History and politics in Swaziland

Swaziland, the last autocratic monarchy in Africa, is a country in an almost constant state of crisis. The repeated human rights violations and harassment of the Swazi democracy movement by the Swazi regime, the huge inequalities between a small Swazi elite and the poor majority, and an Aids prevalence rate of over 40% should make newspapers and governments around the world react.

In recent months the house of the Swaziland United Democratic Front National Organising Secretary has been bombed, maybe by the Swazi police; the President of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions has has his house searched by no less than 12 police officers; the leader of the largest opposition party, PUDEMO, Mario Masuku has been charged with acts of terrorism for speaking his mind and is more or less constantly harassed by police; student leader Pius Vilakati has gone missing after having been attempted abducted by police; and human rights activist and PUDEMO member Sipho Jele died in police custody, probably at the hands of the police.

But these stories are rarely if ever covered by the foreign media or condemned by world leaders or governments and the historic background to Swaziland’s present situation is more or less unknown.

This article will therefore give a brief historical overview of Swaziland and comment on the situation, after which Morten Nielsen from Africa Contact will briefly comment on the problems of the Swazi regime.



Swaziland was a British protectorate for over 60 years and bore the brunt of the a colonisation not unlike that of other African colonies, including its African “subjects” being treated cruelly and looked upon as savages, and hut taxes that were designed to proletarianise the the Swazis and use them as a cheap source of labour. Swaziland was an example of British “colonialism of the cheap”, however, and the traditional societal structure was to a degree kept in place, to a degree invented and changed to suit British interests and the interests of the Swazi monarch, and much of the daily administration was subsequently carried out by the King and his chiefs.


Swaziland’s gained its independence in 1968 after the Swazi monarchy had become the champion of the nationalist cause, playing on the homogeneous nature of the Swazi population and a Swazi tradition, most of which is surprisingly recent in origin. The reason for Swaziland’s relatively smooth road to independence had indeed been the patient diplomacy of the Swazi monarch, King Sobhuza II. The democracy that had been agreed upon with the British colonisers soon broke down, however, and  King Sobhuza II suspended the Independence Constitution in 1973, proclaimed a state of emergency, banned demonstrations, political parties and meetings in the process, and began ruling by decree – probably because he feared the steady increase of progressive politics and votes for the main opposition party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). The reasons given for the suspension were more along cultural lines, however, the King claiming that “the constitution has permitted the importation into our country of highly undesirable political practices alien to, and incompatible with the way of life in our society”and was therefore “unfit for the Swazi way of life”.

Cooperation with the apartheid regime

The Swazi monarchy was certainly not progressive in its politics nor in its friends as it had cooperated closely with apartheid South Africa, as well as with the Portugese in Mozambique. Not only had King Sobhuza II based his post-independence strategy on advice from a prominent member of the South African Afrikaaner Broederbond, Van Wyk de Vries, but from around 1978 both Sobhuza II and his successor choose to sign security pacts with its southern neighbour, as well as to help in, or at least not impede, the hunting down and killing of ANC members based in Swaziland. The Swazi government also criticised the campaign of sanctions and disinvestment that was mounting against South Africa in the eighties, making it the only Commonwealth country besides Thatcher’s Britain to do so. This harassment of the ANC continued right up until the unbanning of the ANC in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela, although members of the democratic movement disagreed with this policy and helped protect and aid ANC members.


The question of land lies at the heart of the coercion of the Swazi monarchy. This is because of a system where all non-privately owned land is held in trust by the King, who therefore in effect controls all allocation of public land, and where forced labour, forced contribution, and forced removals are commonplace. In addition to this, women are only able to gain access to land through their husband, thereby being doubly oppressed.


The Tinkhundla system of government is another important means of power – an electoral system where each Tinkundla elects one representative to the Swazi House of Assembly, but where political parties are illegal and where the King must accept all members of parliament, nominating a fifth of its members personally including the Prime Minister. Furthermore, he can simply choose to ignore parliament in his rulings. Power is still highly centralised, and accumulation of wealth is still to a large degree being dependent upon one’s state connections. This is one of the main reasons for the failure of democratisation in Swaziland, as it is in much of Africa: It is not in the interest of those in power to change the status quo and opposition parties and mass movements operating outside the Tinkundla system are thus the only plausible means of changing and improving Swazi society. The Tinkhundla system was seen as an experiment by king Sobhuza II, and a majority of Swazi’s believe it to be an experiment in need of either an overhaul or replacement with a more democratic system. In 1991, when a committee visited all the Tinkhundla, the system was “given an overwhelming vote of no confidence by the majority of the people who attended the meetings”, according to Richard Levin.

The Tinkundla-system was for many years seen as a necessary evil by the opposition. The NNLC had initially been the main opposition party, fighting within the Tinkhundla system for a more democratic Swaziland and winning three out of 24 seats seat in parliament at the 1972 elections, but police and government harassment, arrests, several splits, and the eventual suspension of the constitution, proclamation of a state of emergency, and banning of all political parties in Swaziland in 1973 severely weakened it.

