Mbabane — A poor response to a general strike called by Swazi labour to demand political reforms on Tuesday has exposed the limitations of the pro-democracy movement.
"The unions now have a political credibility problem. It is also time for the underground political parties to finally reveal their membership numbers, because by appearances they have no widespread following," a diplomat told IRIN.
The 80,000-strong Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), and the smaller Swaziland Federation of Labour, were only able to muster a few hundred demonstrators for a march along the main commercial street of the capital, Mbabane. With the exception of some banks and the post office, businesses and government offices largely ignored the strike call and remained open.
"We had some difficulties obtaining permission [for the march from the police] at first, but we feel we have made our voices heard," SFTU secretary-general, Jan Sithole, told IRIN.
He said 1,000 unionists and members of Swaziland's banned political parties took part in the protest march, but police spokesman Superintendent Vusie Masuku and eyewitnesses interviewed by IRIN placed the number at 400 to 500.
Sithole promised a better response on Wednesday, the final day of the national stay-away, to a demonstration planned for the commercial capital, Manzini, 35 km east of Mbabane.
Despite earlier calls for participation by the executive of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), teachers failed to join the strike. "The Swazi people are generally apathetic," commented Phineas Magagula, SNAT secretary-general.
Members of the public IRIN spoke to said they were more worried about bread-and-butter issues than the pro-democracy movement's concerns, which include the absolute power of the king and the continued ban on opposition parties, both contained in the new constitution.
"I hear about a 'rule of law' problem but I cannot join a stay-away, because if I don't work, I don't get paid - I have children to support," commented Thabsile Nxulmalo, a receptionist at the Matsapha Industrial Estate.
"There is corruption and mismanagement; the country is getting poorer. But strikes have not impressed the leadership - they ignore them, so what's the use?" said Thandi Myeni, an Mbabane office worker.
Government spokesman Percy Simelane told IRIN, "People have learned the hard way the difficulties that arise when they embark on these unnecessary strikes. They have felt the effect of the 'no work, no pay' rule. Recently, 300 workers were fired because of an illegal strike. Jobs are scarce."
A political science lecturer at the University of Swaziland noted: "The unions have been the leading advocates for democratic change during Mswati's reign, raising challenges to King Mswati's constitution in particular, and his rule in general. The unions have to find a way to mobilise public understanding and support."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]