The democratisation of Swaziland: inside or outside job?

swaziland-pudemo-2013-194The small absolute monarchy of Swaziland is best known for its tourism, “unique” culture tied to its monarchy, and the cultural and spending exploits of playboy-king Mswati III, not for its repressive regime and ongoing struggle for democracy.

Swaziland is nominally a middle income country that is seldom condemned by world leaders and rarely mentioned in the international media, even though it is one of the most unequal, poverty-stricken and unfree countries in the world, and even though King Mswati spends millions of dollars on prestige projects and personal jets while his subjects starve.

For this to change, the democratic movement in Swaziland need to present a common and credible alternative to the present regime, and together with the international community start truly pressurising Mswati’s regime.

A modern feudal state
Swaziland was a British protectorate from 1903 to 1968. The colonization of Swaziland was similar to that of other African nations. Hut taxes, cruel treatment of colonial “subjects” and a traditional structure that was kept more or less in place enabled the colonialists to rule Swaziland on the cheap and the Swazi king and his chiefs to run much of the daily administration while increasing their power.

In 1973, after elections that saw the opposition NNLC gain three seats in parliament as opposed to the 21 seats of King Sobhuza’s Imbokodvo National Movement, the king suspended the constitution, proclaimed a state of emergency, banned political parties and began ruling by decree.

The reason given for the dismantling of Swazi democracy was, the King claimed, 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.”

But even though elections are still held every five years in Swaziland, Sobhuza’s son King Mswati III chooses the Prime Minister, the Government and controls Parliament and the Senate through his chiefs. He also controls the courts, Swazi national land and the economy and thus rules more or less as a feudal lord.

Repressed dissatisfaction
Swaziland might have got a new constitution in 2005, which nominally guarantees Swazis freedom of speech and association. But if anyone dares to question the regime, the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) from 2008 (that Amnesty International calls an “inherently repressive act” that defines terrorism in sweeping terms) allows the courts to charge activists with terrorism for trivial matters such as wearing a political t-shirt or shouting a political slogan. Even the Swazi press employ a great deal of self-censorship, especially when reporting about King Mswati.

The Swazi democratic movement has fought for democracy since the king started ruling by decree in 1973. And regardless of the severely decreasing political space since the passing of the STA (Swaziland is one of the least free countries in the world in regard to political rights, on par with countries such as Saudi Arabia and worse than Iraq and Afghanistan, according to independent watchdog organization Freedom House), and a generation gap in the leadership and disagreements within the factions of the movement (not least pro-democracy political parties such as PUDEMO, SWADEPA and the NNLC whose leaders perhaps disagree more on a strategical and personal level than on a political), a growing number of Swazis are seemingly dissatisfied with the current political system.

When a committee visited all Swaziland’s Tinkundla administrative districts in 1991, Swaziland’s “democracy” was given “an overwhelming vote of no confidence by the majority of the people who attended the meetings,” according to author, sociologist and professor at the University of Witwatersrand, Richard Levin.

More recently, a poll from 2015 by independent research institute Afrobarometer showed that only a third of the population saw their political system as being democratic. Another poll from 2016 revealed Swaziland to be one of the countries of the 36 African countries polled that have seen the biggest positive change in favour of democracy in the last 5 years.

Knowing is not acting
Despite an educational system that seems to intentionally use a rigid “banking model” of teaching to keep them docile, where scholarships and land allocation are tied to submissiveness to Mswati’s chiefs, and where a repressive set of values that is sold as “traditional” culture, Swazis are beginning to question Mswati’s absolute rule, and linking their own poverty, misfortune and lack of freedom to Mswati and his regime. This is probably in no small part due to decade-long programmes of civic education in the rural areas.

The problem is, however,  that ordinary Swazis, of which over two thirds live in the rural areas, many as impoverished subsistence farmers, have to think twice before criticizing the king and acting on this criticism.

They have to determine whether the democratic movement is strong enough to take the risk and if the alternative to Mswati’s rule that they represent is realistic or plausible and worth the risk of being charged with terrorism, tortured by police, imprisoned or losing one’s land, job, house or even life, as many activists fighting for democracy in Swaziland have experienced.

Like William Mkhaliphi, an 82-year-old sugar cane farmer, who has been evicted from his land and who suddenly faced threats and several charges of theft after he criticised Mswati to his face at the so-called Sibaya people’s parliament last year. An event that, according to Swaziland’s constitution, is the “highest policy and advisory council” in Swaziland and according to the monarch an important part of what he refers to as “Swazi democracy,” but in effect a futile royal showcase.

Or teacher and veteran PUDEMO activist Mphandlana ‘Victim’ Shongwe, who has been beaten, imprisoned and is still to find employment as a teacher due to his activism. He is, like many other activists, still officially out on bail and has had to report to the police station every Friday since 2006.

Or SWAYOCO President Bheki Dlamini, who was tortured, charged with arson and spent nearly four years in a tiny cell waiting for a trail that acquitted him. Like many other Swazi activists, he has subsequently had to flee Swaziland, due to a speech that he made in 2014.