From Sobhuza II to Mswati III

The cult surrounding Sobhuza II and his powerful oratory skills had too a degree legitimized his rule in the eyes of many Swazis, but when he died in 1980 much of this legitimacy and the relative stability of Swazi society died with him. Major confrontations occurred within the royal power bloc, and it took until 1986 before a new King, the present King Mswati III, could be coronated. Mswati III disappointed those who had hoped for a more progressive ruler, however. He pledged to “protect and preserve our revered traditional institutions, allowing them to develop in line with our cultural evolution”, and proved to be no less authoritarian than his predecessor in e.g dissolving parliament in 1987. The increasing unpopularity and perceived illegitimacy of the king and the Swazi regime could also be seen in both the increasing strength of the democracy movement and the dwindling turnouts for elections – especially the poor turnout of the first elections to be held after Mswati III had dissolved parliament, where only about a third of the adult population voted.

The democratic movement

Since it was formed in 1983, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) has been the main oppositional force and democracy advocate together with the unions and the recently formed Swaziland United Democratic Front.


PUDEMO’s influence and relative success is to be seen in the context of the failure of Mswati III to regain the legitimacy of his predecessor, and PUDEMO built much of its early appeal on criticising the excesses and corruption of the young King Mswati III. PUDEMO’s manifesto, written in 1985, is clearly in opposition to the present regime in stating that the movement is “fully dedicated to creating a democratic Swaziland”, that “the countries wealth shall be enjoyed by all citizens and shall be shared equally”, that “the land shall be given to all those who work it”, that there shall be “free, compulsory, universal and equal [education] for all children” and that “Human Rights shall be observed and respected”. The manifesto also clearly stated the peaceful intentions of PUDEMO in stating that PUDEMO believed in “peaceful negotiations”. The manifesto was clearly inspired by the ANC’s Freedom Charter in both its choice of language and its Social Democratic come Socialist values. Regardless of its peaceful and democratic nature, however, PUDEMO’s leadership and members have been constantly charged with anything from wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt to high treason for alleged “terrorism”, beaten up, tortured and even on rare occasions killed by the Swazi state and police. Mostly this harassment has had the opposite effect of what the state had hoped for, namely to help publicize the existence of PUDEMO both in Swaziland and internationally.


The Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) is a similar movement to the successful South African United Democratic Front that was an important part of the dismantling of apartheid.

The SUDF was formed  in 2008 by a number of civil society organisations and trade unions. The founding of the SUDF was the result of a belief that in order to create a strong civil society that could work actively for democratization and poverty eradication, there would have to be more unity and coordination among the pro-democracy forces in Swaziland.  The SUDF is, theoretically at least, in a stronger position to expand the space for pro-democracy action through its union members than PUDEMO, as the existing space for protest action is currently limited to the unions who have secured themselves this space through the Industrial Act.

In 2009, 5000 members of the SUDF agreed on the Manzini Declaration. The Manzini Declaration is a mission statement that affirms the SUDFs commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, to democratically elect ones leaders, health, social security and women’s rights and sets out its views on a number of substantive issues in relation to the political development of the country.

Problems to be solved

Internal disagreements

There have been some disagreements within the respective organisations that make up the democracy movement that continue to hinder its work, an example of which is the tension that existed between the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) in 1989 and PUDEMO. Jan Sithole, who was then Secretary General of SFTU, had distanced himself from the activities of PUDEMO, who in turn had formed an alternative trade federation because of what they perceived as the “failures” of the SFTU.  It is hoped that the SUDF can provide a forum for discussion and action that can help iron out such disagreements, however.

Mobilising the rural areas

Another problem is that whilst PUDEMO and the rest of the democracy movement has managed to inspire the youth and parts of the working class and middle classes, they seemingly still have failed to organise the peasantry in the rural areas – perhaps because the peasantry have been less capable or inclined to shed the “traditional” nature of the Tinkundla system, and perhaps because the democracy movement need to focus more on the issue of land allocation.

Cultural issues

The question of culture also needs to be addressed and considered by the democracy movement, as  its democratic nature and solutions are at odds with the hierarchical culture that the Swazi monarchy uses to subdue the population. In effect this culture allocates a role for each citizen, the poor, especially those in the more traditionally bound rural areas, in effect expecting to be poor because of their position in “traditional” Swazi society. Without addressing the issue of culture it will therefore be difficult to convince a significant part of the Swazi population that they should rally behind the democratic movement, and even if the goal of a democratic Swaziland should be achieved, much of the population will be too easily controlled by the new democratic government. The 44th article of the Manzini Declaration does however proclaim that “those harmful interpretations of our culture, traditions and culture which undermines the rights and dignity of women or any other section of the community should be combated and rectified”.


