Protesters call for elections in Swaziland

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The Independent Online

Banned from meeting in their own country, hundreds of pro-democracy activists from the landlocked kingdom of Swaziland yesterday travelled to neighbouring South Africa to issue an ultimatum against the increasingly ruthless rule in the Commonwealth's last absolute monarchy.

Banned from meeting in their own country, hundreds of pro-democracy activists from the landlocked kingdom of Swaziland yesterday travelled to neighbouring South Africa to issue an ultimatum against the increasingly ruthless rule in the Commonwealth's last absolute monarchy.

"We want a king who will reign over our country, not rule it . A constitutional monarchy is the only way to save our kingdom," said trade union boss Jan Sithole as he launched the '"Nelspruit Declaration'' - named after the South African city hosting the dissidents' meeting, on a township football pitch, yesterday.

Calling on the Commonwealth to denounce Swaziland's slide into autocracy, the declaration - backed by teachers, nurses, students and two underground political parties - gives King Mswati III until Thursday to end a ban on political parties and a state of emergency, both of which have been in force for 27 years.

"If by Thursday, there is no reply to our demands from the prime minister's office, then we will organise a 'stay-away' in workplaces and schools for next Monday and Tuesday.

"This will be the start of a programme of rolling action, including a border blockade which will seal off Swaziland from the outside world on 29 and 30 November,'' Mr Sithole told an 800-strong crowd that travelled 300km for the rally.

The pro-democracy activists, who for years have been agitating against the regime governing Swaziland's one million subjects, argue that their protests will catch on this time because urban critics of the absolute monarchy now have the support of many traditional chiefs and conservative rural peasants.

King Mswati III, a Sherborne-educated 32-year-old who succeeded to the throne 14 years ago, has come under increasing attack in recent weeks since a night-time raid by his armed forces on two traditional areas, eMacetjeni and kaMkhweli, in which about 200 peasants were allegedly displaced. It is understood the areas were raided to accommodate the king's brother, Prince Maguga, who claimedthe two chiefs controlling the areas were a threat to the Dlamini family of King Mswati.

Albert Fakudze, a 27-year-old teacher whose brother, Mliba, is one of the evicted chiefs, said: "My brother has fled to South Africa. I was thrown out of our homestead - where my family has been for 200 years or more - but I am remaining in Swaziland to work because I am the bread-winner. We believe our pressure on the king will work this time because many traditional chiefs are getting worried that they might be the next to have their land taken.''

A young female nurse, who did not want to give her name, said King Mswati III was carrying out a "royal colonisation" of the country and there was widespread support for an end to the Dlaminis' 240-year absolute reign. "We love our king and, because we love him, we want him to be above politics and to let the ordinary people concern themselves with fighting political battles,'' she said.

King Mswati III, who holds an annual "reed dance" ( umhlanga) at which he chooses a wife, is said to be "in seclusion" with his first wife - a condition which will last until February. The protesters are therefore obliged to deal with the popular king's appointed government - an extended family of advisers controlled by the indlovukati (the great she-elephant), the king's mother.

In the absence of political parties,the trade unions lead the opposition. But the unions, supported by South Africa's powerful Cosatu alliance, have been banned from holding meetings. A constitutional review commission, appointed in 1996 and headed by a royal family member, presented its findings to the king last Monday. The Nelspruit Declaration yesterday rejected the report.

Swaziland was recently excluded from receiving preferential trade terms from the United States as a result of its human rights record. It has until the end of this month to signal to Washington that it intends to take steps to qualify it for the "generalised system of preferences" under which countries seen to be moving towards greater equality are paid more for their products.

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