Anti-government protest is gathering pace in Swaziland, with lawyers now taking to the street alongside labour unions, teachers, taxi drivers and banned political parties.
The kingdom’s lawyers marched on Parliament this week following similar action in response to the sacking of respected high court Judge Thomas Masuku, who was accused by Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi of criticising King Mswati III and joining a toyi-toyi outside court.
Swaziland’s veteran justice minister, David Matse, has also been sacked, allegedly because he objected to orders to remove the judge.
The dismissals follow months of judicial turmoil in the country. The lawyers have been boycotting the country’s courts since August 1 in protest against the Judicial Service Commission and the chief justice, who led the moves against Masuku and whose recent directives included an order not to take legal action against the king or his associates.
Judge Masuku, who is known for his outspokenness, has previously been removed from the high court roll for “unfavourable” judgments.
One of the complaints against him was that he said the king had spoken with a “forked tongue”. An inspection of the January 2011 judgment in question shows that this is incorrect. In a matter concerning the requisition of cattle, in which he ruled against the king’s agents, he said: “It would be hard to imagine let alone accept … that his majesty could conceivably speak with a forked tongue, saying one thing to his people and then authorising his officers to do the opposite. I reject this notion as totally inaccurate.”
In a joint statement the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Southern Africa Development Community Lawyers’ Association and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre described the dismissals as “contempt for the rule of law and further debasement of Swaziland’s system of governance”.
They criticised Masuku’s “clearly tainted disciplinary hearing” and said the initial charges of misconduct against him were “vague, unsubstantiated … and spurious”.
Arnold Tsunga, director of the ICJ’s Africa Programme told the Mail & Guardian: “We no longer have separations of power in Swaziland. There is no independent judiciary, judges are being fired and the situation is ripe for large-scale protest and violence. I hope the governments of the Southern African Development Community and South Africa can see these early warning signs.”
Swazi lawyer Zweli Jele, the chair of the law society’s judicial crisis committee, which was formed following Masuku’s suspension in July, said: “We have never reached this type of judicial crisis before in Swaziland or the region. It is totally unprecedented.” He said that the fact that the JSC had refused to attend talks organised by the king’s advisory council, the Liqoqo, was “an indication that dangerous cracks are appearing in the system”.
“We are staring into the abyss,” he warned.
The disintegration of the country’s legal system comes as Swaziland teeters on the brink of economic collapse, with a debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio similar to that of Greece.
Public services such as health and education are grinding to a halt and with foreign reserves running well below the recommended three-month level of import cover, there is concern about how the government can pay public servants in the months to come, stoking fears of mass protest and instability.
Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank have rejected the country’s pleas for help because it has failed to implement fiscal reform.
A plan by South Africa to lend Swaziland R2.4-billion also appears to have stalled due to Swaziland’s apparent reluctance to meet political-reform conditions. At a workshop in Pretoria, organised by the Southern African Liaison Office last week, Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma’s international relations adviser, hinted that the bailout had not been given because of the Swazi authorities’ resistance to change. “This is a political issue and a political discussion needs to take place,” Zulu said.
“There is an understanding on the South African side that something needs to change. We say that the change that needs to happen has to be sustainable in the long term and acceptable to the overall majority in Swaziland.”
Zulu said that South Africa “could not afford a collapse in Swaziland” and, while it did not want to be seen to be interfering, “the fact of the matter is that when their processes begin to interfere with our own, we have a problem”. She refused to detail the political conditions set by South Africa or say whether they included the unbanning of political parties.