Swaziland: Beyond Royal Rule and Naked Reed Dances
Swaziland: Beyond Royal Rule and Naked Reed Dances
Op-Ed / Africa 10 minutes

Swaziland: Beyond Royal Rule and Naked Reed Dances

On Monday, Swaziland's iron-fisted king threw himself another grand birthday party, and celebrated 20 years of his rule - although he was born on April 19.

Unimpressed multi-party activists continue to light fire under the throne of King Mswati III - well-known for his fleet of luxurious cars, lavish spending, and his 13 wives, picked in the thrill of the annual Reed Dance (Umhlanga).

A new constitution Mswati unveiled on February 8 grants limited freedoms, and although he has said restrictions on parties have ended, it remains vague on the right to form political parties.

Hopes were high that the new constitution would remove all the vestiges of the 1973 royal decree by Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II, which outlawed political parties, suspended basic freedoms, and entrenched royal absolutism. Instead it left the monarchy intact, and intensified political tension.

The constitution took 10 years (1996-2006) to develop and cost the tiny Southern Africa kingdom over US$16.5 million. Mswati, 38, applauded the new constitution as a dawn of a "new political dispensation that is fully founded on our culture and traditions." But opponents accuse the ruling Dlamini clan of consistently playing the tradition card to defend its stranglehold on power.

Since the 1800s, Swazi Kings (iNgwenyamas) have exclusively ruled the 1.1 million inhabitants of this mountainous kingdom, covering an area of 17,363 square kilometres or four times smaller than Lake Victoria.

Bare-knuckled tyrants

Pre-colonial Swazi kings may not have been democrats, but neither were they bare-knuckled tyrants nor absolute monarchs of the medieval European mould. "They [kings] ruled like the 'people's mouthpiece' or the 'mouth that tells no lie," writes the Swazi political scientist, Joshua Mzizi.

However, the Swazi monarch was shorn of its gentle and benign hue during British colonial (1903-1968) rule. The king was turned into a paramount chief in the archetypal British "indirect-rule" system. The axis of power also radically shifted from the king's accountability to his Swazi people to one of patronage secured on the royal family's ultimate authority over land allocation-now retained under the Swazi Nation Lands (SNL).

The present monarchy therefore combines the worst excesses of colonial authoritarian government, with a thin veneer of traditional customs.

Mswati's father, Sobhuza II, failed to sway the British to grant Swaziland independence on the basis of a purely monarchical system. So at independence in September 1968, the king caved in and agreed to a constitutional monarchy based on a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister and multi-party politics.

Sobhuza's royalist party, the Imbkodvo National Movement (INM), held all 24 seats in parliament. Despite this, he issued the infamous 1973 royal decree that imposed royal absolutism, nipped Swaziland's nascent opposition, and cut short the kingdom's democratic experience. The decree gave the king "supreme powers," suspended basic freedoms and banned political opposition parties as "alien and incompatible" with the Swazi way of life. Swaziland's out-and-out royal power has all the trappings of the pariah one-party or no-party military systems that stalked Cold War Africa.

Mswati - one of 600 children of King Sobhuza II by his 100 queens-ascended to the throne in 1986, as the second wave of democratisation was beginning to sweep the continent. The king appointed a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), chaired by his brother, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, in the wake of a series of strikes by the Swazi Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), popular anti-government protests, and fire bombs by unknown arsonists.

But the Mangaliso report blocked an early return to a constitutional order, claiming that the people were content with the status quo-a no-party state and royal supremacy. An incensed civil society rejected the report, and ratcheted up pressure for democratic reforms. Capitulating to pressure from within and from regional leaders, in 2002 Mswati established yet another Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), chaired by his brother, Prince David Dlamini.

Marry unwilling brides

He eventually ratified the 164-page constitution on June 26, 2005. The one area where it breaks new ground is in its respect for the rights of women. "Women have the right to equal treatment with men, including equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities," it declares. The government also promises to "provide facilities and opportunities necessary to enhance the welfare of women to enable them realise their full potential and advancement."

But delivery on the gender promissory note has become a tall order. The rights of Swazi women are often extinguished in the domain of traditional law, which still groups women together with minors. Absence of curbs on the king's right to use the tradition to marry unwilling brides might continue to trigger discontent.

