South Africa's new world wine smells off

A confidential audit from Norwegian government owned alcoholic beverage retailer Vinmonopolet has uncovered harassment, unionization prohibitions and salaries below the minimum wage at several of its wine producers in South Africa.

The report is based on inspections of 22 South African wine facilities in March and April of this year. Is was prepared for Vinmonopolet by American safety consulting and certification company UL, and conducted 'to investigate and identify social compliance gaps within the wine supply chain in the Western Cape Province'.

Vinmonopolet is working hard to ensure that offending producers improve conditions and live up to their ethical guidelines, the Norwegian company insists.

In the month of June alone, Vinmonopolet sold more than 100,000 litres of South African wine from a total of more than 6 million litres. Vinmonopolet (literally “the Wine Monopoly”) is the only retailer allowed to sell wine in Norway.

Harassment, lack of training and illegal wages

According to Vinmonopolet’s audit report, nine of the 22 inspected facilities 'did not hold health and safety meetings regularly', employees on four facilities experienced 'verbal harassment and physical harassment,' three facilities 'had not issued employees with employment contracts' and 'paid employees below the minimum wage,' and two 'prohibited employees from joining trade unions of their choice'.

Four of the facilities 'had deductions that were more than the stipulated legal limit,' and three 'did not provide occupational health and safety training including pesticide handling training to employees'.

'The client provided the audited facilities with the opportunity to correct reported findings before the end of the project,' the report stated in its concluding remarks.

Concerns must be resolved

In December 2016, Vinmonopolet had demanded that eight concerns related to worker’s rights, health and safety issues, wages and grievance mechanisms must be resolved. This was following the screening of 'Bitter Grapes', Danish investigative journalist Tom Heinemann's highly critical documentary on the wine industry in the Western Cape, on Norwegian national television.

According to Vinmonopolet senior business executive and corporate social responsibility spokesperson, Kristian Hogstad, the company does not wish to disclose which wine facilities were inspected by UL, because they wish to focus on improving conditions and act in regard to the workers on the inspected farms.

A follow up process and new inspections will be carried out in the future to ensure that conditions have improved, including a Vinmonopolet visit in the fall to ensure that this is indeed the case, Hogstad says.

Vinmonopolet continues to sell wine from the Western Cape, however, for instance from its bestseller Robertson Winery (not one of the inspected farms, according to Hogstad), stating that they are working with importers and the South African producers and unions to improve conditions. In Heinemann’s documentary, Robertson Winery was one of the main offenders.

Contracts may be annulled

Vinmonopolet has previously annulled contracts with importers and stopped selling products on several occasions, when producers have not complied with Vinmonopolet’s ethical guidelines. These include the right to unionization, a decent and legal wage, and a healthy and safe working environment. 

'Our goal is to contribute to improvements in the supply chain, and not rid ourselves of producers that do not live up to our ethical guidelines. This is subject to breeches of our guidelines being rectified, however. If not, we will consider revoking agreements,' says Hogstad.

The criteria for avoiding having ones contract revoked is to correct guideline breaches within a reasonable period of time (depending on how quickly the breach can feasibly be corrected), allow future inspections to take place, and generally give Vinmonopolet the information they ask for, Hogstad adds.

'Annulling an agreement prematurely will not necessarily help improve the situation, as the producer loses an important source of income and might exploit their workers even more to compensate. This must be weighed against the risk we take by continuing to sell products that do not live up to our guidelines, and whether we succeed in convincing people that it is better to give producers the time to make these improvements.'

Generally, Hogstad says that in the future Vinmonopolet is planning to improve its presence in South Africa, continue and improve dialogue with the unions, and inform and train producers and importers in regard to its guidelines.

Improvements needed for years

But on the face of it, improvements in the standards of several South African wine farms have been necessary for some years now.

A 2011 report from Human Rights Watch called 'Ripe with Abuse – Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries' exposed 'obstacles to union formation', 'long', 'gruelling' and 'harsh' working conditions, and workers being denied 'benefits to which they are legally entitled' and exposed to toxic pesticides without 'adequate safety equipment', as well as earning 'among the lowest wages in South Africa'.

Tom Heinemann’s documentary started both a media storm and an array of inspections of offending farms by both retailers such as Vinmonopolet, Swedish Systembolaget and Danish Dagrofa, as well as by local authorities in the Western Cape. He agrees that improvements need to be made.

'For decades – if not centuries – conditions in the vineyards in South Africa have been appalling. My hope is that the new focus from authorities, buyers and importers in investigating the industry more rigorously can and will make changes. If not, there is no way out but to stop buying wine from farms that do not want to learn that workers are not their property that they can treat to slave-like conditions,' says Heinemann.