The constant spate of bombings that have allegedly been carried out by militant sections of the democracy movement is yet another problem that the (peaceful part of the) democracy movement face – although some of these have probably been the work of the police in order to discredit the movement as a whole, proof of which are the acquittals in court cases relating to such bombings and the fact that some of the bombs have obviously been made by professionals. Some of these bombings are possibly carried out by disaffected Swazi’s who are tired of having peaceful manifestations met with police violence and who are tired of waiting for change to come, however, and who  believe that the the internal squabbles and what they see as the relative lack of success of the democracy movement and the inaction of the international community justifies their actions. Especially important trade partners such as the EU and South Africa ought to intervene, although the latter has rather surprisingly chosen a policy of “quit diplomacy” with Swaziland instead of supporting the democratic movement that had supported it during apartheid. The bombings are therefore also a signal to both the democracy movement and the international community to act if they want a peaceful solution to the Swaziland’s lack of democracy. Having said that, given that Swaziland is a small country where everybody is interrelated and where there are practically no cultural or  language related differences, any whole-scale violent revolution or uprising is unlikely to occur.

From mass movement to party

Finally, any mass movement that wishes to transform itself into a political party and take over the reins of government will do well not to repeat the mistakes of the many other African liberation movements that have failed in successfully making this transformation. These parties often end up underestimating the scale of the challenge of post-independence or post-dictatorship government and lacking internal democratic structures or political coherence outside those of self-enrichment or -promotion, regardless of the inclusive and democratic ideals that they had started out with. Perhaps the reason for this is the many post-independence or post-dictatorship movements’ attempts to maintain unity at all cost by trying to keep the movement from splitting into several political factions or parties, thereby undermining pluralism and democratic structures within the party. On the other hand, as the example of the United Democratic Front in South Africa shows, a mass movement must not simply dismantle itself after multi-party elections, but to some degree remain a critical, independent voice towards the government of the day.

Towards a democratic Swaziland

So why is Swaziland in such a state today? Why is the government applying such pressure on Swaziland now, and is this a proof of the strength or weakness and desperation of the Swazi regime? Why doesn’t the European Union, the African Union, and South Africa demand that Swaziland stops its human rights violations and allows for the holding of truly democratic elections? And why hasn’t Swaziland’s democratic movement succeeded in mobilising a larger proportion of the population in demanding this, in pressurising the regime, and in making the international community listen?

According to Morten Nielsen from Africa Contact, an organisation that has been a partner of the democracy movement for over ten years, one of the main problems of the democracy movement is that the king is autocratic and regarded as being infallible. Before a Swazi criticises the king or joins the democratic movement, he or she has to consider whether it is worth the risk of losing ones land, job, house, or even ones life. Swaziland is akin to a 17th century manor where the king is the lord and the ordinary Swazi’s serfs, says Morten Nielsen. “It is a totalitarian, autocratic regime where the king is above the law an rules with impunity, deciding all aspects of his subjects lives. Swaziland is theoretically a democracy with a bill of rights, but if anything conflicts with the culture and tradition of Swaziland, the constitution renders it invalid”.


Richard Levin, When the sleeping grass awakens – land and power in Swaziland, Witwatersrand University Press, 2001

After Mandela, The battle for the soul of South Africa, Alec Russell, 2009


The Government of Swaziland

The Constitution of Swaziland

Swaziland: A kingdom in crisis, Swazi Media Commentary, 19 December 2010

Swaziland faces a long struggle for freedom, The Guardian, 8 August 2010

3 Responses to History and politics in Swaziland

  1. Mncedisi dlamini says:

    thanks for the honest analysis of the Swazi struggle.This country wil never be liberated by the progressives alone.This can only happen if the international community can offer support to the oppressed peasants Swazi.the support can be to increase pressure on the regime even possible isolate it completely.

  2. Swazis deserve democracy too says:

    It is a shame that Swaziland will only get to make international headlines only when there is a royal scandals on petty sex allegations. When the king tramples on human rights, when he bans and imprisons his political opponents, when he conducts fraudulent elections, when he spends our taxes on a lavish lifestyle, the world goes silent. I wonder again how Mswati escapes international scrutiny and sanctions. A man who is still the last absolute monarch, richer than his government, bans political parties, criminalises politics and rules by fear continues to be treated in the same breath as other democratic leaders fractures the mind. Why the hierarchy in Zimbabwe yet leaving Mswati III scot free? Were the sanctions in Zimbabwe based on legitimate grounds for him to democratise? Let us hear the DAs of this world, the BBCs and EUs of this world making the same kinds of open rebuke against the tyrannical rule of Mswati – then we would know there were no double standards on Zimbabwe.

  3. Pingback: Stiff Kitten’s blog reaches 50,000 hits! « Stiff Kitten's Blog – development & socio-political issues

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