As reported in the Times of Swaziland, armed soldiers roamed through Mbabane today, with the clear intent of repressing any attempts to demonstrate against the regime.
In a statement issued by Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini in the afternoon, “national security agents have been instructed to protect life and property against any protest action planned anywhere as it has been declared illegal by Cabinet.”
“The public should be aware that no person, persons or organisation has made an application to march or picket in terms of the law,” the PM said.
South African president Jacob Zuma spoke yesterday in Kliptown, Soweto in commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacres — an infamous event, during which peaceful protests against the South African pass law turned into a police killing of 69 people. In an attempt to put an affirming spin on this horrible but political watershed event, the anniversary has been renamed, “Human Rights Day.”
According to Business Day, protests erupted in Sharpeville on Tuesday when the news circulated that the speech would take place in Kliptown and not in Sharpeville. And in turn, a series of “service delivery” protests followed in other areas — a term I put in quotes only because some analysts, such as Steven Friedman, have argued that these protests have tended to be motivated by broader political agendas rather than specific gripes about service under-provision. The modern Sharpeville protest suggests the centrality of the politics of dignity.
And with respect to the subject of human rights, various South African news outlets have been highlighting the contradiction between Zuma’s discussion of the importance of the constitution and the bill of rights on the one hand; alongside recent his administration’s recent moves to curtail free information, to review the constitution, and to question the integrity of the judiciary.
In short, the question of which services and protections ought to be aspirations, and which ought to be rights remain the subject of active political conflict in the South African polity.
And as part of that political struggle, protest remains a powerful and important citizen tool for voicing discontent, especially when the electoral system seems to offer little recourse. But I’m torn: Will today’s protests bring about stronger and more responsive democratic governance? Perhaps. But it also might backfire if such protests are organized at too low of a threshold, and if active engagement falls by the wayside as a strategy for realizing human rights and promoting better service delivery. My point is not to blame the protesters, but to wonder why the ANC continues to alienate its base, rather than drafting the citizenry as partners?
This week almost 50 members of South Africa’s largest labor organization, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), joined pro-democracy protests in Swaziland (Sowetan). Following SA’s recent bailout of the Swazi government, interest has grown in the political situation of the tiny kingdom neighbor. And for all sorts of good reasons, organized labor has a vested interest in similar rights being afforded citizens in all countries in the region. (NB: A great book on the strategies and impact of transnational activists is Keck and Sikkink’s Activists Beyond Borders.)
Meanwhile, a Swaziland-based human rights blog reports that King Mswati has cut mobile phone communications for the planned week of protests.
I still have not seen any coverage of the story in any American news outlets. It has been several months since pressure began to mount on the king, and I doubt he has the firepower to seriously contain waves of mass action, should they erupt. His real strength lies with his legitimacy as the traditional ruler of the Swazi nation in a largely homogeneous country.
Should democratic governments that value human rights and civil liberties provide financial assistance to autocracies in times of dire need? It’s a catch-22: If they don’t, citizens may suffer because of possible reductions in services and financial stability. If they do, they may prop up that government at a time when it is likely to be most vulnerable to political challenges. Similar questions faced Western governments in the dying days of apartheid when the issue concerned divestment.
Now the shoe is on the other foot as South Africa is bailing out King Mswati III’s government, just as he continues to lead an unrepentantly luxurious lifestyle while maintaining an autocratic government that severely curtails political freedoms. Some South Africans want to “starve the beast.” Others point out that if they don’t “engage,” China or some other country surely will provide the resources and South Africa will lose its political leverage.
It’s a difficult call, but lately I am wondering if the “tough love” option isn’t exercised often enough, and we really don’t know how well it would work. I don’t want to be glib — the Swazi government says it is grateful for South Africa’s loan so it can fund public schools and ARV treatment for its huge HIV-positive population. And even short-term reductions of those services would be disastrous. But Africa’s only absolute monarchy is much less likely to fall if good governments provide favorable financial support and especially without clear conditions for reform.
It’s been a while since I last wrote about the protests in Swaziland, and thought I would check in to see what’s going on, and it turns out that new surges of activity have emerged across several towns in the autocratic Southern African kingdom in just the past day:
At the moment, it appears that King Mswati III is allowing the protests to proceed without massive repression, even as union organizers mobilizing the activities challenge him to resign.
While protestors are calling for democratic reforms, there’s not doubt that the protests were set off by a public sector wage freeze, not some particular denial of civil liberties. Also — and this is notable, because mass action around HIV/AIDS in Africa has actually been quite rare — citizens are voicing complaints about shortages of ARV drugs.
It’s still unclear whether there’s sufficient momentum to effect any real change, but this now marks several months of relatively sustained demonstrations. If the demands are ultimately material ones, however, Mswati may opt to follow the Saudi playbook, and buy off support using his reported $100 million+ fortune.
