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Meet King Mswati III – the absolute monarch cracking down on workers' rights in Swaziland

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Last week the Swazi government brutally suppressed a peaceful demonstration by trade unionists - it’s time to get tough on this despotic regime
Photo of King Mswati III speaking at a lecturn
King Mswati III is the last absolute monarch in Sub-Saharan Africa. Credit: Getty pool

As children, many of us dreamed of being a king or queen, pretending to rule everybody else and tell them what to do.

Eventually, we all grow up and accept that real life is different – all but King Mswati III of Swaziland, that is.

The last absolute monarch in Sub-Saharan Africa, King Mswati III ascended to the throne in 1986 at just 18 years old.

He’s been a controversial figure ever since thanks to his extravagant spending habits, persistent human rights violations and degrading treatment of women.

And he’s no fan of trade unions either, as we saw last week when more than 500 peaceful protestors were brutally dispersed by police using rubber bullets and stun grenades.

In the aftermath of that shocking violence, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady wrote to the High Commissioner of Swaziland to condemn the Swazi government’s actions.

Now we’re calling on the Commonwealth to suspend Swaziland until the Swazi government stops breaching fundamental human rights and ends the repression of workers.

Absolute power

King Mswati III exercises absolute power in Swaziland despite a constitution his freedom to rule by decree.

Instead of wielding this power for good, he used it to increase his household budget to $61 million in 2014 (even though over 60% of Swaziland’s 1.2 million people survive on less than $1 per day).

And his penchant for young girls and women has resulted in several being intimidated and coerced into becoming another one of his wives (some have allegedly been kidnapped ).

By retaining ultimate authority over parliament, he was also able to change the name of the country from Swaziland to eSwatini on his 50th birthday (a legal challenge from human rights activist Thulani Maseko will determine whether this was unconstitutional).

Meanwhile, Swazi trade unions continue to suffer from brutal repression just for standing up for workers’ rights.

Last week, protestors at the peaceful march organised by our sister union confederation the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) were brutally dispersed by the police using rubber bullets and stun grenades.

Why? Simply for raising workers’ rights.

In global solidarity with the TUCOSWA and the International Trade Union Confederation , TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady wrote to the High Commissioner of Swaziland in London to condemn the Swaziland government’s actions.

But unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident – Swaziland is ranked 4 in the ITUC Global Rights Index 2018 , which means it suffers from high levels of systematic violations of rights.

Fighting back

The Swazi trade union movement has played a key role in the long-standing struggle for democracy, good governance, equality and justice in Swaziland.

And the international trade union movement continues to support the fight for workers’ and human rights in Swaziland.

A training and education initiative funded by the TUC in 2011 implemented in partnership with the International Research Academy for Labour and Education (IRALE) was instrumental in raising the profile of the Swazi trade union movement.

Despite efforts by the Swazi government to shut down trade unions, our training initiative in 2014 has helped to build capacity within the movement so that Swazi unions can lead civil society and engage with the government on crucial issues affecting local people.

Time for action

The TUC believes that international institutions should take the lead in condemning workers’ rights abuses in Swaziland.

That’s why we’ll be calling for the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (the disciplinary committee of the Commonwealth) to suspend Swaziland until the government stops breaching the fundamental principles and values that Commonwealth members have a duty to respect.

In the meantime, the TUC continues to support protest actions by human rights groups such as ACTSA in support of human rights in Swaziland.

We hope it won’t be too long until workers in Swaziland can stop living the nightmare of someone else’s dream of despotic rule.