By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo
Election fever is gripping eSwatini. And King Mswati III has used the opportunity to command emaSwati to elect the marginalized groups constituted by women and people with disabilities. But groups representing women and people with disabilities are sceptical. They have heard all this before and are now challenging the monarch to put his money where his mouth is by using his powers to co-opt individuals from marginalised groups into parliament.
The debate that the king’s words has stirred up has also highlighted how the odds are stacked against women and people with disabilities making it to parliament. This is not only because of eSwatini’s overtly patriarchal society, an unwritten rule that requires nominees for a parliamentary seat to incentivise voters in cash or kind in order to secure their support makes success very unlikely for someone representing a marginalised group.
Speaking at the dissolution of the 11 th Parliament at Ludzidzini Royal Residence, the traditional headquarters on 11 July, the king made a clarion call to the electorate to make sure that no one is left behind by electing the women and people with disabilities because they are equally fit to hold political positions. Women’s rights groups, however, will believe the king’s commitment to this call when they see real action being taken to make it happen.
Former Member of Parliament, Nonhlanhla Dlamini, the incumbent Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) Director, said nothing much is delighting in the king’s command given that his words have not matched his actions since the adoption of the Constitution in 2005.
She said the biggest problem is that eSwatini is predominately a patriarchal society. She made a plea to the monarch to exercise his power to appoint more women in Parliament. As per the Constitution, the king has 10 seats to fill in the House of Assembly and 20 seats in the House of Senate. She appeals to the king to set an example by appointing women.
“Can he also do the same, maybe for a change, have six or seven women and three men because in the past he has been doing the same thing having more men and less women in the House of Assembly,” she said, adding: “He can do the same thing in Senate, maybe appoint 12 women and 8 men. Just for a change so that we can actually see that when he says let’s vote for women, he means it and he can also do it.”
It has been observed over the years that the king when appointing would go for his family members and close associates, instead of complying with the constitution which states that in making his appointment, he should go for marginalised groups not adequately represented.
Speaking from experience, the SWAGAA director said the other problem is that women get nominated but they fall off in the primary and secondary elections. The reason for that is even if they appoint them, they do not nominate women who have what they take as it is just a case of balancing gender. She added that joining the election race is very expensive for the women who do not have the financial
“When it comes to campaigning, women don’t have the necessary resources. If truth be told we have not done much civic education as a country to educate people what kind of women and men are needed in Parliament. As a result, even if you have the necessary qualities, if you don’t give handouts, you are most unlikely to win the elections,” she pointed out, adding: “Men can go to the extent of applying for a loan or even selling a car or selling a cow to make sure they have enough money to campaign. When they say politics is a dirty game, it is really a dirty game. Most women don’t know or rather are not comfortable with playing dirty as a result you find that most men would actually win election because they are able to play dirty and they are not embarrassed by that. But women would often be embarrassed about that.”
Dlamini blamed poor showing of women in the elections on eSwatini’s highly patriarchal society. She noted that this problem is not only in Parliament but in all the structures of decision-making in society. She cited the example of school committees, church boards and bandlancane in the rural communities.
“When you go to schools, it is mostly women that attend parents’ meetings. But when you look at the composition of the school committee, it is predominately men. The same thing in church you have more women attending church than men, but when it comes to the church board, it is predominantly male. You go to the professions like nursing, where 90% is women and men form hardly the 10%. But still, you will find more men in the executive of the nurses’ association,” she said. She said even though the Constitution clearly stipulates that at the first sitting of Parliament and women do not form 30% then that Parliament will then form itself into an electorate and elect four women from the regions and one from each region. She recalled that the Constitution was passed in 2005 but this law did not apply in the
2008 election. The same happened in the 2013 election yet the supreme law of the land was there.
“We had been pushing and at one point in time we had to go to Parliament carrying chairs to say if there were no seats then we had brought the chairs. It only happened in 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised if this time around women still do not constitute the 30% and we don’t have the four regional women being elected. I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said, adding: “My only consolation is that the 9 th Parliament when I was still an MP, we were able to ensure that the 10 MPs elected to the House of Assembly were 5 men and 5 women. Since then, we have been getting a 50% by deliberately voting for 5 women and 5 men. That has been the procedure in the subsequent years following that decision that we made.”
Federation of the Disabled in Swaziland (FODSWA) President Bongani Makama shared the same sentiments. He said it was the first time for King Mswati to call for the election of people with disabilities. FODSWA viewed it as nothing but an encouragement. But he urged authorities to follow up on it with action. Section 84 (2) of the Constitution provides that the King shall appoint the people with disabilities to Parliament but no attention had been paid to this, he said, since 2005 when the supreme law of the land was adopted.
Makama believed that because the King made the call when dissolving Parliament, emaSwati would heed the king’s call. He encouraged the people with disabilities to join the elections.
“According to the statistics released by Elections and Boundaries Commission, we have about 22 000 of the people with disabilities registered for the elections. It’s a huge number in a population of 146 554 according to the 2017 country census. Were the 22 000 people vote in a free, accessible, equal, fair and credible election, it would give us joy to know that a candidate of our choice has won,” he said, adding: “Or we could have representation because people with disabilities have the capacity to go to parliament not to be Indvuna yeNkhundla. At least we had one Indvuna yeNkhundla in Bheki Ngwenya in two terms at Zombodze Emuva Inkhundla.”
Makama said vote-buying is a challenge for the people with disabilities because they do not have a financial muscle. He said emaSwati demand something in return for their votes. He pointed out that campaigning takes money. A candidate doing it without money cannot garner the votes.
“You are expected to give them something to eat. Let alone that others like what you are talking about matters, but they say give us something to elect you. This is because once you get into Parliament you will be getting money for doing nothing. What are you going to do when you have nothing to give them. Poverty and disability are related things if it’s not one thing anyway,” he said.
The FODSWA leader expected the MPs in the first parliament sitting to heed the king’s call by electing people with disabilities to Senate. He also expected the women with disabilities to be part of the four women elected from the four regions of the country to the House of Assembly.
“As FODSWA, in the four elected women let’s have one woman with disability. Because there are women with disabilities. She is a mother who also has kids so she meets the criterion of being a mother. It they are not going to be elected, put them in 10 people going to Senate. We expect two or three people with disabilities,” he said.
He appealed to King Mswati to set precedent by appointing people with disabilities among his 10 MPs in the House of Assembly. He urged the King to appoint two or three. In the Senate where he appoints 20, he said it would please them if he would appoint 10% of people with disabilities. He said that would be seen as the King has done something new instead of recycling his own people.
Representing 146 554 people with disabilities, which represents 13% of the whole eSwatini population, the FODSWA chief made it clear that without them actively participating in the decision making-bodies, the life of people with disabilities will not change.
“As long as we don’t have influence on the decisions taken and they continue to enact laws without our active participation our lives will not improve. That’s why we say nothing for us without us.”
Vote-buying during the elections is the manifestation of transactional politics thriving on poverty.