Dictators don't do dialogue

Don’t be fooled for a second by Pravin Gordhan’s talk about the governance conditions attached to South Africa’s ‘bailout for Swaziland’. He’s not. He knows that the conditions are not worth the paper they’re written on – if indeed they were signed with anything more than a friendly handshake between King Mswati and President Zuma.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

August 4th, 2011

Don’t be fooled for a second by Pravin Gordhan’s talk about the governance conditions attached to South Africa’s ‘bailout for Swaziland’. He’s not. He knows that the conditions are not worth the paper they’re written on – if indeed they were signed with anything more than a friendly handshake between King Mswati and President Zuma.

Gordhan has a deserved reputation for being sombre and serious but I was still impressed by the way he kept a straight face while publicly listing the laughable set of ‘conditions’ – such as ‘broadening the dialogue process to include all stakeholders and citizens’, ‘allowing the parties to the Swazi dialogue to determine appropriate reforms’ and ‘agreeing to ensure that the above processes take place in a conducive environment that is open and enjoys legitimacy among the people of Swaziland and the region’.

How he could even classify dialogue as a condition is beyond me. Dictators don’t do dialogue. And King Mswati is no different.

I don’t need to remind Gordhan that this is a man who hasn’t dialogued with – or indeed listened to – his ‘subjects’ for the 25 years he has been on the throne. That this is a man who instead of entering into dialogue with Swazi citizens, classifies opposition politicians as terrorists, sends his police to beat up protesting teachers, allows his prime minister to threaten critics with torture – and just a few days ago, refused to participate in a national dialogue!

The likelihood of him entering into any kind of genuine debate is about as high as the chance that his next hand-picked bride will be given the opportunity to say ‘no’.

Indeed, these are the kind of conditions that I wish my parents had ‘imposed’ on me when I was begging for undeserved pocket money. Because let’s be clear – this money is not bailing out Swaziland, it is bailing out the King and his clique. It’s giving them the chance to waste yet more resources on personal luxuries – safe in the knowledge that they don’t have to change their unacceptable behaviour and that the tab will eventually be picked up by someone else – in this case, Swaziland’s poor, oppressed population.

King Mswati himself made this abundantly clear. Speaking on his triumphant, pockets-bulging-with-cash return from South Africa, the king stressed that since it was a loan, “Every Swazi must play his/her role by working hard wherever he is to ensure that the country gets back to its feet the soonest.” Unsurprisingly, he did not mention that he and his cohorts would be scaling back their lavish lifestyle – after all, it’s hard work living-it-up.

He also didn’t mention – and if this isn’t a giveaway, I don’t know what is – any of the so-called conditions imposed by South Africa. Surely if he was going to dialogue with his subjects, he would have mentioned it? Surely if he was going to allow Swazis to determine reforms, he would have informed them? Surely if he was going to ensure a conducive environment for debate, he would have announced the scrapping of repressive legislation like the Suppression of Terrorism Act and ordered his police to refrain from harassing, beating and detaining their fellow Swazis? But no – he just called on Swazis to work harder and headed back to his palace.

If Gordhan had really wanted to impose democratic conditions then they could have adopted many of the reasonable demands of Swazi civil society. They could have forced the King to open up his secret sweetie box – the Tibiyo slush fund that is estimated to hold billions of rands and that was set up ‘in trust for the nation’. They could have disbursed the funds over a longer period of time and made future tranches conditional on genuine progress towards a freer, more democratic and more prosperous society.

But instead South Africa has simply given King Mswati a massive, almost-no-strings-attached, 25th anniversary present. It smacks of a rich uncle giving his nephew a whopping sum of money for his birthday, along with the onerous condition - ‘just don’t spend it all at once’.

Gordhan is well aware of the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – and that there is no better proof of this adage than Swaziland. The absolute power of the King has corrupted the royal family and the rest of the ruling elite absolutely – fostering total contempt for democracy, human rights and the rule of law and complete disregard for the basic needs of the Swazi people. Believing that he will suddenly be open to genuine dialogue is farcical.

And yet, the South African authorities did have the chance to help Swaziland and the Swazi people by providing much-needed financial assistance coupled with conditions that would foster real reform. But they blew it.

And rest assured, King Mswati won’t be thinking of his subjects when he blows out the candles on his anniversary cake. He’ll be celebrating the extra cash at his disposal and the thought of another 25 years of absolute rule. Indeed, he’s laughing all the way to South Africa’s Central Bank.

Needless to say his 1 million subjects will not be joining in – as they have very little cause for cheer.

Richard Lee is the Communications Manager at OSISA

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