Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Want to know how to curry favour with Swaziland’s King Mswati? The best way to butter him up? Just ask Michael Ramodibedi, who has just presented Africa’s last absolute monarch with three cows. Clearly he is very keen to stay in the king’s good books, which in Swaziland is sensible (just ask the civil society leaders who are in the king’s bad books) but which in any democratic society would be a serious problem because Ramodibedi is the country’s Chief Justice.
The separation of powers is at the very heart of open, democratic, constitutional government. It would be a major shock if South Africa’s Chief Justice started handing out expensive gifts to President Zuma. Or if America’s Chief Justice left three cows for President Obama grazing on the White House lawn.
But this is Swaziland we’re talking about. And Ramodibedi – the hugely controversial Chief Justice, who single-handedly sparked the country’s on-going judicial crisis and who appears determined to undermine the rule of law. And who answers to no one but the king.
Which is where the cows come in.
It’s not as if Mswati needs them. He has thousands of them already. And enjoys (and in this case it really is the operative word) a fortune estimated at US$200 million by Forbes – while two-thirds of Swazis live in acute poverty. Giving him three more cows is like giving Bill Gates a few more Microsoft shares.
But as with all gifts – it’s the thought that counts. The craven, sycophantic, I’ll-do-anything-to-please-you thought that really counts.
And King Mswati knows that he can count on Ramodibedi – or Makhulu Baas (Big Boss) as he prefers to be known. Count on him to rule that no court case can proceed against the king or his office – or any entities connected to him. Count on him to sack any remaining independent judges – as he did with Judge Thomas Masuku. Count on him to keep working even though – as a citizen of Lesotho – he should constitutionally have been replaced by a Swazi Chief Justice by now.
It’s totally absurd to expect anything else from Ramodibedi – but one day he will leave. Hopefully, his successor will spend more time handing out good legal judgements rather than livestock.
It has been a month since the release of a damning report into a massively corrupt Angolan-Russian debt deal. A month since it explained in forensic detail how more than US$700 million ended up in the pockets of arms dealers and senior Angolan officials, including President dos Santos. A month since a group of courageous Angolan anti-corruption campaigners used its new evidence to file criminal complaints in Angola and Switzerland.
And Luanda’s response to all this – nothing. Not a word. No official attempt to refute the allegation that tens of millions of dollars ended up in the bank accounts of the president and other officials, or to explain why hundreds of millions of dollars were ‘paid’ to dubious and unnecessary middlemen. Usually, any allegations of corruption – let alone directly naming and shaming the president – would be met with a swift denunciation and a concerted campaign to discredit – or intimidate – the accusers into silence. But in this case, it is the authorities in Luanda who are silent.
Perhaps they hope the scandal will simply fade away, especially as the report – Deception in High Places – does tackle an ‘old’ case. But that is unlikely. Published by Corruption Watch UK and Mãos Livres, the report provides compelling evidence. And it has already sparked debate in Angola, Europe and the US - with another high-level meeting to be held in Portugal this week organised by a member of the European Parliament.
Or perhaps they are relying on the Swiss legal authorities not to pursue the criminal complaint. No one really thinks the case will proceed in Angola but there is optimism that the law will take its course in Switzerland – since one of its biggest banks facilitated the deal. Unfortunately, there has been no word yet from the Swiss prosecutors.
But it is an open society and the pressure for action is building – just like the pressure on the Angolan authorities to speak out. It will be extremely interesting to see what they finally have to say.
Women in Lesotho should be celebrating another step towards true equality this week. And some of them should be preparing for Chieftainship. But they’re not. Instead the cause of women’s rights has suffered a severe blow – thanks to the reactionary ruling of the country’s Constitutional Court in the Masupha chieftainship case.
Arguing as only lawyers can that preventing women from becoming chiefs solely because of their gender was merely ‘differentiation’ rather than discrimination, the justices ruled that the archaic (and clearly discriminatory and unconstitutional) male-only-chieftaincy system must remain in place.
Sadly, the country’s highest court sided with the patriarchal dictates of ‘customary law’ rather than the constitutional right to equality – in complete contrast to a recent ruling in Botswana that made it clear that the constitution trumps custom when it comes to issues of (in)equality.
And what makes the decision worse is that this ruling runs contrary to the trend in recent years. Not only has Lesotho taken some significant steps towards greater equality, but courts across the region have also made progressive judgements on similar issues. Indeed, the South African Constitutional Court ruled that women could become chiefs in a landmark 2008 case.
It is unclear whether Senate Masupha will pursue the case any further. But what is crystal clear is that gender equality in Lesotho is still a long way from being realised. The hope was that the country’s top judges would show the way – and that the society would then follow. But clearly the judges aren’t convinced that women are really equal, despite what the country’s supreme law might say about equality.
There is still an awfully long way to go but sex workers in South Africa can now start to imagine a time when they will not be arrested for simply doing their job. When they will not be beaten, robbed and raped because they sell sex. When they will not be routinely abused by police and ignored by health professionals – the very people who are meant to help and protect them.
When they will be able to enjoy the same basic human rights as everyone else.
And it’s thanks to the Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa, which has finally called for the repeal of all laws against sex work because it believes that criminalisation of the profession violates the Constitutional rights to human dignity, freedom of security of the person, and freedom of trade, occupation and profession. "We believe it is the only viable approach to promoting and protecting the dignity and rights of sex workers,” said CGE commissioner Janine Hicks.
And that is the point. Criminalisation does not stop sex work. All it does is stop sex workers from being able to exercise their rights. All it does is leave them vulnerable to the long list of abuses catalogued in the Open Society Foundations Rights Not Rescue report – and particularly to sexual and physical abuse from law enforcement officials.
Unsurprisingly, the backlash has already started. And even more unsurprisingly, it has been led by the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), which does not seem to care that criminalisation of sex work leads to serious human rights abuses, encourages cops to turn criminal with impunity and does not stop people from selling or buying sex.
The ACDP believes that the majority of South Africans are opposed to decriminalisation. Maybe they are. But views change. And the decision of the Commission – along with a similar call from the ANC Women’s League last year – will help to foster that change.
Suddenly Swaziland is in the news - from South Africa to the UK. But as per usual, it is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The latest weird and wacky story from the country concerns an apparent ban on witches flying on broomsticks above 150 metres. Cue a host of cut and pasted reports in newspapers and online sites far and wide about the quaint customs of the world's favourite crazy Kingdom.
Did you know that broomsticks are considered similar to any heavier-than-air transportation device in Swaziland? Ha! ha! ha! Did you know that no penalties exist for witches flying below 150 metres? Ha! ha! ha! Did you know that Swazi brooms are short bundles of sticks that don't have handles? Ha! ha! ha!
Needless to say Swazis aren't laughing. Just like they don't laugh when the international media descends on the kingdom to 'report' on the reed dance and all those 'bare-breasted maidens'. Just like they don't laugh when the international media writes about the King's latest bride. Whether it's number 14 or 15 or 16 is no laughing matter to Swazis.
And instead of laughing, they wonder why the world's media doesn't scratch the surface of Africa's last absolute monarchy to see the horror of acute poverty and human rights abuses that lurks just below. Of course, a few journalists do. But most don't. Where, for example, is the coverage of the recent start of registration for the ludicrously undemocratic elections - or 'selections' as everyone in Swaziland refers to them? Or reports on 40 years of absolute rule on April 12th - four decades without political parties; four decades during which 1 million people have been ruled absolutely by 2 men - King Sobhuza II and his son King Mswati III?
It's fine to write quirky stories every now and then. But the real story of Swaziland needs to be told as well. And the real story is not at all funny.