Mail and Guardian, South Africa
19 September 2008
Swaziland's political farce
Although Swaziland has had a new Constitution since 2006, the country has failed to shake off its status as one of Africa's remaining undemocratic nations.
King Mswati III, who recently celebrated the 40th independence anniversary of the country and his own 40th birthday, frequently invites fierce criticism from political opposition parties and civil society inside and outside the country.
"If democracy is defined as the right of the people to choose their own government, under an enabling social environment, through an institutionalised multiparty system and periodic secret ballots, any government outside this frame can't claim to be executing the mandate of the governed," says Mario Masuku, the president of the People's United Democratic Movement.
On Friday Swaziland holds its first elections under the new constitutional arrangement, but the fresh political dispensation has done little to improve things on the ground.
The new Constitution has effectively served only to cement Mswati's rule and inhibits the existence of opposition political parties.
The absence of participation of political groups in the election essentially makes the whole exercise a farce and has fuelled talk that the elections should be boycotted and sanctions be imposed against Swaziland.
On August 17 this year a major protest march against Mswati and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was held in Johannesburg to re-enforce calls for sanctions against Swaziland.
The protest was aimed to coincide with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state meeting at which Mswati took over the chair of the SADC organ on politics, defence and security. Many in the opposition and civil society feel that giving the king such an important position is an insult to democracy and to the people of Swaziland.
Another recurring concern has been the extravagant spending of the royal family, especially during the 40-40 celebrations.
More than R100-million was spent, while many Swazis are dying of hunger and hospitals lack basicrequirements for healthcare.
Masuku says: "Issues affecting the electorate, like education, health, social grants, unemployment, cost of living, poverty and so on are hardly debated in the tinkhundla [Swazi] legislature. The performance of government arms and structures cannot be challenged effectively without political parties and opposition; in fact political parties provide the necessary checks and balances of government."
Since 1973 when King Sobhuza II proclaimed that he was taking over all supreme powers, Swazis have done nothing but watch and obey. To a large extent they have been living in fear, making it difficult to ascertain the extent of support for democracy. The voices calling for an open political space have grown in the past few years, with a range of people and organisations agitating for change.
First political parties raised the alarm; they were followed by trade unions, student and youth organisations and now NGOs, social movements and even churches are calling for dialogue.
The formation of organisations such as the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, the National Constitutional Assembly and the Swaziland United Democratic Front bears testimony to this.
"If we are to judge by the fact that there is no political space, but people are now openly making their views known, then it means that the majority of people indeed want an open political space," Masuku says.
On the eve of the 40-40 celebrations labour groups and political groups organised a march that was attended by more than 20 000 people, which effectively brought Swaziland to a halt.
The momentum for change is coming largely from the convergence of interests of political groupings and trade unions, especially over socio-economic issues.
Most realise that the country's problems are rooted in the current political system, especially questions of poor governance and the growing economic crisis.
The changing Zimbabwean political situation has contributed to a push for change, as more Swazis realise that theirs is the only country in the region that is stubbornly refusing to democratise.
Masuku says: "We cannot overlook that our society has become increasingly politicised -- through the media, political marches, NGO programmes and church campaigns for social justice.
"This has generated a momentum that has been building silently underground and it is now beginning to manifest itself openly. More rural people are beginning to realise that there is a problem in the country and they are beginning to participate actively in the activities of different social forces, which further widens the network of broad social awareness."
The opposition's wish list
- Assistance in building its capacity to organise for change;
- For international organisations, including the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to play a pro-active role in facilitating dialogue between the contending forces, to bring about
- For the region and the international community to challenge the Swazi government at international forums about its human rights record;
- To see Swaziland excluded from all international forums until proper process towards democratisation
- For regional and international communities to pronounce openly the current elections as undemocratic because political parties remain banned and the environment is not conducive to free and fair elections; and
- For South African businesses to exert pressure on the king to create a climate of democratic stability that facilitates sustainable investment.
Obstacles to democracy
- There is a low level of political debate and those challenging authority are labelled "unSwazi".
- There is pressure on the media and the judiciary to behave in a manner defined by royalty as "loyal Swazi". These institutions feel particularly threatened when issues arise that are perceived to be a threat to the royal family.
- There is an underperforming civil service because most senior positions are occupied by members of the royal family or its associates. They feel no obligation to deliver because they owe their allegiance to the king.
- The private sector operates to please the royal family, even though this makes no business sense. This has created low economic productivity and a disincentive to invest in the economy and create jobs.
Bongani wakaMsuthu is the pseudonym of a Swazi political analyst