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King Mswati III with Michelle and Barack Obama<em> Picture: White House / Lawrence Jackson</em>

King Mswati III with Michelle and Barack Obama Picture: White House / Lawrence Jackson

By Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

With the world’s attention focused on the uprisings across the Gulf and North Africa, another pro-democracy movement has been gathering pace, far away in southern Africa. This one was also put down with violence, but has inspired hope that it may have shifted the basis of politics – at least in part – in this region forever.

This is Swaziland. A mountainous and generally peaceful country, it lies between South Africa and Mozambique and has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. Mswati III is one of the world’s wealthiest monarchs and maintains a royal household of 14 wives in considerable luxury. Meanwhile, two-thirds of his 1.2 million subjects live on less than US$1 a day and are struggling to cope with the effects of the world’s highest HIV infection rate.

The Swazi government suppressed the Facebook-inspired “April 12 uprising” with violence – and, as a result, may now have forced opposition activists in Africa’s last absolute monarchy to revisit their tactics. The much-advertised uprising failed to live up to its billing and was unable, but maybe only for now, to extend North Africa’s Jasmine Revolution into southern Africa.

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Swaziland’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Lutfo Dlamini, has branded the brutally crushed peaceful protest a “failure”. King Mswati III’s success may, however, prove short-lived and a Pyrrhic victory.

It is true that the regime has not been toppled, but the whole episode has been a public relations disaster for the Swazi authorities. The excessive use of force by the police against demonstrators has put Swaziland on the global map for all the wrong reasons. Previously known as a quiet tourist destination, the country is now bracketed with Zimbabwe as being a run by a man who will stop at almost nothing to crush opposition to his autocratic rule.

Landlocked, Swaziland is heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in South Africa and on its share of import duties from the Southern African Customs Union. The country has been hard hit by the economic recession and also by a reduction in its share of customs union import duties from US$741 million to US$281 million. In response, the government has implemented an austerity program that has made thousands redundant and cut most government budgets by up to 25 per cent.

The situation has increased the hardship being endured by Swazis and set the scene for the recent protests. Apparently inspired by the North African revolutions, a Facebook group called “April 12 uprising” was set up to provide a forum for pro-democracy activists to organise and share ideas about the prospects for change. The date of 12 April was selected to coincide with the date, 38 years ago, when Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza II, abandoned the country’s British-style constitution and set himself up as an absolute monarch.

While the uprising was marketed as a spontaneous, the truth was that activists had been mobilising against the royal regime for years.

With the banning in 2008 of Swaziland’s main liberation movement, the People’s United Democratic Movement, the opposition cause was taken up by a variety of organisations, including church groups, unions and activist groups inside the country. Meanwhile exiled Swazis mobilised through the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), which has been the main conduit of information to the outside world.

The date of 12 April was advertised widely in advance and considerable expectation built up inside Swaziland. In the capital, Mbabane, Mswati III apparently went into something of a panic and reportedly asked the South African intelligence services to closely monitor those working with the SSN.

Locally the king mobilised his military, set up roadblocks and put known activists under 24-hour surveillance. As the day of the proposed uprising approached, Swazis started to talk about the possibility of change and to express their frustrations openly.

However, the advance notice of the uprising on Facebook proved a “double-edged sword” in that, while it did focus international attention on Swaziland, it also gave the authorities time to prepare. The result was that on Tuesday 12 April, the police were ready with water cannon and tear gas to violently suppress the demonstrations before they achieved any sort of critical mass.

So what lessons can be learned from the Swaziland revolt that wasn’t a revolution?

The first lesson for the pro-democracy forces is that successful revolutions cannot be diarised in advance. Such an approach may maximise publicity, but it minimises the chance of success.

Secondly, while modern communication media such as the internet, Facebook and Twitter are fabulous tools for communication and publicity, they have severe limitations as demonstration-planning tools. Their very characteristics of universal access and broad reach mean they are easily intercepted and so are practically useless as a means of mobilising effective demonstrations.

Finally, progressive Swazis have learned that the world is unlikely to come to help them and that regime change has to be home-grown. Swazis need to learn to stand up and fight for their own right to live in a democratic state.

Another knock-on effect is that Swaziland’s powerful neighbour South Africa has been forced to examine its stance on the country. President Jacob Zuma, with his strong traditional Zulu roots, has a natural affinity for the Swazi royal family and many in the African National Congress (ANC) leadership have close ties with the country.

Prior to 12 April, only the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the ANC Youth League had spoken out against Mswati III. However, the ruling ANC has now officially broken its silence and has started to criticise the Swazi king’s actions.

“We call on the government of Swaziland to work towards the normalisation of the political environment,” said Ebrahim Ebrahim, the deputy South African international relations minister, “by unbanning opposition political parties, releasing political activists and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with opposition political and trade union leaders to find a collective solution to the socio-economic situation faced by that country.

“The use of security forces to quell any form of political dissent and failure to address legitimate concerns of citizens can only lead to the worsening of relations between government and civilians, something that does not augur well for economic stability.”

