The Big Issue : Edition 474
30 THE BIG ISSUE 26 DEC 2014 – 8 JAN 2015 The Kingdom of Whispers “WHO’S THAT WALKING in the door?” “Oh, that’s just a plain-clothed policeman.” I involuntarily start whispering. “So...do...the police come to most of the meetings of journalists?” “Not all the meetings, but usually when a group of journalists get together, or when pro-democracy activists are meeting, the police will be nearby.” I had been in the Kingdom of Swaziland – the bite-sized African country wedged between South Africa and Mozambique – for just a few weeks. The respondent was a seasoned Swazi reporter who calmly sipped on his tea as he answered my increasingly paranoid questions. I’m a long way from the leafy streets and quaint laneways of Melbourne, I kept thinking to myself. What am I doing over here? Why am I here? Some of the answers were easy. I had gone to Swaziland as part of an Australian aid program to train journalists and conduct research aimed at assisting the local media. ‘Capacity building’ and ‘skills transfer’, as international development jargon speakers might put it. What struck me at this meeting was not so much the presence of a plain- clothed policeman, who had come to note who was there – journalists, civil society members, and one ignorant journalist-turned-aid-worker from Australia – but the casual response to the visitor shown by those present. The meeting had been called to discuss the deteriorating state of freedom of speech and (funnily enough) assembly. I wanted to point out the incongruity of a policeman coming to monitor a meeting about freedom of assembly, but had the feeling my new colleagues were beyond such quips. I assumed this policeman wasn’t in uniform so he would blend in. But it was apparent that everyone at the meeting (except me) knew he was a policeman as soon as he slinked through the door. It was clear the journalists and activists in that room were expecting the plain-clothed policeman to show up. Evidently, this is normal when you’re in the job of reporting the news or quietly calling for democracy in an absolute monarchy – or ‘monarchical democracy’ as the Swazi rulers like to call it. Swaziland has a population of 1.2 million people. Its economy is built on a sugar industry, a dwindling textile sector and handouts from a southern African customs union. Coca-Cola also has a significant presence in the country, with a big manufacturing plant to process the sugar for its famous drink. Analysts estimate the multinational company pays as much as 40% of the country’s tax revenue. King Mswati III has ruled his landlocked kingdom since the crown BILL SNADDON REPORTS FROM SWAZILAND, AN AFRICAN COUNTRY OF GREAT POTENTIAL AND QUAINT CUSTOMS; WHERE FREEDOM OF SPEECH CAN NEVER BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED.