My goal in writing this article is to stimulate a conversation about the proposed national dialogue and the different options available to us as a liberation community.

The term “dialogue” has been on everyone’s lips since the June/July 2021 political uprising. It was elevated to public political discourse after the public announcement on 22 October 2021 that King Mswati III will call a public meeting at his residence (sibaya) to listen to the nation’s grievances (“utokuva letikhalo taso sive ”).

The announcement further stated that the meeting will occur after the annual ritual ceremony (incwala), a lengthy process which could take up to five months. There are three important points to note in the announcement;

a) the absence of urgency to listen to the nation’s grievances;

b) absence of information about the intended goal/objective of the proposed event; and

c) no commitment to dialogue.

The purpose of the proposed public meeting is clearly stated in the announcement: to listen to the nation’s grievances. However, this is not sufficient to meet the condition or description of a dialogue. It would have been different if the objectives of the proposed sibaya event were clearly elucidated. For example, to listen, understand and exchange ideas on issues of national interest.

Dialogue is defined as the exchange of ideas or conversation between two or more parties regarding issues of mutual concern. Depending on the issues, dialogue can take place at different levels, structured, semi-structured or unstructured conversations.

A structured dialogue is commonly referred to as official or facilitated dialogue regulated by an impartial facilitator. It is worth noting that regardless of the level in which the conversation is conducted, the purpose of a dialogue is to facilitate better understanding of the issues at hand and explore opportunities for new beginnings.

I will return to this subject in PART II of this article to discuss the differences between “national dialogue”, “political dialogue” and “political negotiation”. These concepts are fundamentally different and can produce different outcomes. Whichever we choose will define our destiny as a country, nation and people.

Having considered all the elements in the 22 October announcement, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that what was announced by the Monarch is not about dialogue but a plan for a dramatic monologue. 

How did we then conclude that King Mswati agreed to hold a national dialogue? What evidence can be relied upon to support this conclusion? The answer to these questions can be found in the two documents issued by the SADC Organ on Political, Defence and Security Co-operation (the Organ). 

Firstly, the matter was highlighted in the summary report issued by the Organ Special Envoy to Swaziland on 22 October 2021. According to this report, “all stakeholders agreed that the conduct of a national dialogue should be the appropriate platform to address the current challenges facing the country”…and “His Majesty King Mswati III has accepted the need for national dialogue…”

Secondly, the matter was reaffirmed in the summary report issued by SADC on the official visit to Swaziland by the Chair of the Organ, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. This report has additional information about the proposed dialogue, notably the agreement between President Ramaphosa and King Mswati III “that the SADC Secretariat would work closely with the Government of eSwatini to draft terms of reference for the national dialogue forum” (SADC, 2 November 2021).

Pro-democracy movements in eSwatini have responded to the Ramaphosa/Mswati agreement with mixed feelings. Some have welcomed the proposed dialogue. Others have raised concerns about its authenticity and capacity to deliver serious changes in the political system. 

These concerns are not without foundation. They emanate from complete collapse in public trust in government and declining confidence in SADC as an impartial and transparent peace-broker. In previous articles, I welcomed President Ramaphosa’s intervention in the political crisis in Swaziland as historic and an important step in the right direction. However, I cautioned about the decision to limit the drafting of the terms of reference to the government and SADC Secretariat.

I called for a transparent and all-inclusive approach to ensure that the process is built on solid ground and trust. Regrettably, there is no evidence to suggest that the space has been open to other stakeholders to influence the drafting of the terms of reference. 

Since the 22 October announcement and the publication of the agreement between the two leaders, there has been no further official information about the dialogue. Many people have raised concerns about the absence of further information on the proposed national dialogue and progress on the terms of reference. 

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency and accountability in pro-democracy organisations. So far, discussions about the dialogue are limited to organisational leaderships, privileged individuals, and exclusive political alliances and civic society groups.

In my view, it is absolutely critical that we get the process right from the beginning by building public trust and confidence. We can do this by adopting a participatory and transparent approach. Dialogue is only possible if all stakeholders are involved in the process and have unrestricted access to important information and resources. 

