18 February 2013

Swaziland: Swazi Police Break Up Prayer Meeting

Photo: Nadia Neophytou
File photo: Swaziland Protests in London

analysis

In Swaziland it is usually sensible to ignore the words of those in power, especially when they are preaching peace and dialogue, and concentrate on their deeds.

Take this weekend for example. Giving his annual State of the Nation Address on Friday 15th February, King Mswati III did what he invariably does - painted a picture of a nation that was on the right track despite problems beyond the government's control and emphasised the importance of peace and dialogue (rather than any of the many urgently-needed reforms to the country's authoritarian and repressive system).

But just a couple of days later, his baton-wielding police marched into Manzini's Cathedral Church and broke up a prayer meeting - giving the participants just seven minutes to vacate the premises.

What makes this even more shocking than the government's usual heavy-handed (and booted) responses is that you would think that the authorities would tread carefully around prayer meetings given the deeply religious nature of Swazi society. But obviously they will stop at nothing to prevent Swazis who are critical of the regime from exercising their basic rights - even, it now seems, the freedom of religion and of worship.

Organised by the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), the Council of Swaziland Churches (CSC) and the South African Council of Churches (SACC), the prayer meeting was obviously not going to be singing the praises of the King and his cronies - but all they were doing was singing praises to God when the police halted the proceedings.

Charles Tsabedze, the Manzini Regional Police Commander, said they stopped the prayer gathering because it was not a 'prayer service' but was aimed at coming up with logistics to sabotage the elections that are scheduled for August this year.

Unsurprisingly, this was not the view of anyone else. The Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in Swaziland issued a fierce denunciation of the police's behaviour, saying that it demonstrated how superfluous the Constitution was since the country's supreme law expressly stated that, 'Except with the free consent of that person, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of the freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this section freedom of conscience includes freedom of thought and of religion or belief, and freedom of worship either alone or in community with others'.

As the Justice and Peace Commission statement said, "Here are peace loving people wanting to pray for their country and the prayer is thwarted by members of the Royal Swaziland Police."

This view was echoed by South Africa Bishop Paul Verryn, who had been invited to participate in the prayer service. "If the authorities are afraid of a simple prayer hosted by the citizens of the country, then we cannot say Swaziland is a free country," said Verryn, adding that "I will report back to the South African Council of Churches and the Bishop of the Methodist Church what unfolded here."

And that is the critical point. What is happening in Swaziland needs to be reported elsewhere. People outside the continent's last absolute monarchy need to know how repressive the regime is and how absurd it is to talk about elections - when no political parties are allowed to contest them.

Ludicrously, King Mswati suggested that Swaziland's elections had "something to teach to Africa". Indeed they do - how to give people a 'vote' but not a voice or a choice. How to pretend to be democratic while ensuring that the absolutist system stays firmly in place.

Documentation:

King Mswati III's State of the Nation Address 2013

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