1 September 2011

Swaziland: Tiffs About Talks About Talks

Photo: Swazi Media Commentary
Teachers and other workers protesting.


King Mswati III and his government are showing little inclination to begin talks on the introduction to democracy. But Swaziland's pro-democracy movement and civil society formations are jockeying intensely for position on the commoners' side of the negotiating table.

Mswati's government has signed off on South Africa's conditions for a R2,4-billion loan, which include significant strides towards replacing the absolute monarchy with a democratic dispensation (see Vol 29 No 21).

Opponents of the current tinkhundla system of representation agree on the need for unity, for a common approach in talks with Mswati's government, and for a common vision of at least the broad framework of the society they hope to achieve through the talks.

Beyond that they agree on little else. One of the key disputes is over the process of reaching agreement - over the form "talks about talks" should take.

The three areas of disagreement are: the nature of pre-negotiations "talks about talks"; pre-conditions to be set for negotiations; and over the objectives of negotiations.

Participants are loosely divided into two broad groupings, which can be accurately described as "maximalists" and "minimalists".

Broadly, the "maximalists" comprise the trade unions, the outlawed People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), the oldest and probably strongest of the pro-democracy formations; and the new kid on the block, the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS).

Broadly, the three formations agree on the need for extensive pre-conditions before negotiations (and crucially the unbanning of political parties), and a minimal role (if any) post-transformation for the monarchy. Their approach is based on the assessment that Mswati and his government are at their most vulnerable in decades, both because of Swaziland's financial crisis and because of their consequent acceptance of Pretoria's tough political terms. Their approach is to table the most they can hope to extract from the king - and thus be willing to be negotiated down - rather than setting their demands low and being negotiated down further, an approach they believe the "minimalists" are adopting.

The "minimalists", comprising several of the major churches and NGOs, assume negotiations will involve much carrot and rather less stick. They believe issues such as unbanning of political parties will be the subject of negotiations, rather than preconditions. Implicit in this approach is that Mswati maintains significant leverage and discretion in the concession he makes or withholds. The approach is influenced by supplicant habits born of 40 years of absolute monarchy.

Jostling between and within the groupings began even before the Pretoria loan announcement. The Council of Swaziland Churches, backed by two South African-based NGOs, the Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) and the hitherto unknown Phadimisa Bokamosa ba Africa, rapidly established the Civil Society Convention (CSC) as a talks-about-talks coordinating forum.

The Convention held a "talks about talks" conference at the end of July that sought to debate how to cooperate with the government on bringing about democratic reform. The initiative drew stinging criticism from Pudemo and the unions (organisers excluded the CPS) for the absence of any strategic planning in working out a future dispensation for the country or in preparing for negotiations.

Undaunted, the organisers of the Convention are now seeking to establish a Constituent Assembly of Civil Society and have invited Swazi pro-democracy organisations, this time including the communists, to take part in another conference, scheduled tentatively for early September.

The organisers plan to pre-allocate a limited numbers of "seats" for NGOs and political parties, and establishing a "presidium" responsible for negotiations.

The response of the main anti-government movements, primarily the trade unions, Pudemo and the CPS has been lukewarm. They have also criticised the strategy of the Convention, outlined in its "Charter on Talks about Talks", that the substance of negotiations with the Mswati government should include the unbanning of political parties, free and fair elections and gender equality commitments - issues they argue are non-negotiable pre-conditions.

In this they appear to have Pretoria's implicit support. To back up their demands - and to assert their centrality in any negotiations or talks-about-talks - the unions and Pudemo are gearing up for a "global week of action" next week to add further pressure on the Mswati administration. Demands will include scrapping plans for public sector pay cuts, release of political prisoners, the reopening of the university, the resignation of the government and progress towards democracy.

Against the CSC's proposals for open-ended talks are those who argue for the pre-negotiation dissolution of the Mswati administration to make way for an interim government which they believe will hold power until democratic elections. Pudemo, with CPS support, argues for the fostering of a nationwide conversation on democracy as a prelude to any preparations for multi-party elections, necessary, it argues, because of the ignorance about democratic institutions among Swazi communities, particularly those in rural areas.

The CPS argues for negotiations through a Conference on a Democratic Swaziland, roughly along the lines of the 1990-1993 Codesa talks in South Africa. It wants representatives at such a conference to be drawn from all communities in the country and not just from civil society organisations. It has suggested that South Africa should chair the conference. Pudemo and the unions are likely to back this approach.

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