Despite mass shooting and repression, unions in Swaziland continue struggle for rights and democracy

Close to two weeks after security forces fired on nurses and teachers ahead of a protest, trade unions in Swaziland determinedly continue their fight for better working conditions, living wages and democratization

November 08, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Health workers stage a protest in Swaziland. Photo: Communist Party of Swaziland

Despite the shooting of dozens of teachers, nurses and civil servants by king Mswati III’s police and the military of Swaziland, the demands for better working conditions, living wages and the democratization of the country continue to stir unions. 

On Thursday, November 4, nurses in Mbabane Government Hospital boycotted work and held a demonstration reiterating their demands for a wage hike and alleviating the severe shortages in medical supplies. These were the demands for which they were holding a march on October 20, when they were attacked by the security forces.  

A nurse told Peoples Dispatch on the condition of anonymity that the medical crisis has worsened since then. Shortage of staff, medicines and equipment, which “has for a long time been a major complaint by the health care workers in the country,” has been exacerbated by “inconsistency in food supply for patients for over a month now.”

With thin porridge for breakfast being the only meal served to the patients, nurses are unable to administer necessary medications that cause side-effects if ingested on an empty stomach, he said. The petition submitted to the health ministry the previous week and numerous engagements with the management have not yielded any resolution. 

Organized under Swaziland Democratic Nurses Unions (SWADNU), nurses in different regions have held marches to the regional police headquarters to demand accountability for the brutality on October 20. They demand to know who gave the orders to fire and why, and have resolved not to treat any member of the security services.

Similar actions were held over the last two weeks by the Swaziland National Teachers Association (SNAT), whose members were also shot at on the day. On October 29, the teachers union held a meeting with the National Commissioner of Police, seeking accountability for the unprovoked shooting. 

“The meeting bore no fruit. We were told the police has no report about who opened fire and at whose orders, but they will investigate – the usual assurances we are provided every time,” SNAT president Mbongwa Dlamini told Peoples Dispatch. With no updates on the assured investigation till date, SNAT is planning to take a march to the prime minister’s office, he said. 

Democratization is key to resolving economic issues

On October 20, SNAT, SWADNU, National Public Services & Allied Workers’ Union (NAPSAWU), and Swaziland National Association of Government Accounting Personnel (SNAGAP) were set to jointly march to the Ministry of Public Services (MoPS) to petition their demands.

While each union had their set of sector-specific demands, the call for an end to absolute monarchy and acceptance of multi-party democracy, along with the release of the 700-odd political prisoners, is a common struggle of all unions. 

The democratization of Swaziland’s politics is fundamentally linked to the resolution of the economic issues raised by the unions as most of the country’s economy is owned by King Mswati III and run for the profit of himself and his associates. 

An estimated 60-70% of the population lives on less than USD 2 a day. While the government cites poverty when unions demand decent pay, billions are spent every year on grand parties, festivals, palaces and other indulgences of the royal family, including a fleet of Rolls Royce cars and private jets.

Amidst this discontent simmering in Swaziland for decades, the protests by students against police-brutality after the murder of Thabani Nkomonye in May boiled over into country-wide pro-democracy protests by June. 

For the first time, the rural masses were mobilized into action. The violent response by security forces to this unprecedented situation has left an estimated 100 people dead since June. 

The latest tide of protests in the ongoing pro-democracy movement rose with student agitations which began in the last week of September and escalated with the mobilization of trade unions of public transport workers and civil servants in October. Dozens of workers were shot at on October 15. 

Mass shooting by police and military 

In order to avoid bloodshed during the planned march on October 20, the unions had filed requests to secure permission from the municipal council of the capital Mbabane a day in advance. According to the Public Order Act, it is the municipality of the respective cities which are authorized to grant such permissions.

“The permission was granted. Even the police were involved in the discussions. The routes of the march were also agreed upon. However, later that night, the union leadership was informed by the police that the National Commissioner had withdrawn the permission,” Dlamini said.  

The leadership of the nurses’ union was only informed about the withdrawal of permission at 8 am on October 20. By then, workers had already begun to arrive at the assembly point in Coronation Park, from where the march to MoPS, about 3 km away, was to begin.

Even before the union leaders had an opportunity to address the workers and inform them that permission for the march had been withdrawn, the police opened fire on the crowd. 

The union leaders pleaded with the police officers to stop the firing but were unheard. Many workers who ran for their lives were chased as far as 4 km all the way to Msunduza where they were shot at again.

In the meantime, two buses of civil servants, including teachers and nurses, were stopped on their way to Coronation Park around 7 km before their destination, in the Nkoyoyo area. Even as workers in the bus were trying to negotiate with the police to be allowed to return to the Piggs Peak town from where they had come, the police fired rounds of tear gas canisters into the bus.

As the choking workers began to run out of the bus, they were shot at with live rounds by the military police who were also present at the site, Dlamini said. “Many who jumped out the window to avoid being shot at the door have suffered broken bones.” 