— Yet in one more African country — Malawi — protestors have taken to the streets to demand leadership change in the face of poor conditions. Like in Botswana, which was a very different type of protest (Government employees striking, not mass action, including violent clashes in the streets), Malawi is known more for calm than for calamity. As a relatively small, resource-poor country, this may not make the international news headlines, but early reports indicate several dead and dozens injured by police clamping down on the protests.
Tina Rosenberg has a great piece — Friends in Revolution — in which she discusses her skepticism about the power of internet-based social networks to be agents for political change in the absence of real social ties. She highlights that a new tool, Friendfactor, combined social media with real friendships in the campaign for gay marriage. She highlights that the notion of a Twitter Revolution in Iran and the role of Facebook in Egypt may have been overplayed (though she doesn’t provide concrete evidence of this…)
All of this sounds right to me. I share her skepticism that people are going to risk their lives in protest simply because others in an online community have said they would do the same. One needs to feel some type of fundamental personal attachment to at least a few other people who are personally known and trusted before making such sacrifices. Of course, real friendships and connections may be initiated and developed online, but the types of links that inspire personal sacrifice are rarely made instantaneously. Before we take for granted the “power” of facebook and other forms of social media, we should consider the extent to which the most prominent examples — Tahir square, etc — were rooted in networks of more private and analog connections between people.
I wanted to update the fallout from the Swazi protests and the strike in Botswana, which I posted earlier. In the case of Swaziland, government repression appears to have quieted things down, with the regime taking advantage of the term “terrorist” to justify brutality to its own citizens. Today, two activists were denied bail for illegal possession of explosives.
In Botswana, the government is imposing a “no work, no pay” policy, effective as of May 1. According to a recent report, state worker unions will strike until this Friday, after which they will carry out a work slow-down. Workers have demanded a 16 percent pay hike, and so far the state has only offered 5 percent.
In no way am I trying to equate these two mass actions or the respective government responses – the former is dictatorial repression, the latter is pretty much regular democratic politics. But in both cases, ordinary people are expressing substantial frustration with leadership at the top.
I’ve been pretty surprised to read about the extent to which public servants have acted collectively and stayed away from work this week, protesting three years of stagnant wages. We’re not used to seeing much in the way of mass action in Botswana. The country is a unique case as the most stable and fastest growing African economy in the post-independence era. But as some have pointed out, the same party has been in power the whole time, which raises the question of how democratic the country really is. I must admit, I’ve been impressed by how competent and effective the civil service is, and as nurses stay home from hospitals, and teachers from schools, the country will really feel the bite of the absence of ordinarily high quality services. But the key question of how we describe Botswana — and its tolerance for political contestation — may well be revealed by how the government reacts to this strike.
The Swazi monarchy is doing all it can to close out the political space for protesters seeking to gain momentum in the recent series of challenges. They’ve brought out teargas and rubber bullets, and pre-emptively detained protesters. But unlike in places such as Egypt, where citizens wanted to see the reigning despot completely out of power, out of town, and perhaps in jail, or dead, in Swaziland, there remains widespread attachment to traditional authority. Protesters are thus calling for a constitutional monarchy, which would include an unbanning of political parties, the granting of meaningful elections, etc., but in some type of hybrid with the current regime.
Despite the prevalence of democratic regimes throughout Africa, many foreign observers just don’t realize how important traditional rulers remain in the lives of ordinary citizens. And in many places, including in relatively modern and industrialized South Africa, traditional rulers have been granted a substantial degree of authority and autonomy in local affairs.
Unfortunately, I think this kind of dual authority structure is ultimately very limiting for democratic governance. It is difficult to see how the Swazi nation would be able to navigate its way to some type of true democratic arrangement, while the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful King remains on the scene in an official role. There would be too many temptations to intervene — either to heavy handedly structure the outcome of elections and/or to challenge policy directly.
For a long time, traditional leadership was seen as an old-fashioned and irrelevant subject for serious investigation. But as scholars and other observers have come to recognize the importance of traditional leaders (chiefs, headman, etc.), there will be closer and more thoughtful scrutiny. Kate Baldwin, currently at CSDP at Princeton is doing some interesting research on this question.
I did a quick analysis of Afrobarometer data — a survey that in the recent round covered 20 countries (but not Swaziland — as the survey targeted countries that are… or were… considered democratic in recent years), and looked at responses to the question, “How much influence do traditional leaders currently have in governing your local community?” And below I plot the percent of each country’s population that said “some” or “a great deal” — rather than “none” or “a little.”
Overall, more than 50 percent of respondents said that traditional leaders were playing a substantial role. Given that traditional leaders are very rarely elected, the question remains what kind of democracies are these? It’s not a rhetorical question, but one worth considering — if major decisions, including the resolution of major disputes and the allocation of resources are mediated through traditional leaders. If the Swazi people want free and fair elections, but they also want to maintain the monarchy, is the thing that they are demanding the same thing that we often call “democracy?”