A march that took place in Swaziland this week to protest against the xenophobic violence spreading throughout South Africa showed how difficult it is to have a dissenting voice heard in the kingdom.
This time the problem wasn’t the Swazi police, who are famous for firing teargas and rubber bullets at legitimate protestors. The problem this time was the march organisers.
It happened like this. The Council of Swaziland Churches (CSC) organised a march in the Swazi capital Mbabane to draw attention to the racial killings in South Africa and to hand in a petition to the South African Embassy.
Depending which newspaper you read 50 people (Swazi Observer, 29 May 2008) or 100 people (Times of Swaziland, same day) took part.
Among those attending were ‘progressives’. In Swaziland, the term ‘progressive’ has taken on a peculiar meaning, especially when used by defenders of the status quo or the media. ‘Progressives’, means nasty, horrible people, who given half a chance will burn your houses down and eat your children. Or, at least, something like that.
‘Progressives’ turned up and ‘hijacked’ the proceedings. Interestingly, both the Times and the Observer used the word ‘hijack’ in their headlines, when reporting on the incident.
As ‘hijacks’ go, it was pretty small beer. According to the Observer, one well-known progressive joined the march and began to sing, what the newspaper described as ‘political songs’. The newspaper reported that eight men later joined him.
‘While the Christians were singing hymns, they were singing political songs and chanting political slogans. Some of the Christians tried to stop them, and a fight almost broke out because they refused to stop chanting the political songs or leave the march. They said no one was going to stop them expressing their views,’ the Observer reported.
The Times reported there was ‘tension’ when an Anglican Church pastor told them ‘the walk was not political’.
The ‘progressives’ were said to have brought their own placards (but in its usual fashion the Times declined to let us know what was written on them.) It must have been something ‘radical’ because the marchers (identified as supporters of the banned organisation PUDEMO) kept the banners under wraps until they reached the centre of the city. When they were outside the embassy, they raised them.
The ‘progressives’ told the Times they were protesting about the ‘crisis’ of the forthcoming elections in Swaziland.
Bishop Meshack Mabuza, for the CSC, told the Times that he hoped they would realise they had done wrong and would ‘repent’.
So there you are. The march against xenophobia was ‘not political’, according to the organisers. It begs the question: If racist killings are not political, what counts as political to the churches of Swaziland?
Also, the ‘progressives’ were not allowed to dissent against the elections. By doing so, according to the bishop, they had sinned and needed to repent.
I hope that the Bishop was misquoted, or quoted out of context, because if there is one thing that Swaziland needs right now it is dissent. The forthcoming elections are a con trick on the Swazi nation and the international community, who both are being led to believe that the elections are ‘free and fair’.
The sooner we understand that basic truth the better. And if it takes nine ‘progressives’ marching alongside a handful of Christians to make us understand, so be it.