Punk-anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ turns 40

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Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Britain’s alternative national anthem God Save the Queen by punk band the Sex Pistols. The song and band helped reconnect rock music with culture, participation and rebellion, and resonated in many places around the world, writes Peter Kenworthy.

By the time the Sex PistolsGod Save the Queen was released, with its criticism of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee, seventies Britain’s nostalgic yearn for the past, snobbishness, xenophobia, narrow mindedness and economic decline, the band had already been fired by two record companies, sworn on national television (something almost unheard of at the time), and banned from playing in most towns and cities across England.

Nevertheless, God Save the Queen became the best-selling song of the summer of 1977, selling 150,000 records in five days, even though the record company initially refused to press the single, the printers refused to print record covers cover and posters, TV and radio refused to air promotion material, Woolworths, Boots and WH Smith wouldn’t sell it, and the band were investigated by MI5 and discussed in parliament under the Treason Act.

The song, written in singer Johnny Rotten’s squat in London suburb Hampstead, together with the anarchic live performances of the Sex Pistols, also helped spawn a musical and cultural youth rebellion.

It made the Sex Pistols public enemy number one in the press, with headlines such as 'punish the punks', and amongst the older generation, ensuring that several of the Pistols were beaten up, and Johnny Rotten was cut with a razor blade in the face and hacked by a machete in the knee.

Seventies decline

To understand the impact of God Save the Queen, with lines like 'they made you a moron', 'don't be told what you need', 'we're the flowers in the dustbin', and 'there’s no future in England's dreaming', it is important to remember what Britain was like at the time – economically and musically.

Three decades after WWII, with most of the British Empire gone along with British economic influence and political power, Britain was in a post-imperial melancholy with a monarchy that had lost its magic.

Changing class-structures caused many young people to question their place in society. There was a general air of political polarization, immigrant-bashing, abandoned factories, new pre-fabricated housing and economic decline.

Unemployment exceeded 1 million for the first time since the thirties in 1972, a state of emergency was declared in 1973 after the oil crisis that led to power black-outs, public spending was cut by 1 billion pounds in 1976 due to IMF loan conditions. Everyone was on strike, and there was the added danger of IRA bombs and hooligans. England even failed to qualify for the 1974 football World Cup, eight years after having won it. The optimism of the 'swinging' sixties was well and truly gone.

This crisis was not reflected in the music of the time, however. Mid-seventies music was often elaborate post-glam inspired clothing and production, lengthy guitar solos, inflated rock star egos and escapist lyrics that were often totally out of sync with what most young people were experiencing at the time.

In the words of Johnny Rotten, 'a cloud of apathy had set in' where politicians could 'strut their stuff using prejudice, hate, family values'.

Fed up and bored

Punk got off the ground because young people were bored and fed up with the restrictive and austere nature of seventies Britain, and the politicians apparent inability to do anything about the situation.

They were also tired of waiting for years and paying big money to see big stadium bands like Queen or Pink Floyd, when they could see an exciting band like the Sex Pistols for a fraction of the price every other week and hang out with them after the show, and because the Sex Pistols seemed both relevant and possible to emulate.

Punk’s do-it-yourself attitude, where a band like the Buzzcocks could produce their debut, the Spiral Scratch EP, for 500 pounds including the pressing of 1,000 records and 1,000 sleeves was a huge catalyst.

A catalyst, where those who felt powerless, including women, who were seen as second class citizens in sixties and seventies Britain (Siouxsie, The Slits, Polly Styrene) and gays (Tom Robinson), could use punk to take centre stage and grab some power back to retain some self-respect.

Punk in Africa

This catalyst also ensured that punk bands were formed far beyond the shores of Britain, in places as far apart as welfare state-Denmark, military regime-Brazil, 'white' Australia and apartheid South Africa.

In South Africa, the birth of punk coincided with the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Wild Youth from Durban, one of South Africa’s first punk bands, was formed after singer Michael Flek had been the Britain in 1977 and seen several punk bands.

'We were crap musicians but we made up for that with power, self-conviction and catchy songs … What punk did in South Africa, it was the first thing in changing the way young people thought. It made them question every aspect of life,' as Michael Flek put it.

And punk was far from a safe, middle-class white scene in South Africa. National Wake, a multiracial South African punk band who lived and practised together in violation of South African apartheid laws, played in the Sharpeville Night Club and rural townships and were visited by the vice squad for their efforts.

