New public policy think tank brings big guns to paint the new Swaziland we want.

Former President of the Swaziland Sugar Association and Federation of Swaziland Employers and Chamber of Commerce Mandla Hlatjwako recently announced the formation of Letfu Sonkhe Institute for Strategic Thinking and Development. In a widely circulated statement, the new organisation announced itself as a policy think tank that draws skills from an array of professionals from different walks of life whose agenda is to lay the seeds for a new Swaziland.  Letfu-Sonkhe has assembled a range of experts to review current systems and public policies in order to ensure that the new democratic country everyone aims for delivers on the aspirations of the majority of the people. The Bridge caught up with Hlatjwako who is now based in South Africa to talk about the Institute. 

The Bridge (TB): Good day Mr Hlatjwako and thank you for making time to speak with us. Before we even start we must congratulate you and your team for the formation of the Institute. What a necessary and timely intervention. You know it's funny that when we saw the statement you issued this week we were caught by the choice of name for the institute. Very interesting name you have there. Mind sharing what was the conceptual idea of choosing 'Letfu Sonkhe' as your identity?

Mandla Hlatjwako (MH): Thank you for having us on your platform. I must begin by thanking all the many Swazis who have agreed to be part of this initiative and the enthusiasm they have put into making this project a success. The amount of hard work, the illuminating ideas, the love, passion and the energy the team has is quite amazing. It would really be remiss of me not to acknowledge these people because they responded positively to the call to form this institute knowing there is no monetary compensation except love for their country and the passion to see it prosperous. As for the name, I can say that it simply conveys the philosophy of the institution and policy inspiration that will guide its approach. We believe that public policy objectives should address the needs of society as a whole as opposed to narrow interests. The name also seeks to assert back to the people that this country belongs to every Swazi and that public policy decisions must be geared to the benefit of all. Equally by saying 'Letfu Sonkhe' we are reminding our people that the task to make this new Swaziland work is our collective responsibility. The aim really is to facilitate a ready to govern policy framework as a key pillar of the reform processes and to do so we say all Swazis must and will be involved.

TB: What contribution does this organization hope to add to the struggle that is not already there?

MH: The institute is a deliberate intervention by professionals to build technical capacity and support to the political reform processes in the country. This will also help give confidence to our people and the International community that Swazis have the capacity to govern and rebuild the country for the benefit of all its citizens. Further, we seek to promote public participation in the definition and design of government, the public service and operational policy frameworks. The fact of the matter is that since 1973 Swazis have been excluded from meaningful participation in the formulation of government policies that impact their daily lives and are excluded from meaningful participation in the economy. Through the Institute, we are opening the space and promoting public participation in shaping the government we want and articulating the social and economic outcomes that people want for their families and their country.

TB: Who are the people behind this organisation? I ask this question in the context of someone who may sit there and say this is a group of elitists without constituencies of their own. Reference is made here to the part of your statement where you said membership is drawn from individuals ‘who are leading public as well as private institutions and organizations in the diaspora’

MH: The institute is made of professionals and not seeking to contest political power but provide capacity to the political reform process. It has members cutting across different fields but obviously owing to their positions in their places of work and other considerations not all of them can be mentioned. 

TB:  It is quite interesting that you insist on using the name ‘Swaziland’. Is it a deliberate political statement you making for using the country’s ‘old’ name? Or maybe it was a mistake?

MH: Good public policy process includes consultation and public participation. The change of our country's name from Swaziland to eSwatini should have been done through a parliamentary process. Instead, it has been imposed on society outside of any legal framework and in violation of the current constitution. This represents the highest level of abuse of power and testimony to the disregard of the interests of society. We therefore do not use Swaziland as an affirmation of our colonial name rather as a symbolic representation that anything done without public consultation and in violation of the country's laws does not have legitimacy in the eyes of the people and must be rejected with the contempt it deserves. 

TB: How do I join this organization? Is it mass based or is it by invitation only or what? Linked to this is how political or technical will it be or perhaps it will end up being another academic pastime for intellectuals with no relevance to our lived reality now and into the future?

MH: This is a professional organization with a high emphasis on research and public participation in policy development. The key intervention by the institute is to promote public participation in the construction of the Swaziland we want but also to map out the detail of the new society we aspire for. Remember a change of government to a democracy does not guarantee a good life for all. It is not a guarantee that we will move from Tinkhundla to paradise. We can very well move from this current mess to a failed state, far worse than what we are experiencing. What guarantees good life and improved standard of living is strong, independent, democractic and accountable state institutions and public policy geared towards collective good. 

TB: There has been a lot of proliferation of political parties and someone may very well claim this institute is a precursor to a new political party? What exactly is the relationship (now and into the future) between the Institute and existing political parties?

MH: The institute is not a political party and is not seeking to contest the role of political parties. Our focus is to bring capacity to bolster the reform process as already explained above. The institute will aim to maintain a constructive relationship with all the political actors in the arena.

TB: Talking of political parties. Is policy prescription not a preserve of political parties as they are the ones with governing ambitions? How will the Institute hope to produce policies that will influence a new government if it is non-partisan politically or will any party come and harvest policy from your organisation?

MH: The challenges of reforming government and resetting public policy orientation, objectives and priorities will be a large assignment. To simplify this challenge we can look at the security cluster. Umbutfo defence force was formed to defend the repeal of the 1968 constitution in 1973 and to enforce the exclusion of Swazis in governance. This means that for over 48 years the members of the army see their primary role as that of protecting the government and the crown from the people. Similarly, the police posture and orientation is more of a force and not that of a service to society. This has profound implications as has been demonstrated over years through the endemic human rights violations, torture and gross abuse of office. The ongoing atrocities by the security forces illustrate the urgency for reform and transformation of the security cluster to be accountable to the society they serve. Similarly, the mess in education or health outcomes point to major policy failures and inefficient allocation of state resources. To unpack and propose detailed policy reform framework in all the spheres of government is not going to be a walk in the Park. Our work would also give substance to the deep constitutional reform challenges required to rebuild the country.  Remember we are all seeing a young and determined crop of political leaders championing the demand for political reforms and galvanizing society to reclaim their rights to elect their own leaders or government through political parties of their choices. Our contribution therefore to the struggle is initiating the equally important conversation and review of operational policies and systems of governance based on the philosophy that the country belongs to all its citizens. In all countries people want policies that address their needs and make life better.

TB: You have taken a leading role in this Institute, can we assume this is you announcing yourself back into active politics. The assumption here being that there was a time when you had stopped being in active politics.

MH: I have never stopped playing a role to make my country better except maybe I contribute in spaces with little public profile. So it is not a case of 'coming back' because I never left (chuckles).

TB: How representative is your group in terms of gender and age group. I ask this because such an institute has got to fuse both the young and old, male and female so that there is a cross-pollination of ideas across gender and age gaps.

MH: The age profile of the membership is young and women participation is one of our key focus areas. We hope to attain at least 50% women participation. We having diverse skills and expertise. We are still encouraging professionals who wish to participate in the process of building the Swaziland we want to enrol.

TB: Lastly, say I want to contribute to the Institute but owing to my position in state bureaucracy, business or international community, how can I participate in this without being known? I ask this because many people in high ranking positions want to contribute to change but cannot join the picket lines yet have the brains, networks and financial muscle to play a role. Is this their platform?

MH: We believe that in order to facilitate the participation of people in public and sensitive positions as well as to reduce intimidation and victimisation, the participants will not be published. We have attracted a huge response from professionals who understand what needs to be done. More importantly we are inviting views by the public and civil society.