So Swaziland’s Facebook revolution may not have succeeded in producing a democratic republic, but it has probably changed Swazi politics for ever.

Never again will Mswati III be seen as a quaint and benign royal curiosity. He was now joined the ranks of Robert Mugabe and Muammar al-Gaddafi as a despot ruling in spite of the wishes of most of his people.

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Picture by Hds

Picture by Hds

By Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

Give U2 frontman, Bono, a microphone and a politically loaded question and you are unlikely to get a “no comment”. So it proved last week when the Irish singer added his voice to the controversy surrounding the use of revolutionary ‘struggle’ songs in an open democratic society like South Africa.

Speaking to the South African “Sunday Times”, while promoting U2’s 360° world tour, Bono said that revolutionary music has its place.
“I was a kid and I’d sing songs I remember my uncles singing … rebel songs about the early days of the Irish Republican Army,” he said, before singing a song with lyrics that spoke of carrying guns and being ready to use them.
“We sang this and it’s fair to say it’s folk music … as this was the struggle of some people that sang it over some time,” he said to the newspaper.

Bono was speaking about Ireland, but he was certainly aware that his words might be twisted to apply to the South African situation.  While the singing of violent struggle songs has a long history here, their continued use in the “new” South Africa is a source of considerable controversy.

President Jacob Zuma has his trademark song “umshini wam” (“bring me my machine gun”) which during his rise to power was the highlight of his rallies.  Not surprisingly now that he is President, he has toned down such revolutionary calls to ‘storm the barricades’.

However it is Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the ANC Youth League, who has caused most of the recent uproar.  The Youth Leader been taken to task by the courts, and even certain sections of the ANC, for singing the “shoot the farmer” song at political rallies.  Malema, sometimes referred to by the nickname “Juju”, is a hugely controversial figure in South African politics. His outrageous and provocative comments are a frequent source of either alarm, inspiration or humour, depending on your point of view. 

Malema’s continued use of a song that contains the Zulu lyrics “dubul’ ibhunu” (or “shoot the boer/farmer”) is an ongoing source of heated debate.   The issue came to a head in April last year when Eugene Terre’Blanche, leader of the far-right AWB and the personification of the Boer Farmer, was allegedly murdered by two of his black farm workers.  The issue of farm murders, both of white farmers and black farm workers, is one of those emotional subjects that still polarises the country.  No direct link between the murder and Malema’s singing has been proved, yet it was one of those uncomfortable moments in South Africa when the nation held its breath.

In this context, Bono’s comments sparked a fierce debate on Talk Radio and on the internet as listeners latched onto his comments for endorsement of one side or the other.

To give Bono his due, the considered opinion of many commentators is that the Sunday Times grossly misrepresenting his comments.  The streetlamp posters that trumpeted “Bono guides Juju” were mischievous at best and almost certainly plain misleading.

Following the recent furore, Bono expressed his irritation at the misrepresentation of his position and clarified what he meant:

“It’s kind of a bit mad to be honest with you. We’re famous for songs of non-violence. That anyone should think we were pro-this, it’s barking barking mad and I think it’s been stirred up,” he told Talk Radio 702.

All in all, Bono has emerged from this controversy with his reputation enhanced.  He has gained substantial publicity for his concert tour and has managed to successfully diffuse the row.

However the story has reignited discussion about whether there is space for such songs in a fledgling, and possibly fragile, democracy.

Such songs could be banned outright; but that approach is unlikely to work and will merely increase their shock value for provocative, populist politicians like Malema.

And if they are allowed, who is entitled to sing them and on what platforms?  I suspect part of the reason for the ‘storm in a tea-cup’ that Bono caused, was because of who he is.   It is one thing to have Julius Malema chanting provocative lyrics – we almost expect it of him – but quite another to have them ‘apparently’ endorsed by a visiting foreign rock star.

Revolutionary songs are part of history and, as such, they ought to be celebrated and remembered.  However as Bono pointed out while in South Africa, the intention behind the singing of these songs is everything:

“It’s about where and when you sing those songs. There’s a rule for that kind of music.”

A sense of historical perspective is also important for as a song, that needs no introduction to readers of the Caledonian Mercury, reminds us:

“Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain …”

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Censorship stampAndrew Macdonell in South Africa

Journalists in South Africa with long memories are no strangers to repressive legislation and heavy handed intimidation from the political establishment.

During the apartheid era, the fourth estate was a frequent target of the Nationalist Government. In the 1980s, heavy handed censorship of the print media was commonplace. Eventually the policy backfired, most famously when the Weekly Mail newspaper used blank spaces or gaps to highlight the presence of the censor’s knife.

However with the dawn of the new democracy in 1994 and the adoption of a progressive, liberal constitution, most thought that the bad old days of censorship were gone forever.

Unfortunately the more things change, the more they appear to stay the same. The ruling ANC government has obviously taken some pages out of the Nationalist playbook and is currently tabling legislation that could signal a return to censorship and the repression of critical investigative reporting.