An unsustainable state
Even though Swaziland is often seen abroad and by tourists, who only see the well-kept roads, game parks and shopping malls, as a peaceful and stable country, such stability is a mirage.

Many casual labourers in Swaziland’s sugar industry earn around 5 dollars a day, unemployment is at 40 percent, a third of the population is undernourished and two thirds of the population survive on less than a dollar a day – many on food aid from the UN.

Swaziland was nearly bankrupt in 2011, where the IMF reported that “the debt dynamic [in Swaziland] is becoming unsustainable,” and where the government barely managed to pay the salaries of its over 30.000 civil servants.

Given that Swaziland has recently lost valuable income from the AGOA trade-deal with the USA, and could lose other similar sources of income, this could easily happen again.

Swaziland, a landlocked and allegedly peaceful country with no external enemies, also spends more on defence and security than on health, in a country with the highest HIV/Aids prevalence in the world.

The silent international community
Neighbouring South Africa is Swaziland most important trading partner with 90 percent of Swaziland’s imports and 60 percent of exports going to and from South Africa. The Swazi currency is also tied to the South African Rand.

It was a combination of a (more or less) united South African movement that was supported by both state and not-state actors outside the country, and a boycott of South African products, sportsmen et al that helped bring about an economic implosion of the white regime that led to the downfall of apartheid.

The problem for Swaziland is that the South African-inspired democratic movement, non-state organisations around the world, and not least the international community, are not putting enough pressure on Mswati’s regime or the companies that help keep it is place. Not least Coca-Cola, whose huge concentration plant in Swaziland contributes about 40 percent of the country’s GDP.

There are many reasons for this relative inaction on the part of the international community, apart from the fact that Swaziland has no real strategic importance and is a small country with limited buying power.

Neighbouring South Africa is led by the Mswati-friendly Jacob Zuma, who is married to one of Mswati’s nieces, and whose party the ANC have investments in Swaziland with Mswati. Even though South Africa is to a large degree an important key to democratisation is Swaziland, the country has been conspicuously silent on Swaziland in recent years, even though the ANC have strong links to PUDEMO and though ANC-tripartite alliance partners SACP and COSATU and local organisations are much more vocal and act-prone in regard to Swaziland.

The Southern African Development Community, which Mswati was appointed chair of in August, is also more or less silent in regard to democratisation in Swaziland.

And by supporting Swaziland through its sugar market, the EU and other countries are in effect propping up Mswati’s regime, although various EU-institutions criticise Swaziland lack of freedom from time to time. EU-demands in regard to democratic reforms to keep its important free trade status for sugar to the EU-market could nevertheless be effective.

In fact Denmark and the UK are the only two countries who are significantly pressurising Mswati’s regime, probably in some part due to the fact that organisations in the two countries (ACTSA and Afrika Kontakt, as well as the Danish trade union movement and political parties the Red-Green Alliance and the Social Democrats) have partner projects in Swaziland and are some of the most vocal in supporting the democratic movement and calling for democratisation and socio-economic justice.

What can the international community do?
Because properly pressuring the Swazi regime does actually seem to work, however slow the process might seem to be and however reluctant to actual change Mswati’s regime is, even when pressured.

When the USA annulled the AGOA free trade agreement with Swaziland in early 2015, because Swaziland would not agree to American demands in regard to repressive legislation such as the Suppression of Terrorism Act, workers’ rights and democratisation, Swaziland started amending its legislation and releasing political prisoners such as PUDEMO President Mario Masuku.

When the European Parliament, Amnesty International and journalists and lawyers from around the world put pressure on the Swazi regime to release human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and magazine Editor Bheki Makhubu, they were eventually released – although only two weeks before they had served their prison terms for criticising the chief justice.

And when the International Labour Organisation (ILO), together with solidarity movements and political parties such as Afrika Kontakt and the Red-Green Alliance, pressurised Swaziland in regard to the banning of the country’s trade union confederation TUCOSWA, the ban was eventually lifted in mid-2015.

Part of the democratic movement, especially PUDEMO, have also suggested that targeted sanctions that restrict the travelling of key members of the Swazi government and the royal family is a way of pressurising, ostracising and eroding the legitimacy of Mswati’s regime that can complement other means of pressure.

Change must be wholesale
But whatever the international community do, pressure for democratic change and a credible set of alternatives (such as implementable policies on concrete matters such as land-, educational and financial policies) to Mswati’s rule have to come primarily from Swazis themselves – also to show the international community that the Swazi democratic movement is serious about democracy and worth supporting.

For such pressure is cyclical, and starts with the democratic movement in Swaziland, whose activism in turn can activate partner organisations and others sympathetic to their cause, who in turn can help pressurise international governments, companies and the Swazi regime itself.

But any true, meaningful and successful opposition to a regime such as Mswati’s, and any true implementation of a democracy after he has acceded to this pressure, will also have to be a personal, educational and cultural revolution for Swazis as well as a political one.

Not least in a country that ranks 155th out of 180 on the World Press Index, where livelihood and education are linked to cultural submission, and where trivial statements are seen as acts of terrorism by an Orwellian terror act.

This paper forms the basis of a presentation, given by Peter Kenworthy at the University of Bergen, Norway, on 12/1-2017.

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