The streets of Mbabane have been taken over, not by people shopping,or spectating,or by those confused by what they see. The streets of Mbabane have been occupied by a range of very different people, including workers, students, the legal profession, community and church activists, and all marching in unison and toyi toying for freedom. And they are united in one purpose, to challenge the continuing rule of Africa’s last absolute monarchy. There is an almost carnival atmosphere in the air!
Speakers from the Trade Unions and other civil society bodies received rapturous applause, as did the President of the banned political party PUDEMO Comrade Mario Masuku. In fact, it was possible to say that PUDEMO has effectively been unbanned by the protests earlier today! Young people associated with SWAYOCO were especially vibrant at todays protests and their infectious enthusiasm spread throughout the gathering, even when the police preferred route of the march was challenged. And by the way, the police lost!
The police, once given a freehand to snatch and grab who they pleased from previous peaceful protests are being very careful. The pressure on the regime to act in something like a dignified manner is intense. In the face of investigations into human rights abuses by the UN, the ILO and many other international bodies,and desperately trying to ensure that they do not imperil the bail-out from the South African Government is clearly forcing the regime to try and act with restraint. For how long is uncertain, but for now, at the time of writing, the streets belong to democracy activists, and the police have been reduced to traffic control, which is as it should be.
The pressure to present a politically more acceptable response to the demands of activists is very revealing of how far the democracy movement has travelled over the last few years. However the impact of the economic crisis on the ability of the security services to exercise their repressive power is also very telling. Shortages of fuel, unusable vehicles and equipment, the absence of an effective communication and information system, including one that could prevent solidarity visitors from entering Swaziland, is really hampering the ability of the repressive machinery to respond rapidly against popular protest. It is clear that even the ability to mount mass police roadblocks has been undermined despite the lions share that the security cluster receives from the treasury. It is also an open secret that there is a virtual open revolt in the police force. A whole layer of new recruits being expected to take on high risk work and socially unpopular work at half the salaries of their more senior colleagues.
Morale in the security cluster has been further eroded by the inability of the the Governments senior law officers at the week-end to do their masters bidding and conjure up a legal argument of any credibility to criminalise the protest actions organised this week by the united trade union movement. The attacks on the legal fraternity as a whole over the last few months has isolated those ‘loyalist royalists’ in the judiciary who have shown their complete disregard for the rule of law.
In short, the political and economic crisis has finally started to connect with the profound and often demobilising social crisis that has left the majority of the people chronically impoverished. This week, will see substantial protests taking place in many rural districts, that were once considered bastions of royal servitude. There is still a long way to go that is for sure, but the first steps towards building a mass based response to the Royal Elite have been taken. There is no going back.