The introduction of the “Protection of Information Bill” has incensed a huge number of South Africans, who see in the bill an attempt by the ruling party to muzzle criticism of the government.

The bill, in its current form, has two main elements.

Firstly it proposes to set up a Media Appeals Tribunal to adjudicate on cases where journalists are considered to have overstepped the line.

Currently the media in South Africa is regulated by a Press Ombudsman and the Press Council. This process is not perfect and there have been cases of inaccurate and unfair reporting.

Nonetheless the system has generally worked well and ultimately the press is, by its nature, accountable to the court of public opinion.

The proposed state-appointed Media Tribunal will be a government appointed panel, charged with monitoring and disciplining the media. In theory, it is not an inherently bad idea though the concerns centre on the independence of this panel. It is very difficult to see any such government-appointed panel deviating significantly from a position that is acceptable to the ANC Headquarters at Luthuli House.

The second and perhaps more troublesome element is that the bill seeks to restrict the dissemination of “government information”. The definition of government information is extremely broad and effectively includes just about everything the government does.

For the first time, the bill also specifically includes commercial information, which would make it difficult to report on possible tender irregularities, financial misconduct and even possibly the financial performance of some state-related institutions. At one stroke the, so-called, “tenderpreneurs” who are fast getting very rich from ill-gotten government contracts would be protected by a shield of secrecy.

Writing in the Mail and Guardian, its editor Nic Dawes explained that “the bill criminalises the entire chain of custody of any leak of material that is classified in terms of its provisions, so it is not just the whistleblower who could be prosecuted, but journalists or society activists who receive documents and who don’t immediately take these to their nearest police station. Punishments are severe and can include jail sentences of up to 25 years, in terms of the proposed bill. That is criminalising journalism.”

The legislation currently appears to be primarily aimed at the print media. New online newspapers such as the Daily Maverick (South Africa’s excellent equivalent of The Caledonian Mercury) do not yet appear to be in the firing line. However given the growing popularity of such sites, this may be only a matter of time.

Journalists have also been given a preview of life under the new legislation through the recent treatment of South African Sunday Times journalist, Mzilikazi wa Afrika. Wa Afrika was arrested last week in dramatic fashion by at least eight members of the new police priority crimes unit, the “Hawks” – without an arrest warrant – on charges of fraud and defeating the ends of justice.

He was one of the authors of a recent story on the current Police Commissioner, Bheki Cele, that exposed a potentially very suspect leasing contract for the new police headquarters.

However the official reason for his arrest is possession of a letter, purportedly written by David Mabuza, premier of the Province of Mpumalanga, announcing his resignation to President Jacob Zuma. The letter, allegedly forged, was faxed to Wa Afrika; but the Sunday Times could not verify its authenticity and consequently spiked the story.

At the time of his arrest, Wa Afrika was on his way to peacefully hand himself over, but the police were obviously intent on making a scene. It is probably no coincidence that the arrest took at the Sunday Times head office in Johannesburg – which was at the time hosting a meeting of editors and journalists to discuss the threatened Media Appeals Tribunal and the enactment of the Protection of Information Bill.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Wa Afrika’s alleged offences, he has obviously made many enemies in high places and few can be in any doubt that the real objective of the arrest was to intimidate Wa Afrika and his colleagues. This is an ongoing story and, at the time of writing, Wa Afrika is out on bail.

It may be no coincidence that this breakdown in trust between the press and the government has happened so soon after the value of a free press was vindicated by the high profile conviction of the previous Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, on corruption charges.

South Africa’s former head of police and one time head of Interpol was found guilty of corruption and has just received a 15 year jail sentence. It is worth recalling that when the press first broke the Selebi allegations, they were widely vilified by President Mbeki and the political clique in power at the time. Numerous obstacles were put in place of the prosecution of Selebi and while the prosecution has ultimately been successful, casualties along the way have included Vusi Pikoli, who was suspended as the previous National Prosecutions Authority boss, and the successful crime fighting unit, the “Scorpions”.

The Scorpions, with their integrated investigation and prosecutorial capacity, have subsequently been dissolved and replaced by the Hawks, who lack independent prosecution powers and are ultimately answerable to the politicians. It is therefore extremely unlikely that someone of Selebi’s seniority within the ANC will ever have to worry about facing prosecution again.

Recent developments have caused many to ask why now? The official government line is that the press has been especially irresponsible of late and greater fairness and balance is required from the media.

However a more likely reason is that ANC politicians have grown increasingly tired and embarrassed by the numerous investigations into wasteful expenditure and government corruption. It is far easier to attack the messenger than deal with the cancer of corruption that is eating at the fabric of almost all state institutions.

Despite all these current worries, the proposed legislation is not yet law. The “Protection of Information Bill” will probably come before the Judges of the Constitutional Court, and there is a fair chance that they will view it as contrary to the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution.

Watershed moments in history are often prompted by apparently small changes that are best identified with hindsight. However there is a palpable sense in South Africa that we may look back on this current attack on press freedom as one such ‘tipping point’. The unanswered question is whether the right of access to information will continue to prevail over the right to repress information?