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Monday, 6 November, 2000, 18:57 GMT
Swazis protest at king's rule
Jan Sithole in Nelspruit
Banned from meeting in Swaziland
By Carolyn Dempster in Nelspruit, South Africa

At least 800 pro-democracy activists from the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland poured over the border into South Africa at the weekend.

We want to see the king play a role above politics, as a constitutional monarch

Trade Union leader Jan Sithole

Banned from meeting, demonstrating or protesting in their own country, they were forced to gather in a football stadium on the outskirts of the city of Nelspruit in South Africa's Mpumulanga Province. They are fed up with what they see as the increasingly autocratic royal rule of 32-year-old King Mswati III.

"This is a turning point in the history of Swaziland. We have come to liberate ourselves," said Mrs Ntombi Nkosi, a political activist from Manzini.

'Rotten system'

The massed gathering represented a cross-section of Swazi society, with union leaders joining forces with workers, teachers, nurses, students and members of underground political parties.

King Mswati III:
King Mswati III: Criticised as increasingly autocratic
All condemn the system of government in Swaziland, which is a unique combination of a traditional "Tinkhundla" system of elected leaders and a parliament, whose decisions are subject to royal approval or veto.

"It is a rotten system," said one young nurse who refused to be named for fear of victimisation.

"I would like to see the king becoming a constitutional monarch and allowing the people to engage in politics. We need multipartyism in Swaziland."

Nelspruit Declaration

After a day spent debating under a hot sun, the crowd issued an ultimatum to the Swazi Government in the guise of the "Nelspruit Declaration".

Wearing the message: "Liberate Swaziland now"
In it, they call on the government to scrap the ban on political parties and the state of emergency - declared 27 years ago - rescind the oppressive Public Order Act of 1998 and take positive steps towards creating a constitutional monarchy.

The deadline for a response is Thursday 9 November.

Mr Jan Sithole, general secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions announced to the cheers of the crowd: "If, by Thursday, there is no reply to our demands... then we will organise a stayaway in workplaces and schools next week.

"This will start the programme of rolling action, including a border blockade which will seal off Swaziland from the outside world on 29 and 30 November," he said.

The SFTU, which has long represented the dissenting voices of Swazis in the absence of any real political debate, has a combined membership of some 80,000 union members and the tacit support of the massive Confederation of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu.

Simmering opposition

Political opposition to what is, in effect, Africa's last absolute monarch, has been simmering for decades.

There have been protests, stayaways and blockades before.

But now the dissidents believe they also have the growing support of the rural poor - among whom are the king's most ardent supporters.

Mounting tension in rural areas stems from a recent decision by the King's elder brother, Prince Maguga, to order the eviction of two chiefs and their clans from the Macetjeni and kaMkhweli areas so that he could lay claim to the land.

The violent forced removal of up to 200 people from their homes, which occurred under cover of darkness by soldiers, and which resulted in at least one of the chiefs, Mliba Fakudze, fleeing into exile, has sent ripples of fear throughout Swaziland.

Albert Fakudze, a teacher and brother of the chief said the unprecedented action also sent a clear message to other chiefs.

"Many are worried they might be next to have their land seized," he said.

Royal power

One refugee described the action as a form of "royal colonisation; an abuse of royal power".

King Mswati III has stayed silent in the face of mounting opposition, a factor which many Swazis believe has cost him considerable support and popularity.

Traditionally Swazis venerate their king, and would never consider opposing him in anyway.

However Jan Sithole believes that now, people have had enough.

A constitutional review committee, installed in 1996, handed its final report to the king last week.

Nobody yet knows what the report contains, nor what the recommendations are.

Yet the review has already been criticised by pro-democracy groups as being led by members of the royal elite and being secretive and not inclusive.

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