Nothing to do with music

Punk and the Sex Pistols were eventually too a degree defeated by their own (media) success, the commodification of the music and its message by the record companies, hard drugs and the increasing army of Johnny Rotten look-alikes and post-card punk posers. Especially when the Sex Pistols broke up after playing for over 5,000 people, their biggest ever audience, in San Francisco in 1978.

Punk also grew up, from a screaming toddler to an angst-ridden teenager, embodied by bands such as Joy Division and The Cure, who were inspired by and used the energy and attitude of punk to express more complex emotions.

But if punk is to be more than of historical interest, a style of load and abrasive mid-to-late seventies music, it is important to look at the ideals behind punk and how it promoted the message over talent and music.

Because the Sex Pistols’ positive message of negativity, and the punk movement’s focus on change, participation, being yourself-originality and against conformism is still relevant today. An era not unlike the one Rotten was criticising, with its own sense of 'no future' brought on by global warming, Trump, Brexit and increasing commercialism, inequality and making scapegoats of immigrants and the unemployed.

UK General Election: Why can’t I vote?

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British PM Theresa May.

Peter Kenworthy, British Citizen based in Denmark, tried to register to vote for the next UK general elections, and discovered he can’t.

Why can’t I – a British citizen living abroad – register to vote in the next UK general elections, and why must I thus be denied the right to help determine the future of my country, and how it acts internationally, at a time when my vote matters more than ever?

I was born a British citizen in 1972 and have remained one to this day, although I have lived outside Britain (where I grew up in Cambridgeshire) since 1980. I eat Marmite on my toast, dream and swear in English, and hope England do well at every World Cup and Euro finals, even though they always end up underachieving.

I have always voted in local and European Parliament elections in my country of residence, Denmark, assured that the system of proportional representation would ensure that my vote would always count.

But I have never voted in a UK general election. Mainly because I have never found a party (-leader) that I agreed with enough to make the effort to become registered to do so, and because the first-past-the-post system means that anyone I might have considered voting for never stood even the remotest chance of actually winning the Cambridgeshire constituency that I belong(ed) to.

All this has changed. The stakes are much higher with Brexit, both nationally and internationally, and the new Labour leader is not a New Labour leader.

I therefore rushed online to register to vote for the next election, only to be met with the following upsetting sentence on the electoral commission’s website: ‘If you were too young to register after you left the UK, you can still register as an overseas voter … as long as you left the UK no more than 15 years ago.’

But why should it matter when I last voted, or if I have indeed ever voted in Britain, as long as I am a British citizen?

Why should I be denied the right to vote, simply because the first-past-the-post system in Britain means that anyone with a non-mainstream set of beliefs under normal circumstances might as well not bother voting?

And why can’t I be allowed to vote, now that my vote might for once actually help challenge a Thatcherite consensus that began before I left Britain at the age of seven, and has now lasted for nearly 40 years?

Peter Kenworthy is a Copenhagen-based British journalist who writes for an array of Danish and English-language publications.

Socialist Youth call for democracy in Swaziland now

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Bheki Dlamini at IUSY world council in Argentina.

'We are appealing to democratic governments, regional bodies, and multilateral institutions to raise the issue of Swaziland and hold the authoritarian regime accountable. We call for political and economic pressure on the regime … [and] a peaceful transition to democracy,' the IUSY wrote in a resolution passed at the IUSY World Council held in Rosario Argentina last week.

The IUSY is an international youth organization with UN ECOSOC consultative status. It has 134 member organizations in over 80 countries, including the youth league of banned pro-democracy party PUDEMO, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

Denied freedom

The IUSY, amongst other things, urged international bodies to apply smart sanctions on Swaziland’s royal family until multi-party democracy was implemented. It also demanded the unbanning of political parties, removal of repressive legislation towards political parties and labour unions, an end to systematic harassment of political activists, and the unconditional release of political prisoners and the return of exiles.

'Swaziland remains the only African state that is ruled by an absolute monarchy … The people of Swaziland have been denied their freedom … since political parties were banned in 1973 by the monarchy,' who control the government, courts and economy, the resolution stated.

'The authoritarian rule has failed to transform the lives of the ordinary citizenry, as we witness that more than 60 per cent of Swazis live below the poverty datum line whilst the royal family lives lavishly … The youth is faced with the reality of grinding poverty, HIV/AIDS pandemic and a very high unemployment rate.'

More pressure on regime

The world must put more pressure on Mswati’s regime, says IUSY Vice President Bheki Dlamini, who is also President of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

'Mswati must remember that there is no hiding place for his dictatorship. Young people from Swaziland and across the globe are demanding democracy and respect for human rights, and we shall not rest until Swaziland is politically free.'

The International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY) was formed in 1907 as the youth organization of the Second International. It is the biggest political youth organization in the world, working to help promote strategies on issues such as poverty, gender equality and youth education and unemployment.

