Swaziland: Freedom is a strange concept

If you bring up Swaziland in a conversion, most people will either look puzzled or mutter something unconvincing about a peaceful kingdom bordering South Africa. This is because most of the people who have actually been to Swaziland have done so superficially, as tourists visiting the country for a couple of days. What they have seen here are the exuberant malls, good roads, and flawless tourist facilities. There is, however, a different Swaziland, a Swaziland where over two thirds of the population survive for less than a dollar a day, where over 40% are HIV-positive, and where the population at large are suppressed by a combination of “traditional” feudal structures and values, brutal police forces, and a tiny but filthy rich elite.

Swaziland’s democratic movement, led by the Swaziland United Democratic Front and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, are trying to mobilise people to change all of this. How difficult their task is has been obvious during the last week of protest action where local and foreign activists (myself included)  have been arbitrarily arrested, beaten up and detained for simply wanting to hold a peaceful protest. This has proved beyond doubt how small the political space in Swaziland is. According to Mario Masuku, the president of the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (all parties are banned in Swaziland), the regime is not yet ready for dialogue with the democratic movement but will continue its brutal suppression of all dissenters, however small. “In 2008 the king said that all opposition in Swaziland must be strangled. The king is thereby locking the door for all that seek change in Swaziland”.

There is not much help to be had from the international community or the international press either, although last weeks police brutality has produced the odd article in Western newspapers. The Swazi regime is more or less backed by the IMF, the World Bank and the EU, who probably desist from criticising Swaziland because the regime is obviously neo-liberal and good at sending the right signals on democracy, gender and participation, although looking at the policies of the regime these signals are obviously only for external use. But international pressure is a necessary part of any fight for democracy and against dictatorship, as both South Africa and many of the wars of independence in Africa prove. It is remarkable that the international community sees fit to engage itself in the Zimbabwean crisis, condemning Mugabe for the atrocities that he and his government commit, whilst leaving the Swazi population to fight a no less repressive government on their own.

Western Embassies and Foreign Ministries usually won’t commit themselves to putting any pressure whatsoever on repressive and brutal regimes such as the one in Swaziland, especially if their governments stand to gain from the status quo. And this is so even though  many politicians speak at length on the need for democracy and good governance in Africa and how freedom must not be compromised. An illustrative example of the lack of will to intervene when it comes to Swaziland is American Foreign Secretary Hilary Clinton, who recently stated that America wished to “remain a full partner with Swaziland as you seek to strengthen good governance and rule of law, and promote economic development”.

Swaziland’s African neighbours also seem reluctant to help. South Africa’s president Zuma has family ties and a good relationship with Swaziland’s king, and although his vice president recently spoke positively of an intervention in the country, it is a well-known fact that no one in Southern Africa or the African Union wish to rock the boat as democratic movements are known to spread.

But if politicians such as Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation, Søren Pind, and others really mean what they say about paving the way for freedom for the oppressed in Africa and elsewhere, Swaziland is an obvious place to begin. Firstly, the country is actually a middle-income country where an extremely high income inequality is only upheld by a suppressive, autocratic monarchic regime. Create real democratic structures and pro-poor policies and Swaziland should be able to make do with the money that the king and his cronies presently use to live lives in luxury. Secondly, the regime is easily shaken by outside pressure and critique, and  the recognition of the democratic movement will have a profound effect within the country itself.

Links:

Swaziland from a European perspective, Times of Swaziland, 18 September 2010

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