Food for votes poisons democracy

Phakama Shili_Constitutionally Speaking columnPhakama Shili, advocacy officer at Swaziland’s Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland), writes a weekly column, ‘Constitutionally Speaking’, about human rights and democracy for the daily newspaper Swazi Observer. 

The article below appeared in the Swazi Observer on May 30 2013. You will find all of Phakama’s ‘Constitutionally Speaking’  articles when you click here

It is an honour to have this space to share ideas and provoke discussion among fellow citizens on matters affecting our everyday life with the understanding of our Constitution.

Our Constitution may not be the best in the world but it does aspire to meet some of the internationally recognized standards.

For example, the Constitution in chapter 3 provides a comprehensive bill of rights protecting among others, freedom of thought and expression – which I seek to exercise in this column.

These rights are further emphasized in many other provisions, including the right to vote, found in section 85 of the Constitution. Swaziland’s Constitution, like many others all over the world, declares and guarantees the right to life, liberty, free speech, free thinking, association, and dignity.

As we move into the elections-mode, scheduled for September 2013, it is important for us to be armed with the necessary knowledge in order to exercise our right to vote, knowing that elections are not the end but the beginning of a long journey to self governance.

Since our Constitution is similar to those in other countries, both internationally and regionally, why is it that we are not able to meaningfully enjoy the bill of rights? Some of our neighbours are able to freely express themselves (in both speech and art); many are more free to question and to be questioned; meet and discuss issues; elect and recall leaders. Does this mean that there is something wrong with our Constitution?

In an attempt to deal with this question one is reminded of Burmese democracy activsit Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and longtime prisoner of conscience, who said: “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.”

She continues, “It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”

It becomes clear, therefore, that fear is the greatest enemy of human rights. In the past weekend the African Union celebrated its 50th Anniversary with one clear message: “One Africa for Prosperity and Peace”.

This theme was complemented by other messages, freedom and liberation from colonial powers to name two. We might have fought and received liberation as Africans to be independent and govern ourselves but the bigger picture is the full attainment of individual freedom to enjoy the fundamental rights as enshrined in our Constitutions. For Swaziland it has been 45 years since independence and almost eight years after the adoption of the Constitution.

Does independence of the nation, achieved in 1968, also mean independence and freedom for the individual? Have we taken steps as a country and as Swazi citizens to realise our individual freedom? It’s from this point – individual autonomy – that a stronger, more unifeid country can be built.

From my experince of working with Swazi communities, we have a way to go before we reach individual liberation. Many people confuse human rights with favours from government. Some believe that kindness from government or other individuals is akin to the protection of human rights.

This perception exacerbates the many human rights violations being commited every day. Newspapers report stories of ministers, MPs and powerful individuals who use the name of poverty as a stepping stone to enter parliament.

It is clear that behind this kindness is a wish to be elected to parliament and possibly, the thought of enriching oneself ahead of the consituuceny.

The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) is franticically attempting to caution Swazis, especially law-abiding citizens without much power, to refrain from influencing people to vote for them before the actual campaigning period begins. However we cannot blame the EBC, nor the law breakers for this – it is a true reflection of our society.

It is government’s job to provide for basic welfare needs, such as maintenance of the elderly and other underprivileged groups in society; not to supoort – directly or otherwise – law breakers who pose as good samaritans.

People have a right to adequate standard of living, including the right to enough food, as protected by Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights which Swaziland acceded in 2004. Therefore, whether people buy votes with food or money, they do not take away the obligation of the government because poverty and hunger will remain even after elections if the electorate does not have ideas that will influence the positive implementation of the national poverty reduction strategy.

The EBC must stand up and protect poor Swazis from manipulation because the success of the electoral process will not only be determined by the number of voters but by also the quality of leaders that will be produced. Yet we cannot keep blaming the EBC for the indifference of our people but instead we should be reminded of our obligation to respect the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of others, and generally refrain from doing acts that are detrimental to the welfare of others (section 63(d) of the Constitution).

Food for votes is poison to democracy and a serious violation of human rights. The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government, as said by former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Or, as Nelson Mandela put it: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Phakama Shili,
Advocacy Officer, MISA-Swaziland

Twitter: @Pshili1



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