Several former IUSY leaders have gone on to hold office in their respective countries, including former IUSY Secretary General Per Hækkerup, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in Denmark in the sixties; former IUSY President Fikile Mbalula, who is the current Minister of Sport and Recreation in South Africa; and former President Jacinda Ardern, who is an MP and member of the Shadow Cabinet in New Zealand.

Swazi activist tortured and left sentenced to 15 years under repressive terror laws

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A pro-democracy protest in Swaziland seen outside the Savoy Hotel. Flickr user Garry Knight under a Creative Commons Licence

Where is the support for Zonke Dlamini, asks his co-accused, Bheki Dlamini, who was released without charge. By Peter Kenworthy.

Activist Zonke Dlamini was sentenced to 15 years in prison three years ago, on 28 February 28 2014, for allegedly petrol bombing the houses of two Swazi officials, an MP and a high-ranking police officer.

He denies the charges and says he was tortured during his interrogation, but his case has been more or less forgotten and he has subsequently not been able to appeal his sentence, says his co-accused, Swaziland Youth Congress President Bheki Dlamini.

In the 28 July 2010 edition of the Swazi Observer, Zonke said he was interrogated and tortured by 18 officers upon arrest. ‘I declared my innocence but was punched in the face … and told to admit my role as one of the operatives of an operation mastermind by the banned SWAYOCO to bomb houses of prominent people.’”

Charged under ‘inherently repressive’ terror act

Both Zonke, who is also a member of SWAYOCO, and Bheki, were charged under Swaziland's Suppression of Terrorism Act. Both dissociated themselves from the petrol bombings.

Zonke was found guilty on two of the three counts of petrol bombing while Bheki was acquitted and released, in what the judge referred to as ‘evil’ and ‘indefensible acts’ of ‘terrorism’ that ‘threatened national security’ and ‘peace and stability’ in Swaziland, including ‘its tourism and economy generally’.

The sentences ‘will send out a message to others’, the judge concluded.

Amnesty International has called Swaziland's Suppression of Terrorism Act, which defines terrorism in sweeping terms, an ‘inherently repressive’ act that is ‘used to suppress dissent’.

Amnesty furthermore wrote in their 2011 Annual Report that the court was informed that Zonke and Bheki had been 'subjected to suffocation torture' and that Zonke's confession (that led to the arrest of Bheki) was allegedly ‘extracted under duress’.

A humble and dedicated man

According to Bheki, Zonke is a politically astute and humble man who never complained about his fate and who is dedicated to the struggle for freedom and democracy in Swaziland. He got to know Zonke when at court and through smuggling letters to each other’s cells.

When Zonke was arrested, he left a three-month-old baby and an extended family that he was economically responsible for. He is also an epileptic who needs constant supervision.

‘My heart is bleeding when I remember the pain of prison and what Zonke is still going through. When Zonke was arrested, he was badly tortured by the Swazi police. Now he suffers from a persistent headache because of the torture,’ says Bheki, who was himself tortured after his and Zonke's arrest in June 2010.

Both went on a hunger strike in 2013 to protest against the prison conditions and the fact that there case was yet to be concluded three years after they were arrested.

Desperately needs appeal, help

While there was a campaign for the release of Bheki, who was eventually released after having spent nearly four years in prison, and his story was told in an award-winning Danish documentary, Swaziland – Africa’s last monarchy, Zonke case does not get the attention it deserves, Bheki Dlamini says.
'Swaziland – Africa’s last monarchy' is a documentary about activist Bheki Dlamini by Danish journalist Tom Heinemann. The film describes the fight for democracy and socio-economic justice in the tiny sub-Saharan absolute monarchy of Swaziland through the eyes of Bheki Dlamini, a young activist and leading member of Swaziland’s largest banned political party, the People's United Democratic Movement.

'The tragedy about Zonke's case is that it doesn't get the necessary attention, be it amongst the Swazi civil society, the political parties and the Swazi media. When the EU called for the release of political prisoners, Zonke's name was missing from the list of four political prisoners that were eventually released,' says Bheki.

Bheki believes that while Zonke faced injustice by the Swazi High Court, few came to his rescue. This should have been the role of Swaziland’s civil society and members of the international community, but their inaction has had serious consequences for Zonke, he says.

'As Zonke was convicted in 2014, he was not able to file an appeal because he has no lawyer to take up his case. Where are the NGO’s claiming to be fighting for human rights, where are Lawyers for Human Rights, where is our conscience as a people when we watch such gross injustice happening to someone who is trying to fight the very same regime we claim to be against?

