In Eswatini, a landlocked country in southern Africa, union workers are routinely harassed, attacked and even killed for going on strike or holding rallies. In 2021, dozens of workers were killed by security forces in what Amnesty International called “a full-frontal assault on human rights” by the government in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. In January, prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead, hours after a speech by the king warning those calling for democratic reforms that mercenaries would deal with them.
Exiled SWATCAWU leader Sticks Nkambule is receiving support from SCAWU and other unions in Eswatini. Credit: SCAWU
Most recently, Sticks Nkambule, general secretary of the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU), was targeted by the government for leading a strike to improve working conditions. Forced to flee Eswatini, formerly called Swaziland, Nkambule described the interconnected struggle for worker rights, human rights and democracy on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast.
“By bringing together the collective voice of all workers, unions fight for decent working conditions but also for the freedoms fundamental to all democratic societies,” Bader-Blau told Nkambule.
Despite the brutality and repression, Nkambule finds hope in the support from labor and human rights organizations around the world—and in workers themselves.
“What is quite inspiring is that the people of Swaziland are determined to be part of the conversation that is going to change their discourse. It is a reality, activists and, not just labor, beyond labor.”
Fearing for his life and liberty, pro-democracy activist and Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU) General Secretary Sticks Nkambule remains trapped in exile while his union campaigns to bring him home safely.
The murder last month of human and worker rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Thulani Maseko—whom Nkambule describes as “friend, colleague, personal attorney and man of peace”—demonstrates that Eswatini is unsafe for rights defenders, says Nkambule.
“We are being visited by killing squads,” he says.
While he was out of the country, on December 28, 2022, Nkambule’s home was raided and his family harassed by heavily armed members of the police and military. In January—after police published Nkambule’s name as a wanted person for alleged criminal conduct associated with a SWATCAWU December 13 –14 job “stay away” announcement—Nkambule began receiving reports of dozens of armed state and military members searching for him and other SWATCAWU leaders in multiple locations.
Under such circumstances, Nkambule says his return is impossible and, even in his new location, he cannot live freely for fear of mercenaries.
“The regime is clear to say that certain figures and faces need to go,” says Nkambule, referring to a “list of terrorists” publicly cited by the leader of a South African company that has a contract to train Eswatini security personnel, per news reports.
Eswatini state harassment of unions and other rights defenders is a decades-long pattern which, reports Nkambule, last year included stepped-up police and military harassment of SWATCAWU leadership, and surveillance by unknown persons in unmarked cars. Growing state repression and fear have led many rights defenders to flee, he says—including Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) President Mbongwa Dlamini, who left the country after state security forces fired live ammunition at his home last year.
Harassment of union leaders ramped up after SWATCAWU began announcing job actions, reports the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The union began a series of “stay aways” last year, says Nkambule, to sidestep the state’s brutal repression of peaceful protests, which in 2021 included police and military members beating rally goers and firing live ammunition into crowds during popular uprisings against the king’s government.
“[The October stay away] worked,” says Nkambule. “When protestors stay in their homes, they don’t get shot.”
However, the threat of a series of transport worker “stay aways”—which brings the economy to a standstill because workers cannot travel to their jobs—presents an unwelcome, and escalating, challenge to the state and employers.
“And that is why I have been singled out,” says Nkambule.
SWATCAWU has been embroiled for almost three years in a lawful and peaceful effort to encourage the state to improve transport workers’ wages and conditions—including a $233 monthly minimum wage, better access to social security and health care, repair of dilapidated roads and an end to police harassment—and to release from prison pro-democracy Eswatini Parliament Members Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.
Meanwhile, Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, controls all three branches of government, chooses the prime minister, can dissolve Parliament and appoints judges. Under his control, Eswatini has conducted a two-decades-long anti-union and anti-democracy campaign with impunity, reports the ITUC.
Human Rights Watch last month called on the South African government to investigate allegations that South African mercenaries and private military personnel who are allegedly operating in Eswatini are targeting pro-democracy activists. UN and African Union experts condemned Maseko’s murder and demanded an impartial investigation into his death, reiterating UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk’s call for the authorities to ensure the safety of all human rights defenders, civil society actors and lawyers in Eswatini.
In the context of shrinking civic space and a global crackdown on human and worker rights, the Solidarity Center continues to support and partner with pro-democracy union activists across the globe, and has long supported beleaguered unions in Eswatini.
