Unions to pressure govt to abide by rule of law

After relative quiet, Swaziland's labour unions are about to embark on the first national stay-away in five years.

Union leaders are confident that the time has come to press for democratic reforms in the country, despite a government ban on strikes and threats from the royal establishment that if the stay-away takes place during the annual kingship pageant, strikers would be committing sacrilege.

"This is a process, and success will be measured incrementally as we inch forward from dictatorship to democracy," Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), told IRIN.

"Of course, if government accedes to our demands, this will be a one-off strike. But we expect to have to stage mass action each month for two-day periods, indefinitely," he added.

The workers stay-away scheduled for 19-20 December is co-organised by the SFTU and the Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL).

While the SFTU, by far the larger of the two bodies, has lost membership due to a shrunken mining industry that affected the Swaziland Mining, Quarrying and Allied Workers Union, workers in the manufacturing and commercial sectors have kept federation membership at around 80,000.

"Government does not see us as a partner in nation building. They see us as the political opposition," Sithole said.

"They tried to suggest divisions between us and the Swaziland Federation of Labour, when all that was involved was the workers' right to choose the federation they like. We have absolutely no ideological differences, as proved by our unanimity on the mass action."

Vincent Ncongwane, SFL secretary-general, which has three affiliated unions and a membership of 4,000 told IRIN: "We want the same thing, a commitment from government not to spend US $72 million on a private jet for the king, and government's recognition of rulings by the Court of Appeal, which goes to the heart of rule of law in Swaziland."

Recently, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini declared that an appeal court ruling that nullified King Mswati III's power to rule by decree without parliament would be ignored. Also ignored would be a court order for the arrest of Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary for contempt of court.

Dlamini banned the labour federations' mass action because he interpreted its goals as political. Political demonstrations have been banned since 1973 by a royal decree that outlawed all political opposition to palace rule.

Sithole is also the secretary of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance. Both the SFTU and the SFL are members of this umbrella body that includes human rights groups and banned political parties. The alliance seeks a constitutional monarchy under a popularly elected government.

On Monday, Jim Gama, the nation's highest-ranking traditional authority after King Mswati, said on state-owned radio that workers participating in the strike action during the annual sacred Incwala kingship pageant would be guilty of sacrilege.

"I want to remind Swazis that they are one. They have one king and one religion, and embarking on the proposed action would result in division," Gama said.

One union official told IRIN: "I'm not under any obligation to obey what the elders decide. I believe the politics of the country are upside down. Government signs international conventions, but on the ground they violate them."

Sithole, who has been arrested and tried three times for engaging in illegal assemblies, said: "It is ironic that government says its prayer service must be respected, when several times we've called prayer services for the poor and needy, and they've been blocked by the police. They want to use the kingship pageant to stop every other activity from November to February, including people's right to complain."

The last mass action, in February 1997, was labelled a "flop" in the local press, until the government's jailing of union leadership energised the workforce. In January 1996 a stay-away successfully shut down the country for a week, despite being held during the kingship pageant.

Since then, the SFTU has turned to international allies in its campaign to bring democracy to Swaziland.

The United States labour federation, the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations), has threatened twice to push for economic sanctions against Swaziland if royal decrees meant to undermine union power, were not rescinded.