By Shaun Raviv
Swazis voted for members of Parliament last Friday, and though international media have presented little hope for change in the kingdom based on the outcome—calling the election a “selection” and the King the “only winner”—at least two results show that voters are yearning for new leadership. Whether new faces in the House of Assembly will be able to institute any serious change in a country where political parties are effectively banned and Mswati III appoints two-thirds of the more-powerful Senate remains to be seen, writes Shaun Raviv.
At the very least, Swazis showed their dislike of sitting Parliamentarians, electing more than 40 new faces out of 55 electable seats. Gone is the shameful Hlobsile “Hlobi” Ndlovu, whose wisdom over the past five years has given Swazi women a bad name. Voters also said good riddance to at least one MP who is sitting in jail, plus royal apologist Lutfo Dlamini.
One man who has spent the past two and a half decades boycotting elections, Swaziland Democratic Party head and pro-democracy activist Jan Sithole, has been elected as an MP representing Manzini North. I spoke to Sithole a few hours before the election results were in, and asked the famed Swazi union leader why he has gone from boycotting to campaigning. Some have expressed disappointment that Sithole is supporting a system that is not promoting true voice-of-the-people democracy. But Sithole says his change in strategy is just a continuation of his past actions and beliefs.
“I still subscribe to social justice, human dignity, democracy, rule of law, separation of powers,” Sithole told me on Friday while standing in the shade at a polling station. “I believe in seeing a Swaziland that is economically vibrant, with jobs for all. And a Swaziland that provides equality for men and women and respects the international covenants that it has ratified. That’s me in the past, that’s me now. What has changed is the forum that I want to use to achieve the same principles.”
Famous for his “27 demands”, a list of economic and social changes that he promoted as head of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), Sithole now hopes to make demands from within Parliament. “Part of the demands that we made then was calling for a human rights–driven constitution with a bill of rights. We have a constitution with a bill of rights. But it’s not being operationalized by Parliament,” said Sithole.
“We can begin to tilt the governance of this country towards a democratic space using the constitution, calling upon Parliament to make laws that are in sync with the dictates of the constitution, including political parties. But you have to have a law that regulates that. Parliament should make those laws.”
The 27 Demands garnered Sithole death threats, police intimidation, and even potential deportation in the mid-90s, but he says he will continue to fight against corrupt politicians even as he joins their ranks as an MP. “Those that go into Parliament are not concerned about the social development of the people, but about what they get from being in government,” said Sithole. “When things are difficult they cut old age grants and they stop the OVC school fees, but still make a big cake for themselves. It’s a self-centered approach that does not take into account the concerns of the majority poor.”
“The IMF says Swaziland is not poor. The problem in Swaziland is unfair distribution of the wealth created. It’s skewed distribution. A lot of funds goes to few people and into white elephant projects. The actual core commodities such as healthcare get less. Education gets less, agriculture gets less, and people get poor. Yet the country is rich.”
One of Sithole’s goals has been to see a true right of assembly in Swaziland, rather than one that exists on paper only. “Swaziland had political parties before independence,” Sithole told me. “And had political parties after independence until 1973. We had political parties and no one died. The sun never fell. There was no corruption; there was debate, there was vibrancy.”
“Now we have freedom of assembly, but the police use the Public Order Act of 1963 to disburse gatherings. The problem is with Parliament. There’s a discord in the law and to make this right you need to go where those decisions are made, where you can begin to actualize the spirit of the constitution so the citizens will benefit.”
Sithole says that Swaziland is not a true democracy because it does not apply its own constitution in practice. “Democracy is not what is in the book. It’s what you practice, it’s what you live,” he said. “For me democracy is a full package of freedoms.”
With Sithole switching his strategy to make change from the inside, it will be interesting to see if he falls prey to the temptations of being an MP, and if the alteration proves more successful. “Boycott is a strategy for those that believe in it. The difference for me is that the strategy should be a means of meeting your principled objectives, and if the strategy doesn’t work you must change it. You have continuous assessment. Even if boycott is a strategy then it has not been evaluated in the last 25 years.”