Simmering animosity and tension between non-governmental organizations and the conservative authorities of donor-dependent Swaziland are threatening to boil over, bringing legislation that could restrict the activities of civil society.
"It has been building for some years. The deeper Swaziland sinks into poverty, hunger and AIDS, and the more dependent we become on non-governmental organizations [NGOs], the more hostile government officials, like MPs and some chiefs, become to NGOs," said Amos Ndwandwe, who works as a counsellor for an HIV/AIDS NGO he declined to identify, in the second city, Manzini.
King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa, heads a traditional system of chiefs that ensures the perpetuation of customary laws, and appoints the country's prime minister in a parliament that excludes any opposition.
The prospect of imposing stringent controls on the NGO sector has been on the horizon for a while, but the looming possibility of such legislation is creating a stir among aid organizations.
A parliamentarian, who declined to be identified, told IRIN discussion of such legislation, which has yet to be introduced in parliament in any form, might be adequate to send a message to NGOs deemed as troublesome.
"Swaziland needs food aid and other aid and there are those who know such a law might not go down well with international donors, but the idea of it under consideration might be enough to get activist groups to re-think," he said.
A senior traditional leader, who declined to be identified, told IRIN chiefs see donor assistance as food and medicine and not the propagation of views contrary to Swazi traditions.
|The country is now opened up by these new highways and here come these NGOs preaching gender equality and human rights|
"The country is now opened up by these new highways and here come these NGOs preaching gender equality and human rights. By custom, no person may set foot in a chiefdom without first going to the chief’s kraal, stating their business and receiving permission to proceed. If NGOs wish to engage the people they must first educate the chiefs and convince them they are not involved in politics," he said.
Parliamentarians have routinely criticize NGOs for perceived extravagance, despite frequent denials by the National Emergency Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), a government office responsible for dispersing monies from international donor organizations.
NERCHA has pointed out that the sector’s finances are stringently scrutinized by donors, as has also often been stated by the Congress of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO), an umbrella body for NGOs.
"Both sides are partly correct. It is true that the NGOs operate under a microscope, but to the average Swazi they live lavishly," said Jabulani Dlamini, a Manzini Region pastor whose church works with the poor but is not a registered NGO.
"The workers are well paid, they have nice offices, and cars. Donors in Europe may not think twice about paying for a fleet of pricey vehicles as 'part of doing the job,' but Swazis see these off-road vehicles zooming around city streets as luxurious."
Regulation motivated by politics
"This particular campaign is said to be based on a misguided perception that NGOs are turning the people against the monarch through their civic education," Musa Hlope, a political commentator and former Chairman of the Swaziland Federation of Employers, told IRIN.
"If the relationship between members of parliament and civil society is not mended soon we may have a law that will seek to close all available spaces for NGOs to operate freely and effectively throughout the country," he said.
Some NGOs have become strident critics of human rights abuses and have embarked on education campaigns to inform people of their rights under the new constitution approved by Mswati in 2005; among other things, it ended customary and institutional discrimination based on gender after centuries of tradition that relegated women to second-class status.
Prince Mahlaba Dlamini, Mswati's elder brother and a leading proponent of traditional laws, recently condemned the constitution for stripping the king of some of his powers, the local media reported.
Swazis for Positive Living (SWAPOL), a support group for HIV-positive women, has been scorned for becoming "politicized" after it protested against an MP’s proposal that HIV-positive people should be branded on their buttocks.
The protest was condemned by traditionalists, who demanded to know where the women’s husbands were while their wives were showing disrespect to the nation’s elders.
|We are not a political organization, but we must engage government on issues that affect our members. When we cannot access ARVs [antiretrovirals] because of poor governance, it is our duty to challenge that governance|
"We are not a political organization, but we must engage government on issues that affect our members. When we cannot access ARVs [antiretrovirals] because of poor governance, it is our duty to challenge that governance," SWAPOL director Siphiwe Hlope told IRIN.
According to UNAIDS, about 26 percent of Swaziland's sexually active population are infected with HIV/AIDS, the world's highest prevalence of the disease.
Hlope said any possible restrictions on NGOs would be unconstitutional, and an abrogation of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly - both of which are enshrined in the constitution as inalienable rights - and she expected "a lot of litigation on this until our constitutional rights are respected".
However, should court action be decided in favour of an NGO’s constitutional rights, such legal sanction may prove redundant, as Swaziland's dual system of governance gives chiefs unilateral powers on Swazi Nation Land, where 80 percent of the about one million population live.