The as yet unresolved case of Zena Soraya Mahlangu, abducted from school on October 9, 2002 by the king's emissaries to become his tenth wife, remains a stain on the monarchy's reputation. Her mother's cry for justice and attempts to seek Zena's freedom under common law were fruitless. She sadly learned that the king has authority to traditionally select his wives - irrespective of their age and will - at his pleasure.

The constitution left the monarchy's hereditary powers intact. The king is still above the law, and not accountable to his subjects. Besides his tight control over the security forces- including the military, the police and prison services-he retains a firm grip over parliament, whose role is no more than advisory and a royal rubber stamp. The monarch also keeps much of his overarching powers over the judiciary, and the right to select the prime minister, the cabinet, and chiefs.

It also avoided the litmus test of the popular vote - such as through a referendum as happened last year in DR Congo and Burundi (where the draft won overwhelming approval) and Kenya (where it was resoundingly rejected) - which would have given it the ultimate seal of legitimacy. "The constitution is in force, but it is not democratic or derived from the people," argues Mario Masuku, the President of the outlawed People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

Perhaps its greatest weakness is the failure to clearly revoke the 1973 decree and to legalise opposition parties. "The constitution's vagueness on the issue of political parties can be read as an attempt to undermine any move to allow democracy to take root in the country," said Dr Khabele Matlosa, Director of Research at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.

Royalists are treading a familiar path beaten by an earlier crop of apologists of one-party despotism. They are insisting that Swaziland is not ripe for political pluralism. "Time is not right for the return of political parties," Prince Mangaliso argues, insisting that only individuals can run for parliament. This argument echoes Yoweri Museveni's cynical "no party state" thesis, which Uganda's president used to rationalise his National Resistance Movement's over-two-decades-long monopoly on power. Museveni reluctantly restored Uganda's political pluralism in late 2005.

The King is all we have

Others fear a deluge after the monarchy. "We tried political parties soon after independence, but from the look of things, it did not work for us," said government spokesman Tercy Simelane. "[The multi-party system] divided families in a very small country, and the nation decided it was not our way of life," he adds.

This royalist line is quickly finding favour with some of the king's subjects: "Why do these people want to overthrow the king? He is all we have. Swaziland is a kingdom country. If we get a president like other countries then there will be wars," said a resident of the capital, Mbabane.

If political tensions boil over, there will be high price to pay. Swaziland is fast becoming a security risk to its Southern African neighbours. "People are very angry. If they continue to be harassed, and their political rights denied, as is the case, we will end up reaching the road of an armed struggle," said one activist. "If the king doesn't open up the debate, then people may resort to this kind of violence," said PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku.

The Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) has already declared it would take up arms to protest repression. "The government does not possess a monopoly on violence. We will fight fire with fire," Sandile Phakathi, the organisation's Information Secretary warned. Since the constitution was ratified in June last year, 20 fire-bombs have killed several people and destroyed property.

Mario Masuku denies his party's involvement but stops short of condemning the use of violence and vowing to step up the campaign against the king. "The king will try to silence the opposition, to try and tighten the knot around us but we will continue to make things very difficult for the state," said Masuku.

Others players are pushing for political pluralism through the courts. Swaziland's oldest political party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), has sought registration. Swazi Law Society President, Paul Shilubane, has also gone to the High Court in Mbabane to establish whether the 1973 decree has ceased to exist. Deadlock in the lawful channels might play into the hands of opposition hardliners.

The opposition, meanwhile, is often its worst enemy. Some within its ranks are shooting themselves in the foot by calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Swaziland's homogenous society has spared its people from Africa's festering internal wars along ethnic fault lines, which have ravaged such countries as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Congo. It has also instilled cultural pride, including a great deal of love and loyalty to the monarchy.

But the Swazi are neither docile nor averse to democracy. The opposition need to play a more tactically sound game. They must recognise that, like the British, the Dutch or the Japanese monarchies, Swaziland's royalty is an important fact of its history and culture. It might do better by centring its campaign around limiting the king's absolute powers, and pushing for a constitutional monarchy that respects basic freedoms and abides by international norms.

