Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The second Global Week of Action in Swaziland, organised by the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, which concludes this Friday (9 September), has already scored remarkable successes, amid terrible sacrifices. The week marks a new highpoint in the ongoing confrontation between an absolute monarchy that for decades has plundered the country and an increasingly emboldened democracy movement.
Events kicked off on 5 September with a mass demonstration through the heart of the capital city, Mbabane. One of the COSATU delegates who joined the protest reported: ‘The streets of Mbabane have been occupied by a range of different people, including workers, students, the legal profession, community and church activists, and all marching in unison and toyi-toying for freedom. They are united in one purpose, to challenge the continuing rule of Africa’s last absolute monarchy. There is an almost carnival atmosphere in the air!’
The next day the protest moved to the country’s largest city and economic hub, Manzini, where thousands surged through the streets. In a town of 75,000, this was equivalent to hundreds of thousands in a major European city. What’s more, these demonstrators were defying intimidation and a very real threat to their physical security, amidst conditions where the daily struggle for survival can be daunting.
Up until now, the police had stood back, a marked contrast with their behaviour at the last protests in April, dispersed with batons, tear gas and water cannon. The police were aware that they were being monitored by a variety of international observers and that the recently agreed, desperation-born South African bail-out was still vulnerable.
However, as the action spread on Wednesday (7 September) to other regions of the country, notably the small towns of Siteki in the east and Nhlangano in the south, the Swazi regime deployed the riot squads, firing rubber bullets and teargas. The regime is railing against an alleged ‘invasion by non Swazis’ – referring in particular to the 40 plus COSATU activists who crossed the border to join the protests. A number of COSATU representatives have been picked up by the armed forces and deported. It’s also reported, as I write, that senior Swazi trade union leaders and leaders of the main (banned) opposition party, PUDEMO, have been beaten up. In Manzini, police battled with young people.
However the week ends, the regime will have been the loser. The gains of the democracy movement in the streets may be fragile but they will have an intangible ripple effect.
In the run up to the week of action, Swaziland was wrestling with economic crisis. Years of maladministration, waste, corruption and gross inequality came to a head as a result of the global recession. A huge deficit opened, the government was unable to pay its bills and has only been saved from open bankruptcy by the loan of $370 million from South Africa. Public sector wages are being slashed or withheld, and the meagre provision for poverty relief has dried up. As a result of cuts in allowances, the country’s 6000 university students are boycotting classes.
The South African government seemingly had little reason to do Mswati any favours. The Swazi monarchy collaborated with the apartheid regime and harassed ANC activists on its soil. Nonetheless, the Zuma government’s concern for the established economic order overcame any historical resentment. COSATU, among others who wanted democratisation as a condition of a bail out, strongly disapproved. During the week of action, protests against the blank cheque bailout were held outside the South African parliament and branches of the South African Reserve Bank in cities across the country.
Mswati is known to have a personal fortune of more than $200million – while 70 per cent of his subjects live on less than a dollar a day. More than 40 per cent of the workforce are unemployed. The country suffers the world’s highest HIV infection rates and lowest life expectancy at birth (32 years).
However, Swaziland is also Africa’s third-biggest sugar producer and as such has become Coca-Cola’s southern African base. Mswati is a major partner in the business and is an honoured guest on his annual pilgrimages to Coke’s global HQ in Atlanta, Georgia. Mswati’s despotism is built on the sponsorship of multi-national corporations. Whether it’s telecommunications, media, mining, agriculture, or soft drinks, the royal family gets a piece of the action.
Mswati presides over the world’s longest running state of emergency, going back to 1973 when political parties were banned. Since then, the royal elite has ruled through the ‘tinkundla’ system – a top-down machine of patronage and corruption which they dignify as an authentic expression of Swazi ‘culture’. The king enjoys untrammelled executive and legislative power. Along with the vote, freedom of speech, assembly and association are suppressed, while the royal family treats the nation’s resources as private assets, accumulating vast fortunes without any kind of public scrutiny.
Long-simmering but disparate dissent acquired a new focus and channel with the launch of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign in February 2010. The Swazi trade unions provided the backbone and direction of the growing movement, working cooperatively and creatively with religious and community groups and civil society activists. Their Swazi unions’ joint work in this campaign has in turn led to the merger and unification of the country’s various labour federations, which can only add weight to the democracy movement.
SDC activists also highlight the vital contribution made by COSATU, across the border in South Africa. Unusually in the realm of trade union internationalism, they’ve matched words with deeds, putting material and political resources, and bodies on the ground, at the service of the SDC. The last few days have seen the regime challenged by a palpably united front of public sector workers, church members, lawyers, students and the unemployed. For the first time, there was significant mobilisation in rural regions, a hard-earned breakthrough for the democracy movement, and one that has elicited a violent reaction from the regime.
Despite harassment, detention and torture, SDC activists, bolstered by international trade union support, have mounted ever more ambitious actions, climaxing in this week’s events. They know the struggle ahead will be demanding, but they remain confident that the movement has taken a huge stride forward.
For supporters abroad, the priority is to isolate the Mswati regime, using all available forums and pressure points. One of the goals of the week of action is to raise global awareness – and across Africa it has succeeded in doing that. The lack of coverage in the mainstream media here in Britain by no means reflects the significance of developments in Swaziland, a small country with a big revolution-in-the-making.
For more background on the democracy struggle in Swaziland see Mike Marqusee’s previous article for Red Pepper
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism