10 September 2011
Global Week of Action Kicks In
Friday the 9th of September marked the last day in the second Global Week of Action on Swaziland, culminating in a large protest march in Mbabane that has resulted in pitched battles between a heavily armed and aggressive security detachment, and mostly poor workers, students and the unemployed, who gathered legally and peacefully as they have done all week.
On Monday and Tuesday only minor skirmishes took place, and the security services were restrained and largely non-provocative. This is as it should be. The marches were legal, and the organisers made it clear that they wanted to exercise the few rights that they have.
There have been more than twenty protests across the world, and seven inside South Africa. These took place outside of the various offices of the Reserve Bank in order to draw attention to the ill advised bailout of R2.4bn that is being offered to the Swazi regime through the Reserve Bank, ‘facilitated’ by the South African Government. The protests were also about the need for solidarity with the democratic forces inside Swaziland.
Throughout the week in Swaziland itself there has been rolling mass action throughout the country. On Monday and Tuesday large demonstrations took place first in Mbabane, and then in Manzini. Given the reaction of the security forces this time last year that resulted in mass arrests, beatings, detention and forced deportations of invited foreign visitors, there was serious concerns about how the security services would respond this time around.
In fact on Monday and Tuesday security forces were remarkably restrained. There were a number of reasons for this. First, was the actual size of the mobilisations themselves. More than four thousand came to each of the demonstrations, which in Swazi terms is very significant indeed. Secondly, there was much global media interest both inside and outside Swaziland, and bad publicity is definitely not what the regime needs at this time. Thirdly, there are a number of cases pending against the Swazi regime at the ILO and through the UN Human Rights Commission where the regime was cited earlier this year for non-compliance of basic human and civil rights. Fourthly, the ‘bailout’ from South Africa had still to be paid over, and any repressive action which might imperil it was clearly held back.
Rural Communities Want Democracy Too!
On Wednesday and Thursday, attention shifted to the rural areas, and protest meeting and marches, much larger than expected took place, proving once and for all that people from all walks of life want to see a democratic Swaziland, despite the mythologizing about the ‘loyalty to the King’ of people living in rural areas that is peddled by the Royal Elite and its apologists.
After Monday and Tuesdays actions, it was clear that the regime was getting nervous. The state sponsored media started peddling hysterical stories about an ‘invasion’ by COSATU delegates, who had taken up the invitation of their Swazi counterparts to be part of the protest, and to observe the proceedings, and bring messages of solidarity. It was also clear that by Wednesday, the regime had decided that it was worth moving against the democratic forces, regardless of what the impact might be on the regimes reputation and international standing.
On Wednesday, those travelling to the rural areas for meetings were met with aggressive road blocks and endless searches. Nothing of course was found. And then in Siteki, a small regional centre, the security services tried to prevent the COSATU Deputy President from giving a solidarity address to the large gathering there, and opened fire with live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas.
‘It was completely unnecessary’ said one of the organisers ‘It was clear that they were trying to cause conflict and were being very provocative and threatening, and when we ignored them and carried on our peaceful protest, they simply attacked the gathering. They demanded that our international guests be excluded from the platform, and we of course refused. It was our right to have speak whoever we wanted. It was shocking and a reminder that this elite is scared but not yet prepared to change’
The attacks culminated in the arrest and forceful deportation of COSATU’s Deputy President Comrade Zingiswa Losi and Deputy Head of COSATU’s International Department Comrade Zanele Matebula, who are registering a complaint to the ILO and other authorities.
Three protesters were badly injured and one was admitted to hospital with serious head wounds. Others were beaten and pushed to the ground, but the protesters refused to give way until their meeting had been completed. This set the tone for the next phase of mass action.
Unjust Laws and a Compliant Discredited Judiciary
It is worth reminding readers that all of the actions of the democracy activists were legal, even under the stringent anti-democratic laws of Swaziland. The regime had returned to the courts no less than three times in the past week to try and win injunctions to derail the popular protests. They have been hampered by a boycott of the judicial system by almost the entire legal fraternity over the last two weeks, many of whom have thrown in their lot with the democracy movement. The regime however, woefully underestimated the capacity of leading trade unionists to out argue them, and though clearly reluctant, the remains of a discredited judiciary had no choice but to agree, that the government did not have sufficient legal grounds to curtail the limited rights of the trade union movement.
It was within the context of these unprovoked attacks in the regions, and the failure of the regime to utilise its own draconian legislation, that attention turned today to Mbabane and the last protest of the Global Week of Action.
Mbabane Under Military Occupation
An SDC leader in Swaziland noted earlier today :
‘Mbabane looked like a city under military siege. On every corner of every street stood fully armed and equipped security personnel. They were clearly very jumpy, and the tension was palpable. Having lost in the courts, the security apparatus was going to try and win on the streets. And they had all of their hardware on display including water cannon, armoured vehicles, tear gas dispensers, truncheons and perspex shields. At least we could see what the regime was spending our taxes on’
Despite the violence that had taken place in Siteki, the numbers today attending far exceeded expectations and more than 5,700 at the last count were noted and accounted for. In Swazi terms this is among the largest mobilisations for many years, and it virtually paralysed the streets of Mbabane.
