Party for Socialism and Liberation
8 October 2008
Swazis take a stand against king's political repression
By Eugene Puryear
Struggle against monarchy challenges foreign domination
The September parliamentary elections in Swaziland injected new energy into the political struggle against the country’s absolutist monarchy.
The elections—the first since a new constitution was put in place in 2005—have been widely denounced as a sham. Political parties are outlawed and candidates can only run as independents. Banned parties and organizations are engaged in a struggle against the absolutist monarchy and political repression.
Former South African anti-apartheid activist Jack Govender was laid to rest on Oct. 5. He and a Swazi activist died when their car exploded days earlier under a bridge in Swaziland. Around 1,000 people attended the funeral for Govender, a founding member of the Swaziland Solidarity Network.
The monarchy claims they were "terrorist bombers" and has turned the incident into a pretext to strengthen police deployments, but others are skeptical of the official version. "We reject the notion that they killed themselves," said SSN spokesman Lucky Lukhele. "Between them, they had a lot of experience. We demand answers, and we will leave no stone unturned to seek the truth behind their untimely deaths." (The Times, Oct. 5)
Opposition forces point out that the incident only highlights mass dissatisfaction and frustration with a repressive monarchy that suffocates peaceful and legitimate forms of political expression.
Swaziland, with a population of just over 1 million people, is a tiny, mountainous and landlocked country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique. It is one of the last absolute monarchies left on earth, with total power resting in the hands of the royal family. King Mswati III, ruler of the country since 1986, owns 60 percent of the land, with much of the remaining 40 percent controlled by his minions. The royal family plays the leading role in most economic activity.
In sharp contrast to the king’s lavish lifestyle, around 69 percent of the population lives in poverty. Most of those in rural areas are frequently ravaged by natural disaster, which creates widespread hunger. The International Monetary Fund reports that at least 25 percent of the population requires some sort of food assistance.
The majority of Swazis rely on subsistence agriculture to survive. The country has a vigorous sugar export industry, and the export of concentrate used in soft drinks is the country’s main export. King Mswati often travels to Atlanta to meet with top Coca-Cola executives at the company’s headquarters.
Swaziland is a textbook example of neocolonialism. National industry is wholly oriented toward foreign corporations. King Mswati welcomed the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act, claiming it would enrich Swaziland by providing preferential treatment for Swazi products. Instead, with the blessing of the U.S. government, the king opened up the country to corporations from Taiwan. Factories that pay low wages were built, with some workers reportedly making as little as $19 a week.
Those companies market the products in the United States as made in Swaziland. Instead of benefiting the Swazi people, Taiwanese capitalists and U.S. corporations like Wal-Mart make enormous profits off the super-exploitation of the local population.
While foreign corporations reap astronomical profits, little is being done to address the needs of the population. Swaziland has one the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world with 38.6 percent of the population infected. As a result, life expectancy has dropped to 39 years.
The response of the royal family to the crisis has been woefully inadequate. While the first case was documented in 1986, it was not until 1999 that the king declared the epidemic a national emergency. In 2001, he decreed a 5-year period of abstinence for females under the age of 18 as the response to the epidemic that would kill 13,000 people that year.
Swazi people fight back
King Mswati III relies on his own cynical manipulation of "traditional" culture to maintain his rule. This has resulted in acute oppression of Swazi women. The prime minister was quoted by the Inter Press Service News Agency as saying, "Even when women are aggrieved, according to our culture, men have to speak on their behalf."
On Aug. 27, however, around 1,000 Swazi women challenged King Mswati in the capital of Mbabane by protesting the ostentatious lifestyle of the royal family while the average Swazi lives in abject poverty amidst deteriorating social services.
The protest was sparked by an expensive shopping spree in Dubai for the king’s 13 wives. The wives were accompanied by a large retinue and flown in a private jet to the Middle Eastern kingdom to buy items in preparations for the king’s birthday celebration.
Swazi activists highlighted the fact that the trip cost an estimated $4 million, while the average Swazi lives on around 50 cents a day. The protesters marched to the Finance Ministry demanding government action.
On Sept. 3 and 4, anger boiled over again in the largest demonstrations Swaziland has ever seen. Led by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, at least 10,000 people marched in the capital, Mbabane, demanding democratic rights and protesting the upcoming sham elections. Organizers announced a road blockade for Sept. 18—the day before the scheduled elections. In response, the monarchy jailed a number of pro-democracy activists, thwarting the civil disobedience action.
It is absolutely critical that those opposed to imperialism in the United States stand with the Swazi people as they fight foreign oppression. The struggles of small African nations to free themselves from neocolonial bondage are often overlooked. We must do all we can to popularize and support the resistance of the Swazi people in their struggle to pursue development free of reactionary regimes that collaborate with imperialism.