Royal rule questioned as draft constitution discussed

Even Swaziland's national anthem, which celebrates royal rule, has come in for criticism by people calling for political reform in unprecedented, candid submissions before a Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC).

Some of their views sharply oppose the strengthening of the nation's absolute monarchy, as envisioned in a constitution written by King Mswati's brothers.

"Ordinary people are standing up to the princes and saying they want to be considered in national affairs. This is revolutionary, and even the older folks are showing disgruntlement," Sipho Maphalala, a student at the University of Swaziland, told IRIN.

Prince David Dlamini, who heads the CDC, and Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, who ran the Constitutional Review Commission that claimed to have collected the views of Swazis on what type of government they want, started a national tour last week to seek popular approval of the palace-authored constitution.

The draft constitution was unveiled by King Mswati on 31 May. He said he would ratify the document by October, because it expressed the views of the Swazi majority. "The people have spoken," Mswati said.

But as the palace is now finding out, the Swazi people have a lot more to say.

Although the time for submissions ended two years ago, and the constitution's contents are "set in stone", according to a palace source, Swazis attending the constitution education meetings at rural community centres beginning in the south of the country are giving the royal delegation an earful.

"The king should not be advised by his brothers. Princes and princesses have a vested interest in royal matters," said Abel Mnthali of Zombodze village.

"We have heard there is a rush to beat an October deadline (for ratification of the constitution), but we do not think that is a good idea," said Simon Dlamini from the rural southern district of Shiselweni.

Boy Matse of Matsanjeni, in the same area, complained that local, regional and national leaders are mostly from the royal family. "When you look at the trend, you wonder if government is a royal project," he said.

A desire for a democratically elected government was raised by people who wished to vote for national leaders like the prime minister directly, via a secret ballot. The draft constitution calls for palace appointment of the prime minister, cabinet, and most national and regional leaders, as well as all chiefs. "We want the power to appoint and recall the PM," one speaker told the royal delegation at Matsanjeni.

Such ideas would have been considered treasonous a few years ago, because they challenge the fundamentals of royal rule.

"The prime minister runs government for the benefit of the royal family, who appoints him. If he were to be popularly elected, his allegiance would be to the electorate, like any politician's. This would undermine royal authority, and it is why the palace refuses to allow political opposition parties to operate," said a political science teacher who asked that his name not be used.

Other Swazis are showing no hesitancy in making their views known to the constitutional delegation. This has raised further doubts about the palace's claim that "an overwhelming majority of Swazis agree with what is in the draft constitution", as stated by Prince Mangaliso Dlamini.

The prince's Constitutional Review Commission did not hold public hearings when it collected views on governance from the people, unlike this month's exercise.

"Submissions were held in secret. The press was barred. There was no independent accounting of what was said. We collected stories from people who were coached to say certain things," alleged attorney Doo Aphane of the Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa.

The Swaziland Law Society noted that when the constitutional commission's report was presented to King Mswati, it contained no data on how many people made submissions, or a percentile breakdown of how many people subscribed to different views.

Instead, Prince Mangaliso insisted that "an overwhelming majority" of Swazis disliked political parties, and wished not only to retain but strengthen the monarchical system.

Some Swazis who submitted their views last week did express scepticism over political parties. But enough open dissatisfaction with issues of governance, as presented in the draft constitution, have been raised for critics of the document to demand a national referendum to accurately gauge what a majority of Swazis really feel.

"The draft constitution is a fraud. It was done in secret, and in the end it reflects the wishes of those who contrived the entire lengthy process," former prime minister Obed Dlamini told IRIN. Dlamini now heads a banned political opposition party.

Prince David expressed anger at the weekend with Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, which is also travelling the country to educate people on constitutional issues. He accused the group of sabotage by putting into people's heads notions that later become submissions challenging the contents of the draft constitution.

"We only educate people about a constitution that should contain principles of good governance. Among these are a separation of powers," responded Thulani Maseko, secretary-general for the human rights group.

The draft constitution divides government into executive, judicial and legislative arms, but ultimate authority remains with the king.

Symbolising the assertive mood of some Swazis was Boy Matse's displeasure with the national anthem. The song calls for blessings to be bestowed on royal leadership, but makes no mention of the Swazi people.

In Nkwene, in the southern region, Congo Shabangu suggested to the CDC delegation a lyric change from "God bless the leaders of Swaziland" to "God, who bestows blessings on the nation of Swaziland".

"The national anthem is discriminatory in its content, which is why we only sing 'Nkosi Sikelela iAfrica', (God Bless Africa), because it is universal," Ntombi Nkosi, president of the Women’s League of the banned political party the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), told IRIN.

Banned political groups are delighted by the submissions being made to the constitutional committee. Rather than boycott the exercise, the NNLC is advising members to tell the royal delegation exactly what they think.