A suggestion from schoolteachers in Swaziland that the kingdom's police should form a trade union will almost certainly be dead in the water.
There is a bitter history in the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, of oppression of police union rights.
The Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) said at a workshop that it wanted an expansion of trade unionism in the kingdom to include the police. The Observer on Saturday (13 May 2017) reported SNAT representatives suggested the police should follow other countries with a well-functioning police union system such as in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in the region and form a union to engage in collective bargaining.
History is against such progress. A Swaziland Police Union (SWAPU) had been formed in 2005 and failed after a struggle for recognition when both the Swaziland High Court and the Supreme Court dismissed it as illegal. The Police Union became incorporated to the legally-recognised Royal Swaziland Police Staff Association.
In September 2008, the then Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary applied for a court order to arrest Khanyakwezwe Mhlanga the Secretary General of the Police Union because Mhlanga was illegally mobilising officers.
This was part of a bitter fight that continued for many months. In April 2008, Swazi police officers disobeyed their commander when instructed to arrest fellow police officers who were trying to hold a trade union meeting. So, the senior officers themselves had to try to break up the meeting. As they tried to arrest trade union leaders their fellow unionists freed them and they escaped to safety.
The Times of Swaziland (19 October 2007), the only independent daily newspaper in the kingdom, gave vivid details of the disobedience of the junior officers who were on duty to break up the meeting. They were given a direct instruction from Regional Commander Senior Superintendent Caiphas Mbhamali to arrest the unionists, 'but they did not take his orders as they stood and watched'.
More than 40 police in total were at the scene to break up the meeting, but only 10 senior officers actually tried to make the arrests.
The Swazi Observer, Swaziland's only other daily newspaper and which is in effect owned by King Mswati, ignored the event altogether.
Swaziland police Deputy Commissioner of Police Isaac Magagula had warned the unionist against holding the meeting. The Swazi Observer had the previous week (12 October 2007) quoted Magagula saying, 'It is only with the expressed approval of the commissioner that police officers can convene or attend any meeting.'
Although SWAPU lost its case in both the High Court and Supreme Court there was one dissenting judgment. High Court Judge Qinisile Mabuza said that existing regulations that banned trade unions were inconsistent with the Swazi Constitution, which allowed for freedom of association. She also said Swaziland laws needed to conform to international standards and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.
The Times of Swaziland (30 April 2008) quoted the judge saying Swaziland needed, 'to conform to modern trends in a democratic society in meeting the [union's] expectations and fulfilling their constitutional rights'.
The Times further reported that the judge said that denying officers their 'fundamental rights' to form a union were, 'repugnant to good governance and the rule of law, and particularly that the sanction for forming a union is dismissal, which is a disciplinary measure'.
She called the existing laws banning the union 'old discriminatory and oppressive'. She went on, 'They are inconsistent with Chapter III of the constitution. They should be declared null and void. They have no place in a democratic society.'