16 October 2018

Swaziland: Reported Attempt to Re-Form Swaziland Police Union Rekindles Memories of Fight for Workers' Rights

Photo: : Swazi media
King Mswati III in his suit of diamonds and wearing his U.S.$1.6 million watch cuts his birthday cake (file photo).

Police leaders in Swaziland / Eswatini are playing down reports that a trade union for junior officers has been re-formed in the kingdom.

The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati III, the kingdom's absolute monarch, which has a long history of anti-trade unionism, was so keen to support the police management that it published the same comments from its spokesperson in separate editions more than two weeks apart.

Reports that the Swaziland Police Union (SWAPU) might be back in operation spread on social media during the kingdom's discredited House of Assembly elections in September 2018. SWAPU was banned in 2008 after the High Court and the Supreme Court ruled it to be illegal.

The Swazi Observer (27 September 2018) and also its Saturday edition (13 October 2018) reported on a hurried press conference called by the police on 26 September 2018. Both stories used the same quote from Chief Information and Communications Officer Superintendent Phindile Vilakati, 'We have been able to trace the source and origin of the circulating information. Our investigations have unravelled that the whole story, in particular the contents therein, were fake news creatively made up as a figment of someone's fertile imagination in furtherance of ulterior political motives, in particular as cheap propaganda strategy to promote anarchy and put a damper on the national elections.'

No evidence to support her assertions were given.

SWAPU was 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 2007, 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. 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.

Swaziland police Deputy Commissioner of Police Isaac Magagula had warned the unionist against holding the meeting. The Swazi Observer had the previous week quoted Magagula saying, 'It is only with the expressed approval of the commissioner that police officers can convene or attend any meeting.'

Many believed the commissioner did not have this power since the Swaziland Constitution allows for freedom of assembly so the meeting was protected and should have been allowed to go ahead.

A video of Royal Swazi Police breaking up the meeting in October 2007 is still on YouTube. It shows police dragging people from the meeting and trying to arrest them.

A senior police officer is videoed saying that the meeting cannot go ahead because the organiser's do not have a permit. He says he is only following his orders.

The video then shows police dragging people from the meeting hall to a waiting police van. Three policemen attack one man who is dragged by his feet on his back and as he tries to struggle free he cries out 'Where are you taking me? What have I done?'

As police try to put him in the back of a van his comrades come and rescue him and the police appear to give up on him.

Later in the video police drag off another man. He desperately clings to a pole to stop them taking him further. Again, his comrades come to his rescue and he escapes.

The video, which lasts eight minutes, has no commentary, but it does have the sound of the confusion. The camera operator gets close to the action and most of the time is right in the thick of it. Naturally, the police are aware that they are being videoed.

The level of violence used by the police was much less than witnessed in September 2018 when police turned the city of Manzini into a 'battlefield' and 'warzone' on the second day of a national strike in the kingdom when stun grenades, teargas, teasers and rubber bullets were used.

The Times of Swaziland reported in 2007, 'The Regional Commander Senior Superintendent Caiphas Mbhamali, instructed the junior officers to arrest the defiant SWAPU members, but they did not take his orders as they stood and watched.

'The senior officers took it upon themselves to effect the arrest, but SWAPU members resisted and the scuffle continued.

'During the scuffle, the shirt of a senior officer's uniform got torn, SWAPU member Thandukwazi Zwane's T-shirt was also ripped apart.

'A member of SWAPU quickly jumped inside his car parked close by, reversed at high speed towards the crowd and ordered his colleagues to jump inside.

'Meanwhile, the SWAPU President Dlamini blocked the gate with his car, allowing his followers out of the gate.'

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 judge said Swaziland needed, 'to conform to modern trends in a democratic society in meeting the [union's] expectations and fulfilling their constitutional rights'.

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.'

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