As Swaziland prepares to go to the polls on 20 September, the recent expulsion of the Global Inquiry Panel (GIP) from the country exposed the true nature of the Swazi government, which plays to the international gallery while continuing to abuse the rights of its citizens.
Although Swaziland’s King Mswati III describes his country as a “monarchical democracy”, state repression is a fact of life in this small southern African nation with a population of 1.2 million.
And nowhere is this oppression more apparent than with the state’s treatment of workers.
Swazi workers who protest about their working conditions are often subject to police harassment and violence, while workers are barred from discussing their issues on the state-controlled radio and TV stations.
The GIP, put together by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was an attempt to help change that.
As part of a Global Week of Action (GWA) aimed at raising awareness on the situation in Swaziland, “the findings of the panel would have served to open a dialogue between stakeholders about workers’ rights in Swaziland,” ITUC Secretary General Sharan Burrow told Equal Times.
Scheduled protest actions, which were also part of the GWA, were also quashed after TUCOSWA Secretary General, Vincent Ncongwane, was put under house arrest.
While the government was able to convince the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June that it was respecting workers’ rights, resulting to the country’s removal from the ‘special paragraph’, the abuse of workers continues unabated.
This became evident when security forces stormed the Inquiry in Swaziland’s commercial capital of Manzini on 6 September, ending the meeting before it had even started.
The Panel comprised former COSATU founding secretary general, Jay Naidoo, Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, Alec Muchadehama, and South African Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn.
Also part of the panel was Swaziland’s Centre for Labour Education and Research director Nomthetho Simelane.
Naidoo, who is also a former South African cabinet minister, was chairing the panel discussion when police disrupted the meeting just after he had finished addressing the workers and was about to hear their submissions.
The day before the panel, police briefly took in Naidoo for questioning about his mission in Swaziland.
In Swaziland, the harassment and disruption of workers’ has become the norm rather than the exception, and the government has intensified its attacks since the formation of TUCOSWA last year.
Many workers felt that outside of those in the trade union movement, the international community wasn’t aware of their plight – but 6 September has changed all of that.
“At least now the cat is out of the bag,” said Nicholas Nkomondze, a worker who was present at the Panel.
“The government exposed itself to ILO because now it has shown the world that it does not respect workers rights although it has always painted a rosy picture to the international community.”
However, other workers were left disillusioned by the incident because for them, it proves that the government will never allow workers to exercise their rights as enshrined in the constitution.
“There were so many issues that workers want to discuss but the government does not give us a chance to even meet, let alone speak among ourselves,” complained Mduduzi Maziya.
Despite the disruption of the Panel, some workers were able to share their stories.
According to an ITUC report that will be presented to the ILO, workers for Swaziland Beverages – a sub-contractor of Coca Cola – spoke of earning approximately 50 US cents an hour, which isn’t enough to cover their basic living costs.
One worker said he had been on a casual contract for 12 years and could be fired with 24 hours’ notice.
Workers at a Taiwanese textile factory based at Matsapha Industrial Site, which supplies Walmart, said unfeasibly high production targets often lead to serious rights violations.
Workers are expect to press 80 trousers per hour but must arrive to work early and often work through lunch in order to meet their quotas.
They also spoke of wages so low that they cannot even open bank accounts and are forced to visit money lenders in order to pay for basic needs like healthcare and transport.
Commenting about his experience in Swaziland in a statement on his return to South Africa, Naidoo said that now that the international community is aware of what is happening in Swaziland, the plight of its people mustn’t be forgotten
“Last week’s events in Swaziland reminded me of the old days, under apartheid. Roadblocks, run-ins with security police, banned meetings, workers’ voices and rights being suppressed,” said Naidoo.
Ruled by Africa’s last remaining absolute monarch, King Mswati III, political parties will not be allowed to contest in the elections on 20 September despite a constitution guaranteeing freedoms of association and speech.
Trade unions have remained the alternative voice in pushing for democracy in Swaziland although the government has now tightened its grip on workers.
In its effort to neutralise the workers, the government deregistered TUCOSWA about three months after registering the trade unions’ mother body in April 2012, arguing that there is no legislation for registering federations in the country.
TUCOSWA, which represents about 50,000 workers, took the case to court but judges upheld the government’s view.
However, the court ordered that, like other federations, TUCOSWA has the constitutional right to exist.
The court also ordered that the parties should come up with a modus operandi while the government worked on amending the law to allow for the registration of federations.
In May, a month before the International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva, Switzerland, the Swazi government issued a general notice spelling out that it would work with TUCOSWA and the employers’ federations, pending the amendment of the Industrial Relations Act of 2000, which would allow for their registration.
Reads the notice in part: “....the principles shall enable the social partners to work together in order [to] promote harmonious labour relations and ensure a conducive environment for investment and socio-economic development of the country through decent work and recognition of fundamental principles and rights at work.”
Armed with this notice, the government went to Geneva with TUCOSWA but after it was removed from the ‘special paragraph’, the government started to renegade on its promises.
“TUCOSWA is not recognised in terms of the laws of this country, therefore TUCOSWA misbehaved a bit by inviting the Global Inquiry Panel,” Swaziland’s Minister of Labour and Social Security, Lutfo Dlamini, told Equal Times by way of explanation for the heavy-handed police response.
He further claims that the panel sneaked into the country without notifying the government although protocol demanded that any international body that goes into any country notifies its government.
He said the fact that there was a former South African government minister (Naidoo) amongst the panel meant that the government had to provide him with security because, “should anything happen to him then we will have to answer.”
“In any case, the panel would come up with a one-sided report because it was only going to get the side of the workers and ignored that of government and employers,” said Dlamini.
He claims that like the ILO, the ITUC was also aware of the tripartite arrangement involving government, employers and workers.
Police Commissioner Isaac Magagula further claims that as it was part of the GWA, the panel was only there to disrupt the ongoing election process in the country.
TUCOSWA Secretary General Vincent Ncongwane admitted that the panel was part of the GWA but denied that it was trying to disrupt the elections.
“It’s strange that government accuses us of this but no one has been arrested,” said Ncongwane.
With regards to the accusation of breaking protocol, Ncongwane showed Equal Times correspondence between TUCOSWA and the government where the federation informed the latter about the panel’s visit to the country.
However, the Labour Commissioner Khabo Dlamini (no relation) objected to hosting the event during a public holiday which marked 45 years of Swazi independence from British rule.
TUCOSWA was not willing to back down because, in any case, most companies (especially parastatals) refuse to allow their workers to participate in TUCOSWA events during working hours because the organisation is “illegal”.
Beaten but not battered, Ncongwane said TUCOSWA will continue to advance the call for workers’ rights in Swaziland.
And Burrow continues to pledge the ITUC’s support for TUCOSWA in advocating for the workers’ rights.