Spotlight interview with Vincent Ncongwane (SFL, Swaziland)

“In the absence of political opposition to the government, we as unions cannot shy away from political issues”

Trade Unions in Swaziland have been in the forefront of efforts to promote democracy in one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. Union leaders have been arrested, protesters beaten and political parties banned. The country is suffering from dire poverty, widespread unemployment and the world’s highest rate of HIV infection, but last year millions were spent on lavish celebrations to mark 40 years of independence from Britain and King Mswati’s 40th birthday. Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, explains the challenges facing the unions.

Tell us about the SFL and the work it is doing in Swaziland?

“The SFL is a federation that came into being in 1994. Before 1994 there was one federation and that was the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, so the SFL came into being. We now have some 13 affiliates, and we are working closely with the SFTU now and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers in dealing with the economic and political problems that beset the country. We are currently engaged with the two organizations I mentioned in trying to build up a coordinating council. We are not at the moment talking about the merger of the three organizations but we are talking about the council in order to coordinate our approaches to the challenges that are presented by the employers and the government …. In some ways the attitude of government has helped to bring us together.

What are those challenges that you are facing as a trade union federation?

On the political front we’ve got challenges in what concerns the issue of freedom of association. These are challenges because we have got a constitution which was crafted, unfortunately I must say, with the help of the UNDP and the Commonwealth, which provides that the route to Parliament is not through political parties. That we think is one of the most unfortunate contributions, and the effect of that has been to shut out political parties from meaningful political participation. And for us as trade unions we believe that political parties have a role to play in any meaningful space in any country. And we’re also in the situation where in Swaziland really there is no meaningful opposition to the current regime, so we have that major challenge.”

“We also have a challenge as regards the extent to which we are able to band together as labour organizations and civil society organizations because we are dealing with a monolith as far as government is concerned, and the level of disarray is giving government room to play. And this is why for us as labour it is important to have this council. Some of the challenges are the political literacy of our constituency. This is being developed particularly at a very slow pace – to have the broad base of the membership appreciate why as unions we cannot shy away from the political issues, because without any opposition, with the way our monies are spent, there’s no one to call government to order.

Only last year, which was 2008, there was what is normally called the 40/40 celebrations where the country was celebrating its 40th anniversary of independence from Britain and His Majesty the King was celebrating his 40th birthday. The amount that was spent there for a country that claims to be poor – we find that quite embarrassing. They spent a whole load of money in buying BMWs, totally useless Porsche cars when we’ve got over – let me say conservatively – 65 percent of our people below the poverty line. Most of our people are – let me say – over a third of our people are on food aid, and yet millions were spent on an event that did not last more than three days.

What are some priority areas that the government should be targeting?

We have got a very high level of HIV/AIDS infection. That is one of the unfortunate things that we are number one in. Whilst there are programmes which have taken place, we believe that with the monies that government is fond of spending, we could be doing more.

We have a constitution that purports that from 2009, this year, there was supposed to be free primary education. The minister of education came out in a very mocking manner, a rude manner I should say, to indicate why that cannot be so. He plead poverty of the government, quite forgetting that not more than six months back, there was this lavish celebration. That is the country that we live in.

The prime minister recently warned that the government would dismiss all civil servants found to belong to political parties. What is your response to that?

We think that is very intimidatory because it means that in the civil service they want to have yes men and yes women, and for us that means corruption is going to be having a field day in that sort of situation. We are saying that we are going to oppose such short-sightedness.

How is the global economic turndown affecting Swaziland?

It was reported this week that 600 workers in the textile industry are going to lose their employment. So we are starting to feel the pinch, and the textile industry has been one industry for the past three to five years in Swaziland that has been a major source of employment. Now we are starting to be hit there. We have not been having any meaningful foreign direct investment, so that is going to result in a chaotic situation. Never mind the fact that even before this wave of retrenchment which is gaining momentum, we were already facing high levels of unemployment and dire poverty of the masses. So these are creating serious challenges for us.
If we are not getting any meaningful investment coming through, what we are being asked to make do with is any kind of employment that comes about, and we know what major type of employment we have had. That is textiles, which are not very strong, or decent, work.

The many Taiwanese investors in Swaziland’s textile sector have come in for criticism from the unions and provoked a major strike last year. Why is that?

There is not good treatment there. And all that is being said is that we should appreciate getting half a loaf. Now the question is, why don’t we get three-quarters of the loaf or even the loaf itself? Because the problem that exists there is that even the level of engagement leaves a lot to be desired. Three years back, when there was the problem of the exchange rate, the textile industry came to the unions in the sector and asked for a toning down of wage demands because of the exchange rate. But once the exchange rate improved, we had them approach the unions to say look, let’s share the spoils. So for us we are together when the future looks dim, but when it is bright we know who the employer is going to take care of.

Last year the government introduced a suppression of terrorism act which was used to crack down on opposition parties. How is that affecting political life in the country?

In Swaziland there were some bombings, and that gave government an excuse to put in place the suppression of terrorism act. Now as unions we do not have a particularly negative attitude to legislation that is going to deal with terrorism. The problem that we have is that in Swaziland, it [the legislation] is also an excuse to intimidate. What the prime minister did was he banned four organizations. One was an organization that had come out in the press and said that it was going to use violent means to oppose the system, but three of those organizations had not made that pronouncement, at least in Swaziland. They had not, but they were banned. And the problem with the banning is that firstly, we don’t think that they are going to resolve the bombings issue, and secondly, the manner of the ban was very arbitrary, because it was simply the prime minister making a statement. The whole situation is ridiculous and intended to instil fear.

Interview by Paul Ames (Mbabane, March 2009)

 View also the Video interview of Jan Sithole (SFTU, Swaziland)

 Read also the Spotlight interview with Jan Sithole (SFTU, Swaziland): “The law as it stands – its core business is to silence the voices of dissent and all those that criticise this system of governance.”

 Read also the Union View: Swaziland: the repressive side of an absolute monarchy