If this condition is not met, the SADC sponsored dialogue is doomed before it begins. For this to change, SADC and the government must reconsider the current approach and release the details of the dialogue preparatory phase. E.g., what is SADC’s role in the drafting of the terms of reference, who is involved from the government side, and why is the process restricted to two parties etc?

It is therefore extremely important that leaders of political and civic society organisation engage their members in discussions about the dialogue. Despite these concerns, the proposed national dialogue did ignite a new wave of excitement and hopes that the end of the absolute monarchy is nigh.

It has shifted political activism from the streets to board rooms, conferences, and virtual platforms. New organisations have emerged to seize the moment and claim a slice of history as the end of the absolute monarchy draws closer. Others were quick to identify emerging business opportunities.

Most interestingly, the belief that the end is nigh has seen prominent pro-monarchists jumping the ship and joining the call for democracy. As the new political theatre is getting crowded, organisations and individuals are jostling for influence instead of developing deeper understanding of the changing political dynamics.

For example, how well do we understand these shifting dynamics? To what extent do we understand the model that has been agreed to by SADC and Mswati? Are we open to other options? How prepared are we to engage in a meaningful and productive way in the new political ecosystem? What lessons can we learn from the tinkhundla constitution making project and what measures have we put in place to ensure that the mistakes we made are not repeated?

These are complex questions that cannot be sufficiently interrogated in a short essay. To understand the concerns about the SADC sponsored national dialogue, you will have to go back to the Commonwealth Secretariat sponsored tinkhundla constitution making project.

Lessons learned from the tinkhundla constitution project

After a careful analysis of the royal family announcement, I was intrigued by its similarity with King Mswati’s approach to the constitution making process at the turn of the 21st Century. He used almost the same words when he announced that the country will develop a new constitution and his government will listen to the nation’s grievances.

There was excitement and misplaced hope that the process presented a rare opportunity for negotiating the future of this country with the monarchy but, alas, the people were sold a dud. King Mswati did not listen to the nation’s grievances. Hopes were dashed when the new constitution failed to resolve the fundamental political question, the abolition of the absolute monarchy system and the introduction of multi-party democracy.

The monarchy emerged unscathed from the process and was able to consolidate and protect its political power in the new constitution. On the contrary, the pro-democracy movement suffered major setbacks because it failed to develop a deeper understanding of the constitution making process and the politics behind it. 

There was very little effort to lead and take control of the constitution making process from King Mswati. Instead, some organisations only reacted to the process. Their efforts were consumed by obsession with political grandstanding. 

When Mswati invited PUDEMO and SFTU leaders to participate in the constitution making exercise in their personal capacity, some obliged and others took a principled stand against this. 

It later became clear that the decision to accept the invitation was a political blunder. Firstly, those who fell for this ruse did not invest enough time to analyse the rationale and the potential implications of what was being proposed. Secondly and most importantly, they failed to obtain the mandate from their organisations. 

Consequently, the post-constitution project was marked by years of political decline and loss of public confidence in some pro-democracy organisations.

The June/July uprising have shown that some pro democracy organisations have not recovered from setbacks of yesteryears. They have demonstrated  limited capacity to lead and respond strategically to emerging political events such as the June/July uprising. 

What then should be done to rebuild pro-democracy organisations and make them competitive in the new political environment? The answer to this question cannot be found in loose political alliances, but the political will in individual organisations to rebuild and regain the trust of the people of Swaziland that they are fit to govern this country and change the course of history forever. 

Currently, many organisations are hiding behind loosely defined alliances such as the Political Party Assembly, Multi-Stakeholder Forum and Swaziland United democratic Front. There is misplaced hope that these alliances will represent the pro-democracy community at a dialogue table. This view has all the hallmarks of failure. It is simply not sustainable. The people of Swaziland are looking up to individual political organisations to display their credentials that they are fit to advocate on their behalf and lead the country.

Although the author is a member of PUDEMO based in Australia, the views expressed here are his own. 

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