As a migrant mine worker from Swaziland, Mduduzi Thabethe says he has fewer workplace rights than his South African co-workers. Although all mine workers pay the same amount into the health fund, migrant workers get inferior care and pensions are rare.
“If you are a citizen of South Africa, you see you are building your country and you have something, but we have nothing.”
Although media and policymakers focus on African migrants to Europe, some 80 percent of African migrant workers remain on the continent.
Thabethe’s union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, is among those working to improve conditions for migrant workers.
Over the past year, Swazi workers have not been deterred from taking part in union meetings even though the gatherings were repeatedly broken up by police. They turned out in large numbers for the annual May Day rally, although they were threatened with arrest if they did so. And they took all these actions in an environment in which unions were banned and free speech squelched.
For their bravery in standing up for their rights, Swazi workers and their union, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), last night received the AFL-CIO’s 2015 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, which recognized “the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights,” the AFL-CIO said in a statement announcing the award.
More than 200 union allies and supporters, including participants of the Global Labor University conference, packed the AFL-CIO lobby in Washington, D.C., for the honors ceremony, with TUCOSWA Secretary General Vincent Ncongwane and TUCOSWA Treasurer General Patrick Mamba accepting the award on behalf of the union and Swazi workers.
“Labor never quits,” Ncongwane said, accepting the award. “We never give up the fight, no matter how tough the odds, no matter how long it takes,” he said, quoting former AFL-CIO President George Meany.
“You’re truly global leaders for the struggle for justice,” said AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre as he presented the award.
Speaking at the event, Jos Williams, president of the AFL-CIO Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, described his experience as part an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) fact-finding delegation to Swaziland in May. Members of the delegation were moved to tears during their meeting with families of imprisoned human rights leaders, Williams said.
“I saw tough freedom fighters with tears in their eyes once they heard from their families.”
TUCOSWA was formed in 2012 with the merger of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions and the Swaziland Federation of Labor. Both were joined by the Swaziland National Association of Teachers. TUCOSWA only received official recognition this past May, after the U.S. government suspended trade benefits with the country last year and made worker rights a key component of restoring its trade eligibility.
Since the U.S. government suspended Swaziland’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the country also has freed imprisoned human rights advocates but it has not yet repealed anti-terrorism laws that enable it to imprison union leaders and others who call for human rights and democracy.
At a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center, Ncongwane noted that the loss of trade benefits has impacted thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, who have been laid off.
Speaking last night, Ncongwane said “we are working tirelessly to press for reforms that will put our country on a more secure footing to restore these jobs and to restore job opportunities. The greatest threat to jobs and growth in Swaziland does not come from unions, but from our government’s lack of foresight, lack of vision and mismanaged policy decisions.”
Ncongwane emphasized the positive impact of global labor solidarity which, in publicizing the government’s actions, has enabled the union to operate with some measure of freedom.
“We will utilize our institutional strength to impact and press for change but we need our international partners in the global labor movement to maintain support for workers’ rights and for greater democracy in Swaziland, especially now when we are as close as we’ve ever been to real reform in years,” he said.
The annual Meany-Kirkland award, created in 1980 and named for the first two presidents of the AFL-CIO, recognizes outstanding examples of the international struggle for human rights through trade unions.
Last year, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and its affiliates received the award and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) received it in 2013. In 2012, the award went to the Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GBFTU)—two unions whose struggles were emblematic of labor’s role in the uprisings that year.
Representatives of Swaziland’s trade union federation, TUCOSWA—who are in Washington, D.C., to receive a human rights award from the AFL-CIO in recognition of the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights—say an alarming number of people are losing their jobs because of the country’s unwillingness to improve its poor human rights record.
Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), on January 1, for violations of worker rights eligibility criteria, including laws that restrict freedom of association and speech. As a result, thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, face layoffs, said Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Vincent Ncongwane, at a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center yesterday. Some employers are closing factories while others are moving production to subsidiary plants outside the country.
TUCOSWA has strongly criticized the Swazi government’s actions leading to AGOA suspension and has said trade benefits can be restored when the government chooses to meet benchmarks to become compliant under the Act’s eligibility requirements. In return, the federation’s activities have been disrupted, it was long denied (and only recently received) official registration, and many workers are afraid to get involved for fear of retribution, said Ncongwane.
However, international solidarity with Swazi workers and TUCOSWA has helped the labor movement remain a vibrant voice for workers, he said. The federation represents more than 36,000 workers, who do not have to see their jobs disappear.
“All that is necessary is the political will,” said Ncongwane.
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