The king's response to the challenge has been to turn bellicose, moving his big guns to head off the simmering revolt. He has wielded the Umbutfo, the Swazi Defence Force that Sobhuza II created from fervently loyal youths, to scuttle mounting opposition. Umbufto regiments are now on high alert, carrying out urban patrols and police roadblocks on all major highways to nab critics. In January 2006, they arrested 16 members of PUDEMO, charging them with high treason and sedition. There are also reports of torture, coerced confessions and deaths in detention, forcing opposition activists to flee to exile in South Africa.

Culture and tradition are becoming the monarchy's ultimate weapon of tightening its grip on power. The king is using the old to stifle the new. "Mswati is cynically manipulating Swazi history, culture and traditions to yoke rather than to free his people," says Chris Maroleng, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies. But this is a risky gamble that he is unlikely to win in the long-term. "The monarch should shift tradition from being an ideology of domination to one of a shared value system," argues Joshua Mzizi.

Slide to the brink

Swaziland's royalists have to quickly realise that the kingdom's return to constitutional monarchy and genuine multi-party democracy is the best guarantee for its lasting stability and the future of the monarchy - and many a Reed Dance ceremony. Political parties are part of the equation.

Swaziland's slide to the brink is triggering a meltdown of its donor-reliant economy. A spendthrift monarchy and a strengthening South African rand are pushing the economy to the ropes.

Finance Minister Majozi Sithole admits that as a result of regional dynamics, including an overbearingly strong rand, the economy slowed down to 2.1 per cent in 2004 from 2.6 per cent recorded in 2003 - and it's still plunging.

In addition, cheap Chinese products are choking Swaziland's textile and sugar industries, leading to loss of incomes and jobs and increasingly making farmers and workers restive.

More than 10,000 Swazis lost their jobs last year and 30,000 more jobs are at risk. Between 30 and 40 per cent are jobless; more than one third are fed by external food donors; 66 per cent live below the poverty line and life expectancy has plunged from 54 to 35 years in less than a decade. The prevalence of HIV/Aids in Swaziland's adult population is 42.6 per cent, the highest in the world, but, to its credit, the government is taking drastic measures to reverse the situation.

Neighbours are shying away from taking a bold stance on Swaziland's governance deficit. South Africa's former President Nelson Mandela declared when launching his "moral presidency" in 1994 that: "Human rights are the cornerstone of our foreign policy". However, even as it provides 80 per cent of the kingdom's imports and absorbs 60 per cent of its exports - mainly sugar, wood pulp and minerals - South Africa is unwilling to use its muscle to nudge its neighbour to embrace change. The country's nationalists still carry a burden of debt to Swaziland, which provided them with a safe passage into exile .

Mbeki's quiet diplomacy

President Thabo Mbeki's soft line - derided by the local media as "quiet diplomacy"- is encouraging the king's headstrong response to democracy activists. Inversely, the Swazi elite is shrewdly playing on the yet unresolved dispute over the KaNgwane, Ngavuma and Nsikazi territories in South Africa's Mpumalanga province to win moral and diplomatic scores against its heavyweight neighbour, and to fend off any pressure for democratic governance.

The Swaziland-South Africa wrangle over the border goes back to 1989 when the apartheid regime promised to transfer KaNgwane "homeland" to Swaziland as a reward to King Sobhuza II for his secret deal allowing its agents to raid and assassinate ANC cadres in the 1980s, but the regime fell before it did it. Although Pretoria has rejected the Swazi claim, arguing that this would violate the African Union's policy on respecting borders inherited from colonial times, the tussle has significantly weakened its hand as a disinterested broker of Swaziland's impasse.

Other members of the international community have been too willing to buy the royalists' line that change in Swaziland must come very slowly. The Commonwealth seconded two experts to assist with drafting the new constitution. Its Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, described the new constitution as "a first but vital step" towards democracy.

But it would be risky for regional leaders and the international community to bury their heads in the sand. If they don't act in concert, and fast, when they finally do they will find themselves too late to prevent Swaziland's low-level rebellion from blowing up into a dangerous conflict.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.