Spotlight interview with Mduduzi C. Gina (SFTU - Swaziland)

"A campaign to draw attention to the repression in Swaziland"

Trade unions are at the forefront of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign launched in February to push for change in one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. The campaign brings together civil society, human rights groups, unions and the banned parties. It seeks to mobilize international support for democracy in a small country that is seldom in the spotlight. As Mduduzi C. Gina, general secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), explains, the campaign organizers want an end to oppressive anti-terrorism laws and the lifting of restrictions on the media and political gatherings. They are demanding multi-party elections and are contemplating calling for targeted international sanctions against the ruling clique around the royal family if the authorities refuse to budge.

It’s been a year since the ITUC’s Union View published a special report on Swaziland(1) highlighting the trade union’s struggle to bring democracy to Swaziland in spite of the crackdown by the royal authorities. Have things improved since then?

Things have not changed. The hopes for justice, freedom of expression and democratization are suffering. The Suppression of Terrorism Act is being used to oppress the public and those that oppose the system, those that are human rights campaigners. Then there is the question of political parties that are proscribed. Mario Masuko (leader of the banned People’s United Democratic Movement, the main opposition party) has been released after 340 days in prison. He was acquitted by the high court judge, but the country is almost the same. The coming back of the current prime minister had made things a little bit tougher. As we speak now, the government is considering legislation that will ban public servants from political activity, despite the fact that the Labour Advisory Board advised them not go ahead with that ratification. What is happening with the public servants is that they are intending to take away all the rights of the public servants. What we have noticed is that they are intending to push the public servants out of the federation by claiming that, because of the federation’s relationship with the United Democratic Front, we are a political body, so they are pushing civil servants not to take up with federation.

What has taken place, is that during the Geneva conference, the International Labour Conference (in June 2009), the government was directly criticised, the conference put the country under the spotlight, so the government held back, but now the government is continued to go ahead with it.

What does the new Swaziland Democracy Campaign hope to achieve?

The Swaziland Democracy Campaign aims to mobilize opinion and publicize Swaziland’s human rights failing both in our region and outside the region, to highlight the situation in the country. If you look at where the world is concentrating on undemocratic regimes and countries, they are looking at Zimbabwe where a lot of serious violations are taking place. The Swaziland Democracy Campaign is a campaign which is intended to create international attention on Swaziland. One thing I have to say is that the government was very furious at our participation in the Swaziland Democracy Campaign; they said that we joined some of our friends in South Africa to undermine the good name of Swaziland.

So the trade unions are playing an important role in that new campaign?

That is correct, that is very correct, because we are the ones who are holding those protests which are vital to the campaign. In fact, we are putting in place some programmes that will help joint activities within the Swaziland Democratic Campaign. I would predict that there will be mass protests in the country and we will be joined by our friends from the region. The protests will be inside Swaziland. And what we have done is that we have mobilized the human rights campaigners of the region, from South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, to come and march inside Swaziland. We will be projecting the workers’ involvement in the protest movement, which will highlight the undemocratic tendencies in the country and we are going to give the government a fright. In view of the fact that the political parties are banned, clearly the agenda for democratization is being led by the trade unions. We are now in opposition.

There have been other attempts to put pressure on the government in the past. What makes this different, how will it be more effective?

In fact, what makes it more important in my view is that it will be a campaign will highlight the situation in the country for the outside world. What has been taking place in my opinion is that some of those colleagues internationally, they just don’t know that there is anything happening inside the country, they just think it is part of South Africa. So this is a question of putting Swaziland’s situation on the map. We will be opening up the situation to international organizations as part of the campaign.

What kind of support would you like to see from trade union and other international organizations in the region and around the world?

We are currently mobilizing for smart indentified individual sanctions, sanctions that will target the individuals that are frustrating the democratization of the country for their own selfish ends. What we might expect from the trade unions would be cooperation when we would be entering into some product boycotts, boycotts of some specific products that would seem to be the core pillars of some of the businesses that operate in Swaziland. We would identify some products like sugar. What is taking place there is that the King is having a substantial share in the sugar milling company and we could indentify some specific target for example in Europe to protest against products using that sugar.

Isn’t there a danger that could have a negative impact on the economy of the country and eventually on your members?

Perhaps yes, one could think that would be a hit below the belt for the workers. Economic sanctions which may have a negative impact on employment would be a last resort. But we think hitting those key economic areas could be a key to change. We reiterate our acceptance and understanding that real freedom comes at a price and not on a silver platter.

How has Swaziland been affected by the economic crisis over the past year?

It has hit us. Clearly it has hit us; we have seen a lot of companies closing down. We have lost a lot of companies, particularly in the pulp sector. Close to 4,000 employees have lost their jobs. One of the oldest plants making paper, the only one in the country, closed down at the end of January, the SAPPI plant, and some textile companies have also closed down.

Interview by Paul Ames.

(1) Entitled "Swaziland: the repressive side of an absolute monarchy", this Union View report can be consulted here
Also see the interview with Vincent Ncongwane (SFL - Swaziland) here

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