil society'' seems to be a powerful actor. However, in Swaziland even a realized ``liberal democracy'' would be considered a clear step forward from the unapologetically autocratic monarchical system in place there presently. For Jacqui Salmond, there are no ambiguities. In her view, the trade-union centred popular movement that has surfaced so visibly from within civil society in recent years is, together with its regional allies, the potential bearer of a transformed future for Swaziland. Salmond also notes, for Swaziland, the potentially contradictory alliance that has found business and labour linking up to push for democratic change. (jbv)

vol 12 no 3

Swaziland: I - Of trade unions and transformation
Jacqui Salmond

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 3, June 1997
Page 7



Jacqui Salmond, who studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, spent extensive time in Swaziland from 1992 to 1995. She maintains close contact with PUDEMO and SWAYOCO and has worked on the compilation of a political biography on pro-democracy advocate Ambrose Zwane.

April 12th, 1973, was a turning point in Swaziland's political history. On that day, King Sobhuza seized all administrative, legislative and judicial powers, denying the people of Swaziland the right to freely associate, to assemble, to organize, or to speak out. Ruling by decree, the Swazi monarchy introduced a series of repressive laws over the next two decades aimed at maintaining political domination. Members of the opposition were subjected to detention without trial and meetings of more than 4 people were outlawed. Although a parliamentary system was formed after the 1973 coup d'état, the monarchy and its entourage (the Imbokodvo National Movement) have ruled with an iron fist for the past twenty-four years.

Activists in Swaziland today face the difficult task of convincing the public that resistance to an undemocratic government is not a betrayal of cultural identity. [On some of the complexities of the quasi-traditional character of the Swazi socio-political system see the accompanying article, in this issue, by Michael Stephen.] Yet there are growing signs that the people of Swaziland may be ready for a change. With the living standards of the majority declining and fraudulent spending by public officers exposed, the public has grown increasingly disenchanted with the corrupt behaviour of the ruling class. Such tensions have been exacerbated by the harsh global economic climate, and its impact domestically on rising unemployment and reduced social services. The majority of Swazis are beginning to identify the authoritarian Tinkhundla system [see Stephen] as central to the problem. The agendas of labour organizations, underground political parties, youth, church, and women's groups have converged around issues of political emancipation, labour rights and social justice. Confidence in the monarchy has waned, while revolutionary fervour has intensified.


National strikes in 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997 were perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of these changes. A two-day strike called by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) in 1994 led to the establishment of a tripartite forum, comprised of government, worker, and business representatives, to address the '27 Popular Demands' of the general strike and to seek to improve the working conditions of the Swazi people. The 27 demands included improvements in minimum wages, affirmative action policies, an end to racial and gender discrimination, the right to strike and to organize without state intimidation, the unbanning of political parties, and the freedom to assemble, to associate, and to speak without the fear of reprisal.

The government failed to address these demands. The result was another general strike in March of 1995, which cost the economy over 100 million rand in lost production and damaged property. At this time, the SFTU began to acknowledge the need to mobilize workers to struggle for democracy, conceding that reform could not take place in a repressive climate. Up to this point, the SFTU had deliberately avoided political issues, since the government only reluctantly allowed trade union activity as long as political issues remain outside their mandate.

In November, 1995, organized labour, underground political parties, and women, youth, and church groups came together for the first time in a unified, labour-led pro-democracy movement. With the threat of yet another strike looming, the Federation of Swaziland Employers (FSE) warned government that business confidence in Swaziland was waning due to the heavy losses during previous strikes. However, government did not heed this warning; rather, parliament passed a new industrial relations act which criminalized mass action by workers, subjecting union organizers to 10 years imprisonment and/or a 10,000 rand fine for inciting labour unrest. One hundred thousand workers responded with a nine day general strike in January 1996.


In a country of approximately 950,000, a general strike of 100,000 workers was extraordinary. As 60% of the population is below the age of 21 and approximately 50% of the population is unemployed, these 100,000 workers constituted virtually the entire national workforce. They halted most economic activity, and the state responded violently. Many activists and union leaders were arrested, tortured and beaten by the state security agents, and one person was killed by police during a demonstration. Electricity, water, food and fuel supplies were disturbed, schools were closed, and over 1 billion Rand was lost in production, trade and damage to property.

After a series of secret meetings between South African President Nelson Mandela and King Mswati III, Swaziland's ruling monarch, a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) was established in July, 1996. This appeared to be a progressive step, yet it fell far short of genuine reform. For example, committee members who were representatives of other organizations (for example, the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA), SFTU) were prohibited from expressing the collective concerns of their constituents. Moreover, anyone who denounced the CRC was subject to a hefty fine and/or a prison term.

