Southern Africa Report (Johannesburg)
18 August 2011
Swaziland: Limbering Up for Constitutional Talks
Even before the first Rand of South Africa's R2,4-billion has changed hands, Swazi government and pro-democracy formations are positioning themselves to benefit from the loan's democracy dividend.
King Mswati III began the moment he got home from negotiations in Pretoria. Claiming personal responsibility for ending the financial crisis, he announced to his million-odd subjects - more than 70% of whom live in abject rural poverty, and suffer the world's highest rates of HIV-Aids and tuberculosis - that he had discussed their economic condition "with a number of countries. All said it was imperative that we find means of helping the country".
Pretoria's loan, he said, was "between the countries of the world facing a global recession".
Bizarrely, he also announced a European Union pledge of US$141-million (R1-billion) for infrastructural and agricultural development. No such pledge has been made by the EU. It has agreed to provide 33-million Euros (R314-million) in agricultural development support to smallholder and transport assistance to boost the Swazi sugar industry, the fourth main supplier of sugar to the EU.
Royal pointman in the government, Prime Minister [Barnabas] Sibusiso Dlamini, reinforced the king's campaigning, saying the monarch had worked "tirelessly" for the loan for almost a year after the "news broke" that revenue payments to Swaziland from the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) had been scaled back. In practice a 60% cut in Sacu revenues to Swaziland has been on the cards for nearly two decades, and is largely a consequence of Manzini's insistence on signing a trade agreement with the EU outside of the SADC and Sacu framework.
Mswati, Dlamini and Swaziland's kowtowing media have made scant reference to the real nature of the bailout - in effect a loan at 5,5% interest made against the Sacu account held by the South African Reserve Bank for Swaziland. They have also avoided detailing the conditions set by South Africa before agreeing to the loan.
Mswati appears to be hoping to achieve the South African conditions on democracy-building as through Swaziland's tinkhundla system - through which individuals are sent from 55 constituencies, based on traditional chieftainships, to the impotent lower house of parliament. This is starting to be played out in typically convoluted style, with the royal advisory council, or Liqoqo, being kicked into action to petition the sovereign to convene a session of the Sibaya, or "people's parliament", to discuss the nation's troubles.
The initiative is unlikely to pass muster in the Swazi-South African Joint Bilateral Commission for Cooperation or with the pro-democracy opposition as meeting the conditions requiring "democracy, human rights and good governance, credible and effective leadership".
Pretoria may, however, be willing to give some leeway on using this as an initial route towards more substantial talks, to provide Mswati a face-saving formula.
On the other side of the political divide progress towards the negotiating table has been less coordinated. The vocal, South African-based Swaziland Solidarity Network initially denounced President Jacob Zuma as Mswati's "sugar-daddy" - for which it subsequently mumbled an apology.
Against this, Swazi's trade unions, which provide the big battalions of the pro-democracy movement, have taken a more measured approach, apparently recognising Mswati's acceptance of South Africa's conditions as an opportunity for the pro-democracy movement.
Politically conservative strands of the Swazi pro-democracy movement have gravitated towards consultations promoted by the Pretoria-franchise of the US think tank Freedom House - drawing criticism from the Swazi trade union movement (an essential component of any talks) and from the four-month old, but increasingly influential, Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), which Freedom House excluded from the first meeting.
Inside Swaziland the first, tentative steps towards a coordinated response came through a conference convened by the traditionally cautious Swazi Council of Churches at the end of July. Described by conveners as a "Civil Society Convention" to prepare for "talks about talks" with the government, it has been seriously damaged by a walk-out by trade unionists, the exclusion of the CPS and subsequent wrangling on its legitimacy as a representative forum. These teething problems are likely ease in the weeks ahead, although major differences will remain.
The main political opposition formation, the People's United Democratic Front (Pudemo), has been unexpectedly quiet and apparently unwilling to draw together the diverse elements of the pro-democracy movement into a single formation under its leadership.