The marchers started on time, and they were warmly greeted by passersby and shop keepers, many of whom gave fruit and refreshment to the marchers. There was an almost carnival atmosphere in the air, but not for long. At the rallying point where a range of speakers had been scheduled to speak, the authorities said that no ‘political’ speakers could take the platform. This was clearly aimed at Comrade Mario Masuku, the President of the popular liberation movement PUDEMO. Comrade Mario has experienced many years of hardship, including years of penal servitude at the hands of the regime, and had given thoughtful and decisive speeches to the rallies on Monday and Tuesday, to great popular acclaim.
It was at this point that the organisers, backed by the marchers rejected the advice of the authorities and insisted that it was within their rights to have whoever they wished to speak, and the programme was to proceed. At this point the security forces were given the green light by their masters to attack all and sundry in an attempt to break up the protest march. Tear gas canisters were thrown into the crowd, and armed security officers bludgeoned their way into the outer ranks of the march, hitting out indiscriminately, and punching and kicking at will. For a moment it looked as though they might succeed, but what they had not banked on was the capacity of the protesters to regroup, link arms, and defend themselves by forming strong lines that could move swiftly to defend those who had been injured and then to secure fresh positions.
When the security forces failed to break through further, the protesters took the advantage, and despite heavy blows to arms, legs, heads and shoulders, forced the uniformed attackers back to their original locations. This was a remarkable feat given that the protesters were unarmed, mostly in tee shirts and casual clothing, and of course were made up of the young and old, men and women, professionals and manual workers.
The Birth of Liberation Friday!
What happened next will be remembered for a long time. Despite continued assaults by the security forces, their attempts at snatching and arresting leaders, throwing of missiles including gas canisters into the crowd, the marchers stood their ground, and even pushed the security forces into still further defensive positions!
As one of the organisers said over the phone
‘The police and army were completely shocked, and I would say chronically demoralised by our response. They expected us to run away and disperse, but when we regrouped, and then started pushing them back to their positions, they just didn’t know what to do next. They were scared, embarrassed, and even humiliated. Their officers were screaming orders like men gone mad, but it made little difference. They could not contain the mass movement, and we took back the streets of Mbabane! From now on this day of future Global Weeks of Action should be called Liberation Friday!’
Eventually, after six arrests and dozens injured but not bowed, the planned march was completed, and then on its own terms, it dispersed peacefully making sure that comrades went home in groups to avoid being picked off and detained.
Film footage of the police attacks exists and will be made available to the media as soon as possible, and will also make up evidence to the ILO, the UN and to SADC, and the AU along with the testimonies of those who were attacked and who witnessed police brutality.
Which Side Are You On?
For the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, Liberation Friday marks another milestone in the democracy struggle. The people of Swaziland have shown that it is possible to mobilise, organise and remain disciplined, supportive and creative in the face of the most brutal attacks and provocations. They have shown that the years of establishing the Swaziland United Democratic Front of which the SDC is its campaigning wing have not been in vain, and that disciplined mass action can challenge even the most ruthless of dictators.
For the illegitimate regime, their nightmare scenario is coming true. They can no longer call upon tradition and manipulate the culture of the proud Swazi people to justify their greed and opulent lifestyles. They are exposed for what they are. A brutal despotic regime that is imploding in on itself, and that cannot be trusted, even within its own ranks. Furthermore, it can no longer maintain its rule by force.
For the governments of the region and the continent as a whole, this episode has blown a huge credibility gap into any notion of diplomatic persuasion with the Swazi regime. Action must now be taken against the regime to force it into a democratisation process that is not imposed from outside, but established by the democratic forces in Swaziland itself. That is why the demands shared by PUDEMO and all democratic forces, for the unbanning of political parties, the freeing of political prisoners and for a transparent and inclusive democratic transition now, are so compelling.
For the South African Government, the planned ‘bailout’ must now surely be completely reconsidered. The people of Swaziland don’t want it to go to those who have pillaged the national resources of the country for their own private gain. Why must the South African government finance those who abuse peoples rights so readily and who have shown themselves incapable of anything that resembles good governance. The bailout must be renegotiated, and not with the kleptocracy of Mswati, but with the democratic forces on the ground.
The democracy movement on the ground is under no illusions about what is now required as a leading trade unionist noted today ;
‘This is the beginning of the end of the Mswati regime of that there is no doubt, but we doubt he will retire gracefully to one of his many palaces or farms as a rational person would do so. Like so many dictators, he still believes his own infallibility, and he will probably outstay his welcome until he sees no alternative but to take his fortune elsewhere. And we have some major challenges to address ourselves, not least being how we can continue to build the momentum of the democracy movement, and especially the role of the workers movement within it. We have to both keep up the mobilising but also take some time to decide what type of society we want to see emerge from the ruins Mswati and his cohorts have left behind, but we are confident. We can do it. We have started and we are not going to stop now’.
The SDC will be making a detailed analysis of the outcomes of the Global Week of Action and start to put in place the programme of action agreed with our comrades of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, including a Global Solidarity Conference, the escalation of the sanctions campaign including the sports and cultural boycott, the naming and shaming of all those who profit from the maintenance of the Swazi dictatorship, the freeing of political prisoners and of course further mobilisations to demand democratic reforms. We urge all those who want to contribute to join the campaign and help make a difference. Be part of a winning side!
The Swaziland Democracy Campaign extends its solidarity greetings and thanks to all those who have made this Global Week of Action such a success, and especially those forces across the world who have taken the time to picket and march and protest for democracy in Swaziland . We would especially like to thank all of those brave and committed comrades in Swaziland itself, who against seemingly insurmountable odds, have taken the first vital steps towards national self determination.
Long live the Democratic aspirations of the Swazi people long live!