‘He desperately needs to appeal his conviction and sentencing. I have been part of the trial and know that he has a high chance of an acquittal because he was sentenced unfairly. There is no direct evidence linking him to the crimes he is accused of. He was made a sacrificial lamb by the judge, who decided to acquit me and convict Zonke to appease the powers that be,’ Bheki Dlamini says.

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'King, not parliament, should be the target of Swazi protests’

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Swaziland King Mswati meets South Africa's President Zuma GovernmentZA/GCIS under a Creative Commons Licence

The recent criticism of the Swazi government from many Swazis is misplaced. They should be blaming the country’s absolute monarch, says exiled political activist Sonkhe Dube. Peter Kenworthy reports.

How can there be democracy in Swaziland, when parliament treats the country’s absolute monarch King Mswati III as a god? When the whole cabinet and several member of parliament are elected by the king? Why do Swazis blame parliament for the country’s ills, when Mswati clearly has the last say on everything?

These are questions that Sonkhe Dube, pro-democracy activist and International Secretary of the banned Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), says he keeps asking himself about his native Swaziland, a country where two thirds of the population languish in poverty, political parties are essentially banned and their members harassed.

Sonkhe, had to flee his country for fear of being arrested and tortured by the police, as he has been on several occasions, because of his fight for democracy and social justice.

Blaming powerless parliament is misguided

'The Swazi population came out guns blazing against the government at the Sibaya Forum,' Sonkhe says. The forum is a people’s parliament where the monarch summons his subjects to the royal cattle byre to discuss pressing issues. 'But the repeated calls for the axing of the prime minister and his government were misplaced. Parliament in reality have to serve the hand that appointed them before they serve the people, so removing the government is like cutting tree branches and hoping that the tree will be uprooted.'

He believes that his fellow Swazis fear the monarch too much to dare criticize him in public. According to international NGO’s such as Freedom House and Amnesty International these fears are not unfounded.

According to Freedom House, who speak of Swaziland as a country where 'elected members of parliament have no oversight or influence over setting government policy, making laws, or adjusting spending levels,' the population of Swaziland is one of the populations in the world with least political freedom. Amnesty International describes how 'repressive legislation' and 'politically motivated trials and laws that violate the principle of legality ... continues to be used to suppress dissent.'

Tell the King the truth

But Sonkhe Dube nevertheless believes that Swazis must confront the true root cause of their woes if they are to transform Swaziland from an absolute monarchy that benefits a few to a democracy. After all, over half the Swazi population highly disapproves of the current form of government and less than a fifth believe their country to be fully democratic according to opinion polls from Afrobarometer.

'The king should be told the honest truth about the chaos caused by his absolute power without fear or favour,' he says. 'A person with a rash caused by a certain blood disease cannot stop the rash with an ointment, without taking care of the disease in the blood.'

Sonkhe Dube is a teacher by profession. He is the International Secretary of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), and is currently living in exile in neighbouring South Africa due to his pro-democracy activism and affiliation to SWAYOCO. He has been arrested, detained and tortured on several occasions by King Mswati’s police. He cannot go back to Swaziland, he says, because he fears the response of the brutal Swazi police.

Swazi media workers protest conditions at king’s newspaper

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Members of the Media Workers Union of Swaziland protest near the Swazi Observer offices. by Peter Kenworthy

Higher pay, union membership, nepotism, and more, are at the center of the struggle, reports Peter Kenworthy.

Members of the Media Workers Union of Swaziland (MWUS) have gathered near the offices of the Swazi Observer for several days to protest low wages, management intimidation and poor working conditions. The union was barred from holding an actual picket by Swaziland’s High Court.

Negotiations between the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned and controlled by absolute monarch King Mswati III, and MWUS had started in April, but no real progress has been made since they became deadlocked in June.

Fair pay and decent working conditions

The union demands a 25 per cent pay rise, that senior reporters ought to be allowed to be members of a union of their choice, an end what it calls job promotion nepotism and intimidation of union-affiliated members, newly serviced cars that are safe to drive, proper medical aid and the resignation of the managing director.

According to a statement released by MWUS in June, the Swazi Observer management countered by offering no pay rise and the newspapers’ managing director said that management would ‘plant intelligence within all the departments of the company’, something that was condemned by the union as ‘threat and intimidating antics’.

Police intimidation

‘There is an employee who earns as little as $113 a month and many of our members are subject to risky conditions as they are made to drive cars which have long stopped being serviced. One member reported a car he was driving had its steering wheel disconnecting while the car was in motion,’ Secretary General of MWUS Sicelo Vilane told members gathered outside the offices of the Swazi Observer on Monday.

