Pro-democracy groups from several southern African nations Sunday gathered in South Africa to launch a campaign for democracy in Swaziland, which is considered one the few remaining absolute monarchies in the world.
Activists from trade and student unions, civic groups and Swazi opposition parties Sunday launched the Swaziland Democracy Campaign.
The deputy-president of the People's United Democratic Movement, or PUDEMO, Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, said the campaign was launched in South Africa because in Swaziland all political activity is banned.
"That makes it a criminal offense to belong to a political party," said Phakathi. "It makes it recently a terrorist act to belong to my organization, PUDEMO, which the government decided was a terrorist organization."
Organizers said the campaign is seeking the removal of restrictions on political parties, the news media and political gatherings. It is also calling for free, multi-party elections.
Swaziland has been ruled as an absolute monarchy since 1973, when then-King Sobhuza scrapped the constitution, banned political parties and decreed a state of emergency.
His son, Mswati III, has continued the practices since assuming the throne 24 years ago upon his father's death.
Under a new constitution introduced four years ago, legislative, judiciary and executive branches of government exist but their powers are limited and the king rules by decree.
Supporters of the king say opposition parties are allowed to exist but many dissidents have been detained under the emergency laws and others have fled into exile.
Supporters say the monarchy provides stability and is part of Swaziland's traditional culture.
Opposition leader Phakathi agrees that Swazi's value their culture and traditional leaders.
"But what is happening in Swaziland is that the monarchy, or rather the king, has used that [tradition] to oppress the people," he said. "The culture now is used as an instrument of oppression."
He adds that the expense of maintaining a royal lifestyle for the king and his extensive family is hurting economic development and the fight against HIV/AIDS, which reportedly afflicts more than one-third of the adult population.
Trade unions and civic groups from several southern African nations are supporting the Swaziland Democracy Campaign.
The international relations secretary for the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, Bongani Masuku, said these groups are calling for targeted sanctions against Swazi leaders.
"The world, particularly the western world, continues to embrace [King] Mswati as a leader, yet he is not making any advances in the democratic direction," he said.
Masuku says international organizations, such as the African Union, U.N. agencies and the Southern African Development Community, should apply more pressure on the Swazi government to lift political restrictions and allow more democratic freedom.