In a letter written later to Education International (EI), SNAT listed the names of 21 workers who were shot at as they alighted from the two buses. Another 15 people were shot in other incidents in different areas of the capital. “This brings the total number of workers (Teachers, Nurses, Accountants and Public Servants in general service) who were shot by the state security organs to 36,” the letter says.

Eight of them were nurses, Mavibongwe Masangane, general secretary of SWADNU, told Peoples Dispatch. Some of them were chased all the way into their residential quarters inside the Mbabane hospital and shot by the police. He added that the bullets could not be removed from the bodies of some of the wounded. 

“We lack the capacity to remove foreign bodies which get embedded in sensitive areas. It requires sophisticated equipment like CT scanners and nerve sensors to see the bullet. But these are very few and not maintained in working order,” he explained. 

“Mbabane Government Hospital is the country’s main referral hospital. If these equipment are not available here, they are not available anywhere in the country. Without them, we risk causing damage to vital nerves in the process of removing the bullets. So we have to wait and observe the body’s reaction. If no complications are being caused in the due course, we let the bullet be. If not, the patient will have to seek care in South Africa.”

Nurses refuse to treat police and soldiers

With security forces consuming most of what comes down as the annual budget after meeting the expenses of royal indulgences, the health sector barely gets any allocation. “Whatever we have in healthcare is mostly from international donations,” Masangane said.

This has reduced the medical community in the country to a state of helplessness. In critical cases, “the best we can provide is palliative care, to help the patient die with dignity. This is the great frustration of the medical community in Swaziland,” he added. 

He further said that the constant risk of harassment at the hands of security forces, particularly when having to travel during curfew hours to attend emergency cases, adds to the problem. It is not only on the streets that the medical community is targeted. Tear gas was also fired into the blood bank which was buzzing with frantic activity amid a severe shortage of blood needed to treat the emergencies on October 20, he added.    

SWADNU has since given a call for all nurses to refuse to treat patients who are members of the security forces. For a legal basis of this action, he points to the Health and Safety Act, which allows any worker the right to refuse to work if he or she feels threatened. “Whenever we see police or military we feel threatened,” he said. 

“Two of the eight wounded nurses,” he said, “were shot in the thoracic cavity, the area under the ribs where the vital organs are protected. This indicates an intention to kill. We have all reasons to justifiably feel threatened and the law permits us to refuse to work under the conditions.”  

Since then, many unionized nurses outside Mbabane, in regions including Shiselweni and Manzini, have held demonstrations reiterating their refusal to treat members of the security forces. Some have allegedly received death threats from members of the security forces after these demonstrations.

SADC kowtowing to the monarch?

In the meantime, a special envoy of the Chairperson of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) visited Swaziland on October 20-21, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. 

Following this visit, which stemmed out of concern for the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who holds the SADC chair, announced that all the “stakeholders” the envoy met had committed to resolving the situation through a national dialogue in the form of Sibaya – a traditional form of consultation led by the king.

“It seems that the special envoy did not meet with representatives of the students’ movement or the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) or any of the other organisations demanding an immediate unbanning of political parties,” the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) said in a statement titled ‘For how much longer, SADC, will you dance to Mswati’s tune?’

Another joint demonstration by unions that was scheduled to be held on October 29 on TUCOSWA’s call to action in six cities had to be called off at the last moment under the threat of another mass shooting. In Lumbombo, workers who had started off to Siteki town to hold the demonstration before the decision to call it off was made were caught on their way, beaten by the security forces, and allegedly forced to roll in mud as punishment.

Following this, Ramaphosa personally met King Mswati III on November 2, and according to his statement, “held discussion on a broad range of matters relating to the political and security situation in the Kingdom.”

“Note how the statement evades making any reference to democratization,” pointed out Pius Vilakati, international secretary of the CPS. The statement also mentions that the King will take three months time to prepare for the Sibaya. 

“First of all, three months’ time clearly means that the SADC is not at all sympathetic to the urgency felt by the people of Swaziland. Attacks by security forces are occurring daily,” Vilakati told Peoples Dispatch

“Secondly, none of the forces fighting for democratization have accepted Sibaya as a place to hold such a dialogue. It is not a neutral platform; it is Mswati’s turf,” he added, explaining that it is held in the high-security zone of Lobamba, which is Swaziland’s traditional capital. “In the past, those who have expressed any dissatisfaction while speaking on this forum have been identified and targeted by security forces.”

Moreover, the loss of legitimacy of Sibaya in the eyes of the masses has become evident. On July 16, Mswati’s call for Sibaya – upon his return to public view after having allegedly fled the country temporarily when the pro-democracy protests peaked – was met with boycott. “Drunkards were lured in to attend this ceremony to save the King’s face. Security forces also had to go around forcing others to participate,” Vilakati recalled.

While the SADC seeks to push the people of Swaziland to seek resolution in this discredited and rejected forum, the trade unions, student organizations and the communists remain firm in their resolve to settle for nothing short of ‘Democracy Now!’