An hour after he held his speech, Sicelo Vilane was approached by an intelligence officer who introduced himself only as ‘Mkhwanazi,’ who told Vilane that the police wished to ‘form part of the negotiations as a third party’. MWUS sees this as a measure of intimidation against the union.

There are also indications that Sicelo Vilane might be arrested for contempt of court for allegedly defying a court order that barred the protesting workers from entering the premises of the Swazi Observer, even though he is adamant that none of the union members had done so and that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of him or the union.

Media censorship and harassment

There have been many previous indications that all is not well at the Swazi Observer and in the Swazi media in general. In 2009, Swazi Observer managing editor Mbongeni Mbingo nearly lost his job for publishing a piece on the king’s fleet of luxury cars. He later wrote, in an article published on the website of the Freidrich Ebert Stiftung, that ‘the press in Swaziland is largely expected to toe the line and be a lapdog not a watchdog.’

In their 2015 ‘Freedom of the Press’ report, American research-NGO Freedom House describes how king Mswati ‘further restrained an already weakened media environment in Swaziland, [where] both journalists and media outlets were targeted by officials through the use of restrictive legislation’ and how ‘the government withholds advertising contracts from critical media outlets’.

According to the Human Rights Watch 2016 world report, ‘journalists and activists [in Swaziland] who criticized the government were often harassed and arrested ... Many journalists practiced self-censorship, especially with regard to reports involving the king to avoid harassment by authorities’.

Peter Kenworthy is a journalist with Afrika Kontakt.

Look out for the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist magazine exploring possibilities for a 21st-century revival of organized workers’ movements around the world: Trade Unions – rebuild, renew, resist

Royal greed and oppression sold as culture in Swaziland

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Sonkhe Dube, a teacher by profession in Swaziland, is currently living in exile in neighbouring South Africa due to his pro-democracy activism.

Swaziland’s king Mswati III passes suppression, unaccountability and royal opulent spending in the face of drought, starvation and poverty, as traditionally ‘Swazi’ values. Sonkhe Dube , a young exiled activist, tells Peter Kenworthy that he begs to differ.

‘The Swazi system of governance, “Tinkhundla”, is indeed unique,’ says, Sonkhe Dube, who is the International Secretary of the Swaziland Youth Congress. ‘They claim it is a democratic institution that encompasses traditional form of leadership. But in a democratic state, the cabinet is not handpicked by a king who literally controls everything without being accountable to his citizens.’

King Mswati III has recently spent $14 million on a new personal 375-seater jet and will be spending millions of dollars more on hosting a South African Development Community Heads of State summit this year, while a quarter of his population is starving. According to the World Bank, Swaziland is a lower middle income-country.

Swazi law and custom

In Africa, many colonial authorities and traditional leaders together recreated the relatively pluralistic and consensus-driven traditional chiefdoms into a source of royal power that could be controlled by indirect rule.

In Swaziland, king Mswati’s father king Sobhuza II was given the power to appoint and dismiss chiefs and in 1957, 11 years before independence, acts of disobedience against the king was made illegal by a colonial act. The foundations that were laid for such royal hegemony were seen a couple of years after independence, in 1973, when Sobhuza II banned political parties, declared a state of emergency that is yet to be officially repealed and began ruling as an absolute monarch.

Tradition is also the basis for Swaziland’s constitution (from 2005), where the words ‘...in accordance with Swazi law and custom’ are used many times. The constitution also gives the king executive authority in Swaziland and in effect lets him determine what constitutes ‘Swazi law and custom’.

Cultural oppression

Nevertheless, Swazis are made to believe that the monarchy rules through the people by way of a traditional people’s parliament, ‘Sibaya’, says Sonkhe Dube.

‘But when the king called Sibaya in 2012, and the convention pronounced to the king that they wanted the Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini and his cabinet out, the king responded by keeping them. The same Prime Minister is still in charge, against the will of the people.’

Ordinary Swazis are also at the mercy of the king through his chiefs in their everyday lives. One example of this was in September 2014 in Nokwane, where the houses of many poor Swazi families were bulldozed to the ground without a warrant and with only 48 hours’ notice, to make way for a Science Park. Many of them had lived there for decades and had nowhere else to go.

‘Chiefs allocate land to people and chase them out of their chiefdoms if they feel there is something wrong with them, as happened in Kamkhweli and Macetjeni, where the king sanctioned the eviction of families. The king and the chiefs also order their subjects to do voluntary manual labour in their fields. The product from the manual labour culturally has to cater for the vulnerable and orphaned, but currently it is not doing that, yet people are still required to provide labour for the chiefs and the monarchy. Culturally, the king and chiefs do not own the land but are supposed to be holding it in trust for the people,’ Sonkhe Dube says.