Both international investors and local business began to take a more active role in the negotiation process in a last ditch effort to preserve the business climate. Escalating political instability, production losses and damage to property during the 1996 strike led business to align itself more closely than ever with the labour front in an effort to bring a peaceful solution to the political impasse. Numerous behind the scenes meetings forged a closer relationship between employers, workers, and political activists, signifying the possibility of a departure from the conflictual industrial relations which characterize Swazi workplaces. These seemingly amenable relations between labour and management left government the odd one out in the labour-business-government triad. Although relations remain adversarial at most workplaces, organized labour, the business community and the banned political opposition have formed a rather peculiar social partnership aimed at creating a more broadly democratic environment in which to engage in economic activity.

It is important to note, however, that the business community has kept itself at arms length from the pro-democracy movement because political activity remains illegal in Swaziland. The business community has linked itself to labour's aim of bringing a more democratic environment to both the workplace and the national political system, but it has yet to form a meaningful alliance with the pro-democracy movement. Due to the conflictual nature of the struggle, business is unwilling to enter political debate in case the government rescinds the many pro-capital locational incentives which attracted them to Swaziland in the first place. Business also faces the difficult task of finding a balance between its inherent need to limit labour rights and the necessity of promoting a stable political climate. Therefore, they have disguised reform as an apolitical issue. Labour, on the other hand, is primarily interested in improving the general conditions of the people, which includes political emancipation.

An intransigent government

The government's uncompromising position over political and labour reform led to another general strike when, in 1997, the country's major industries (sugar, forestry, citrus processing, and many others) were brought to a standstill for the entire month of February, costing the nation millions of rands. Again, the focus of this defiance campaign was primarily political. Again, the government again cracked down forcefully on the dissent and activists and trade unionists were harassed, tortured, and jailed. Through it all, this latest incident of civil unrest, the 1997 general strike, consolidated several important trends:

1) the convergence of organized labour groups, political parties, and civic organizations into a popular front, a coalition known as the Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA);

2) the development of a less adversarial relationship between labour and business, as demonstrated by the cooperation between the FSE and the SFTU;

3) the emergence of transnational cooperation between organized labour across the region, a trend exemplified by cross-border organizing and genuine international solidarity throughout the strike; and

4) in sharp contrast, a xenophobic/isolationist response from the ruling class, particularly with regard to the involvement of both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) during the negotiation process.

For the brutality of the regime has not gone unnoticed within the region. Four neighbouring heads of state sought to bring SADC into the crisis as a conciliatory body. The Cape Town Summit, held on February 19th, 1997, was convened to find possible solutions to the Swazi crisis, with a particular focus on the release of the detained trade union leaders. Hosted by President Nelson Mandela, presidents Chissano of Mozambique, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Masire of Botswana all attended. Since King Mswati III was not invited to this meeting, the Swazi government issued an angry response, accusing its neighbours of unwarranted interference in their domestic affairs.

As for COSATU, it has also sought - alongside the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) - to play an important role by trying to exert pressure on Swaziland's unresponsive and repressive regime. More broadly, with the formation of the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) in March 1997 a wide range of organizations from both inside and outside Swaziland (PUDEMO, SWAYOCO, SDA, ANC, SACP, COSATU and others) have come together to initiate a campaign to rid the country of the notorious 1973 Decree.

Of course, these regional initiatives have been used by the regime to buttress the claim that foreigners, not Swazis, are the ones responsible for the dissent: with the help of the state-owned media houses, the regime is responding to the growing popular front by portraying all opposition forces as foreign, hoping to undermine the legitimacy of the pro-democracy movement. It's success in doing so may prove to be quite limited, however. With the democratic transitions that have taken place in both Mozambique and South Africa during the 1990's, as well as a peace accord that has been signed in Angola, Swaziland becomes the last remaining "sore thumb" in the southern African region. Perhaps increased pressure for democratic reform from the donor community can persuade the regime to restore a decent social and political climate. Continued solidarity among international social justice networks also may be instrumental in the monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses. The international links between the Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the ILO, COSATU, ICFTU, ANC, SACP, Amnesty International and others should continue to prove a reliable source of moral, strategic, and material support. But it is the continued consolidation of the social justice movement within Swaziland, whose growing strength has been best exemplified by the strike wave of recent years, that provides the most important hope for the future.

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