, JOHANNESBURG, Sept 24 – The leader of Swaziland’s banned opposition party, acquitted this week on terror charges, says he’s ready to resume the fight for democracy in Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
But the release of Mario Masuku, leader of the United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), gives little hope that King Mswati III is easing his grip on power in the impoverished southern African country, analysts said.
Masuku was freed Monday from a maximum security prison, 10 months after his arrest under the notorious Suppression of Terrorism Act, often used to target political dissidents.
Since the banning of political parties in 1973, pro-democracy activists have been jailed and harassed, as the monarchy entrenched its rule.
"I will always be out there fighting for a free Swaziland, my acquittal by the high court proves that there was no case against me in the first place," he said from his home in the capital Mbabane.
"I love my country and its people, including the king. What I don’t like is the political system we are living under," said Masuku.
The state accused Masuku of supporting several small bomb blasts that rocked the country last September, ahead of parliamentary polls from which political parties were barred. The court found no evidence to back the claim.
Swaziland practices a home-grown political system called Tinkhundla, allowing parliamentary candidates to run only as independents. The king appoints the prime minister, some senior cabinet members and the judiciary.
The system effectively bars political dissidents, but gives the country a veneer of democratic credentials to defuse regional criticism, especially from neighbouring powerhouse South Africa.
"I will soon be meeting with the structures of the party to map the way forward. I still believe in freedom in our lifetime," said Masuku who has led PUDEMO since its formation in 1983.
But even his supporters said his release did little to bring freedom to Swaziland’s people.
"The arrest was meant to break the spirit of our supporters and destabilise the party," said Vulindlela Msibi, Pudemo’s spokesman who is exiled in South Africa.
Msibi decried the status accorded to the king by regional leaders in the South African Development Community (SADC), which allowed him to the head its security organ for the last year, despite not being democratically elected.
"His regime has been legitimised by SADC, something which is undermining our course. He should be shunned," said Msibi.
"Swaziland has no respect for human rights and democracy, Mswati’s appointment to head such a crucial organ is mind boggling," he added.
The 40-year-old king ascended the throne at age 18 and has 13 wives and is known for his extravagant lifestyle which is funded by the state. The majority of the population lives in poverty, with a nearly 40 percent HIV infection rate among adults.
Sehlare Makgetlaneng, an analyst at the Pretoria Africa Institute, said Masuku’s acquittal did little to ease concerns about Swaziland’s heavy-handed justice system.
"The acquittal does not make the Swaziland justice system more independent as the repressive laws are still in force," he said.
But he added that the king’s resistance to reform could eventually be his downfall.
"Events like the arrest of political leaders do not pacify the masses, they make then even more determined," said Makgetlaneng.
South African’s Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU), which supports the fight for democracy in Swaziland, has been urging government to push Mswati to make democratic reforms.
"We want freedom in Swaziland. It is disturbing that the world, particularly the developed world, is silent about Swaziland," the union’s president Sdumo Dlamini said.