Greedy monarchy

No culture remains frozen in time. Culture is, or ought to be, about the adjustment of society to the needs of its citizens, as well as the other way round.

And according to Sonkhe Dube, the current Swazi Tinkhundla system of governance is by no means adjusting itself to the needs and wishes of the people. It is neither democratic nor even truly traditional in a Swazi sense.

‘It is a system based on the manipulation of culture to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the greedy monarchy. The monarchy should stop hiding behind culture. Swazi culture is not only about ceremonies but also about social responsibilities which the present powers that be are intentionally ignoring,’ says Sonkhe Dube.

Sonkhe Dube is a teacher by profession. He is the International Secretary of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), and is currently living in exile in neighbouring South Africa due to his pro-democracy activism and affiliation to SWAYOCO. He has been arrested, detained and tortured on several occasions by king Mswati’s police. He cannot go back to Swaziland, he says, because he fears the response of the brutal Swazi police.

Peter Kenworthy is a journalist.

Culture of the heart: from China to the West

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The author's Danish great-grandfather Frederik Christian Mathiesen (centre) in China, 1900–1936.

Finding the culture of the heart

‘We talk a lot about culture in the world today. What we say about our own culture is often nonsensical and sometimes downright nauseating. But vanity, lust for power, greed, the belief that “might is right” and all other kinds of selfishness have nothing to do with culture. Nevertheless, all of these traits are gaining ground throughout the world today.’

These words could easily have been written to describe our world today, but they were not. They were written after the Second World War, as part of an autobiographical report on the life of my Danish great-grandfather Frederik Christian Mathiesen in China between 1900 and 1936; a report that I was given after the death of Frederik’s son recently.

Condescending Europeans

My great-grandfather arrived in China in 1900 to work for The Great Northern Telegraph Company (today GN Store Nord, a Danish manufacturer of hearing instruments and audiological diagnostics equipment) in Shanghai.

Frederik describes a city where rickshaws, king carriers and horses were abundant in the streets but where there were still no cars, busses or trams. Westerners, such as my great-grandfather, did not mingle with the local Chinese, and several of the public parks of Shanghai were reserved for Europeans. When he arrived, the Western powers were in the process of suppressing an anti-imperialist uprising in the ‘semi-colony’ of China.

At the turn of the 20th century, only a couple of thousand British citizens lived in China, along with other Europeans including a few hundred Danes such as my great-grandfather. Nevertheless, the British controlled over half of China’s foreign trade in a country with over 400 million citizens. One of the reasons for this was that Britain, along with countries such as Russia and Japan, forced China to sign unfavorable free trade treaties that opened up China to their companies, without them having to pay taxes or comply with Chinese law.

Travel accounts from the 19th and early 20th century were also remarkably condescending and patronizing towards the Chinese. One example of this is Frederik describing Chinese workers at his office as ‘not particularly intelligent slant-eyed and long-haired idlers’ in a letter to his father written in 1901.

The superior Chinese

But Frederik soon made many Chinese friends, such as his colleague Kung Pah King and the son of the future warlord, president and short-term emperor Yuan Shikai, who helped him get a position as consulting engineer for the Chinese government. He therefore quickly got a far more positive view of his new home China, the Chinese and their culture.

In his account, on the other hand, he describes what he refers to as Europeans of ‘questionable’ character, who break their promises and cheat and deceive the Chinese. He adds:

‘Despite the many modern amenities we have in the West, I believe that the Chinese might just be culturally superior to us. In the West, political parties are increasingly grabbing power from the people, mainly by buying votes, the Chinese say. They despise this system. The corrupting and demeaning materialism of Western culture destroys true compassion and humanity, as it destroys imagination and the realization of love as the main creative and upholding force in our world.’

Finding the culture of the heart

Even though he criticizes the Western political system, it is clear from his travel accounts, inspection reports and letters that he was not a socialist. He left China in 1936, with his wife and three children, when Mao’s Red Army marched too close to their home in Wutungchao in Northern China.

He also didn’t believe in what he called ‘the dogma that all people are alike’. Nevertheless, he still advocated what he called ‘the culture of the heart’ that he discovered while in China.

‘True culture is basically a ‘culture of the heart’, which is the only true and lasting culture. The culture of the heart promotes a favourable assessment of ones fellow men, a love of all that is beautiful and a loathing of all brutality and violence. It promotes etiquette, politeness and charming behavior. It is to be found in both cottages and castles. It transcends all classes and nations.’

