By Peter Kenworthy, Simon Redder Thomsen and Mathias Parsbæk Skibdal
Swaziland has been an absolute monarchy for decades and both local and international organisations have long called for democratic reforms. After intense pressure from the country’s democratic movement and internationally, King Mswati III is now opening up.
For the first time during his 29-year long reign, the absolute Monarch of Swaziland will be meeting representatives from the political parties and local CSOs to discuss the future of Swaziland. Though the meeting is being met with skepticism in parts of the democratic movement, there remains hope that this meeting could mark a democratic turning point for the small kingdom in Southern Africa.
The Commonwealth Special Envoy to Swaziland, former president of Malawi Bakili Muluzi, will chair the meeting, which was originally set for 30 September, but has now been postponed to the end of October. The hope is that the meeting will mark the starting point of a process (quickly dubbed the Muluzi process), which will lead to free and fair multiparty elections in 2018.
“The end result must be free and fair national elections, starting with talks about talks behind closed doors”, says PUDEMO president, Mario Masuku, whose views are shared by SWADEPA president, Jan Sithole:
“The ultimate goal for the Muluzi process is to agree with the king on multi-party elections in 2018 and onwards”, he states.
Uniting civil society
Even though the concrete content and format of the meeting is still unknown, different parties and CSO’s are vividly discussing how to approach the process. While there is an ongoing attempt to coordinate approaches to the meeting, opinions still differ.
“The dialogue must be treated with cautiousness [..] and civil society must be ready to accept even slow and small progress in the dialogue, without giving away on the overall goal of a multi-party system”, Sithole says and emphasizes that SWADEPA is keen to build on their reformist dialogue with the king, which among other things has lead them to gain 8 parliamentary seats at the 2013 elections.
PUDEMO, on the other hand, is insisting that conditionalities must be met before they will attend a meeting with the king:
“Every person must have a right to express themselves at such a meeting and all laws that hinder progress must be removed, including the Suppression of Terrorism Act”, insists Masuku, who himself is charged under this act for shouting “viva PUDEMO” on May Day 2014.
Several associates of the King has since then dismissed the idea of setting conditions for the King as “totally unheard of”.
So why has the prospect of dialogue suddenly become seemingly appealing to the King?
Many believe it is a product of the ongoing pressure, both from the national civil society and from international actors. Masuku shares this view:
“There has been growing pressure from the ILO regarding the Suppression of Terrorism Act, from the EU regarding the human rights situation, and from USA, who has withdrawn Swaziland’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act with all the benefits that went with it for Swaziland”.
The growing pressure has also resulted in the lifting of a ban on Swaziland’s trade union congress, TUCOSWA, the release of political prisoners Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, the sacking of corrupt Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi and the release on bail of Mario Masuku and youth activist Maxwell Dlamini.
While the democratic situation in Swaziland remains both grim and gloomy, small glimmers of hope do seem to be appearing on the horizon. The eyes will now be on civil society and their ability to coordinate a joint approach, as well as on the regime, who will hopefully commit to a process of democratic change.
Contact Mathias Parsbæk Skibdal, Project Coordinator at DIPD: email@example.com