OUR DEAFENING SWAZI SILENCE
In a normal society, the man would have been charged with incitement. But this was no normal society; it was a country called Swaziland. Or, as its rulers would prefer, the Kingdom of Swaziland. The man in question was the kingdom’s prime minister, Barnabas Sibusiso ... yes, yes, you guessed right ... Dlamini.
Speaking in Parliament recently, Dlamini said a union leader and a human rights activist should be strangled upon their return from an overseas trip. He was referring to Vincent Ncongwane, the general secretary of the Trade Union Council of Swaziland, and lawyer Sipho Gumedze. They had gone to the US to lobby support from the heads of state attending the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit.
Dlamini accused the two men of “sneaking” into the US. He stopped short of accusing them of treason, saying he couldn’t understand why they were in Washington when there was already an official government delegation representing the country at the summit.
“They leave your constituencies and do not even inform you where they are going. Once they come back and you find out that they are from your constituency, you must strangle them. The crucial question you should ask yourselves is why they have gone there without informing us,” he told MPs.
He also urged those chiefs, whose subjects these activists were, to punish them for leaving the country without their permission.
In a later interview with the Times of Swaziland, Dlamini said the country would never tolerate people “going behind [the king’s] back to oppose him”. He added: “That is not allowed and no country can allow that.”
He proceeded to explain Swazi democracy: “Swazis respect the king, they never oppose him. The king has no opposition. It is only government that could have opposition, so government took serious exception to what they did,” said Dlamini.
These utterances, dear reader, do not come from a Sacha Baron Cohen movie based in a fictional country. They are the words of a prime minister of a neighbouring country.
While South Africans enjoy their democracy and express their freedoms in the most diverse ways, our brethren next door are subjected to the primitive attitudes of people like Dlamini and other members of the Swazi government. It is a repressive government whose members behave as if they are living in medieval times.
As I write this, journalist Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko have just been convicted of contempt of court and are set to serve two years in jail. Their crime was coauthoring articles that were critical of abuse of power by the country’s judiciary.
The articles related to the harassment and arrest of a vehicle inspector who had committed the grave mistake of booking a judge’s driver for violating traffic laws. After the articles were published, the men were jailed and denied bail.
In a country where the line between the judiciary, the government and the monarchy is very blurred, their convictions and sentencing were always fait accompli. Over the years, Makhubu’s courageous journalism has earned the wrath of the boy king and his playmates.
He has been harassed, had his publications shut down and has been in and out of courtrooms almost as many times as King Mswati II has made wedding vows.
He is not alone in this. Pro-democracy activists and those who dare speak their minds face this all the time. They face the brute force of a ruling elite that is bent on preventing Swazis from living the free lives that most in southern Africa live.
We in South Africa look on unperturbed by the abuses next door. Cosatu and the SA Communist Party (when these supposed Marxists are not busy protecting presidential corruption) have been the only consistent voices in speaking out on Swaziland.
Opposition parties, who have correctly made huge noises about the situation in Zimbabwe, have been silent on Swaziland. The religious community and other elements of civil society have made occasional noises.
Loudest in the muteness has been South Africa’s governing party, the ANC. The continent’s oldest liberation movement has been very happy to cavort with the abusive Swazi elite and has said little about its desire for Swaziland to be a free and democratic nation. The party’s corporate arm, Chancellor House, does good business in Swaziland and probably benefits nicely from the medieval worker rights in the country.
Some have suggested the spoils of Chancellor House’s investments may be one of the reasons for the cosy relationship with the oppressive government. President Jacob Zuma and King Mswati are said to be on very good terms, and love giggling and guffawing with each other. No prizes for guessing the dominant topic of their long and humorous chats.
As a people who enjoy the freedoms we have, Swaziland should sit heavily on our consciences. The sentencing of Makhubu and Maseko should bring home the reality of what is going on next door.