In the West, we often see our cultures as constantly progressing, constantly evolving in a positive, forward-looking way. But the recent years of constant warfare, increasing inequality, suspicion and mockery of the unemployed and people from other cultures and parts of the world, as well as a materialism that, in leading to an ever-increasing consumerism, has led to a climate crisis that may soon be irreversible, seems to contradict this view.

So perhaps we ought to search both within ourselves and outside ourselves in other cultures, as my great-grandfather did a hundred years ago in China, to enable us to (re)discover the culture of the heart that he advocated.

Peter Kenworthy is a journalist.

Former Danish PM didn’t save the children

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New head of Save the Children, former Danish Prime Minister M Helle Thorning-Schmidt. by Peter Kenworthy

The new head of Save the Children, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is best known abroad for having taken a selfie of herself, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. In her native Denmark, she will be remembered as a hard-liner on immigration, writes Peter Kenworthy.

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s appointment as chief executive of Save the Children has made headlines in Denmark because of her anti-immigration position and for her party’s support of a new immigration bill. Many have criticized her policies, including the Danish branch of Save the Children.

‘Children’s protection, rights and development have always been close to my heart, and I look forward to doing everything I can to help us deliver on our bold but simple ambitions: that no child under five dies from preventable causes.’

The words are Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s, commenting on her new appointment – a position that she will take up on 4 April. Thorning-Schmidt is married to Labour MP Stephen Kinnock and served as Danish Prime Minister from 2011 to 2015.

Anti-immigration

But what are ‘preventable causes’ and has Helle Thorning-Schmidt really done everything she could to save the children while in office?

She certainly spent a large part of her time as Prime Minister pursuing anti-immigration policies that have, amongst other things, barred children in war-zones such as Syria from being reunited with their families and thus put them in grave danger.

In her New Year’s speech to the nation on New Year’s Day 2015, she gloated that her government had made family reunification and asylum more difficult for refugees. ‘It is the first time in 12 years that this has happened,’ she told the Danish population.

And in her election campaign later that year (which she lost to the Liberal Party), large posters were seen all over Denmark that promised that she would continue to be tough on immigration.

Double standards

In mid-January, her party voted for a bill proposed by the Liberal government that specifies that refugees must have stayed three years in Denmark before they can apply for family reunification. The new bill builds on similar legislation put in place by Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s government in 2014 that restricted the right to family reunification and was heavily criticized by the Danish branch of Save the Children, Red Barnet, at the time for being ‘inhumane’.

According to Red Barnet, the new bill is in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention states that ‘a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will’ and that ‘applications by a child or his or her parents to enter or leave a State Party for the purpose of family reunification shall be dealt with by States Parties in a positive, humane and expeditious manner’. Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrat Party will support the new bill even through it could literally risk the lives of children.

But after it was announced that Thorning-Schmidt was appointed by Save the Children, the organization’s Chairman Alan Parker said that the organization is very pleased to have appointed her and Red Barnet called her ‘the right person to create tangible improvements for vulnerable children.’

Heavily criticized

The new Danish bill has been heavily criticized by many other organizations and individuals both in Denmark and internationally. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that the measures were ‘an affront’ to the dignity of refugees and has urged the Danish government to scrap the bill. The Danish Institute for Human Rights called it ‘a violation of international law’, and the Danish Refugee Council, the Danish Association of Social Workers and the Danish National Council for Children have voiced similar criticisms.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, wrote to the Danish government on 12 January that he was ‘deeply concerned’ by the new changes to Denmark’s legislation on asylum and immigration, including the parts that will make it ‘more difficult for beneficiaries of international protection to request family reunification’.

And a fellow Social Democrat of Thorning-Schmidt, Mette Gjerskov, who served as a minister in her government and is presently the party’s development spokesperson, criticized the bill for ‘refusing children the right to see their parents for over three years’. She would be voting against the bill, she said.

Even the Danish branch of Hell’s Angels has criticized the Danish government for their anti-immigration policies, stating in a press release on 13 January that ‘it is not the fault of immigrants that they look to a place where they can enjoy safety and a better life’.

‘No comment’

Thorning-Schmidt stated that she ‘is fully behind’ her party on the issue of the new bill. She has not wished to comment on the discrepancies between the ideals of her new employer, an organization that was formed to help starving children during a post-WWI blockade and who envisages ‘a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation’, and that of her political standpoint on immigration as a both PM and MP backbencher.

‘For the past seven months [since losing the election] I have stayed out of Danish politics. I will continue to do that,’ she told the Danish media.

She also had ‘no comment’ to questions about whether her policies on immigration when she was Prime Minister were brought up during her job interview with Save the Children.

Peter Kenworthy is with Afrika Kontakt.

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