Swaziland Unions Call off Marches after Arrests, Intimidation

Swaziland’s union federation called off marches set for April 12 in the face of police intimidation and the reported arrests of prominent labor activists.

Swazi courts declared the intended march illegal, even though union and student activists traditionally march on the historically significant date of April 12 to commemorate the 1973 ban on political parties in Africa’s last absolute monarchy. The 2011 protests also were quashed, by heavy violence and mass arrests.

In the past year, unions have taken strides to increase their leadership capacity. On May Day 2011, Swaziland’s two union federations announced that they had merged to form the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA). The new federation held its founding congress on March 12, 2012, but Swazi officials reversed course and canceled its registration only months after approving it. International trade union bodies claim that the decision to de-register TUCOSWA calls into question the government’s legal commitment to protect and enforce freedom of association under International Labor Organization Convention 87.

“Our federation was recently banned from operating because the government claimed that the merging of two unions did not conform to the law,” Vincent Dlamini, national organizing secretary for TUCOSWA, told France 24 in an interview. “However, we all know that the real reason for banning us is because we passed a resolution calling for Swaziland to be ruled under a democratic, multiparty system.”

In 2006, the Solidarity Center published a report on worker rights in Swaziland. The report found Swaziland besieged by crises—a political environment in which trade union rights were severely restricted, a deadly assault from HIV/AIDS, and the impending collapse of its economy, which was based on the garment and textile sector. In the ensuing years, conditions have not improved. The 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act further restricts political and union activity and gives the government broad power to repress civil society activism under the guise of state security. Swaziland is in a severe budget crisis, and nearly 70 percent of Swazis live on less than a dollar per day. It now has the world’s highest HIV infection rate—estimated at 25 percent of the adult population.

TUCOSWA is calling for greater economic accountability and a boycott of next year’s elections.