The below article is a shorter version of an opinion piece I wrote with Swazi human rights lawyer Sibusiso Nhlabatsi. The original article was published by the Mail & Guardian in South Africa on November 30.
King Mswati of Swaziland, at the ripe age of 49, is a spring chicken in comparison to his fellow African autocrats. But, like many of his elder colleagues, he shares little concern for the plight of his people and the development of democracy. The king has had since 1986, when he ascended to the throne, to fix a plethora of economic and health problems in his southern African fiefdom. Yet today, Swaziland has one of highest HIV rates in the world and one of the lowest life expectancies.
Recent progress has been made in combatting HIV, it must be said, and it’s a job that requires much more than inspirational and rational leadership. But in the absence of such leadership, progress will remain slow. And despite a few malls being built, a majority of people live in serious poverty. Flashy new malls are great, but if there aren’t enough jobs then people don’t have the money to buy anything.
Unemployment in Swaziland is hovering around 25 percent. Without the sugar industry, which remains relatively strong thanks to purchases from the European Union, unemployment would be much higher. In 2015, the US government removed Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a preferential trade agreement, because the kingdom failed to pass legislation that would allow more free speech and civil protest.
By some accounts, the government’s coffers – in stark contrast to royal coffers – are close to empty. This might not be such a problem if the king was not directly involved in running the country. Mswati sits atop the kingdom’s parliament, judiciary and executive. He handpicks the prime minister and can hire and fire judges. In short, his role is much more than symbolic. His pronouncements directly influence official decisions and his sermons on social policy hold remarkable sway.
So, despite the window dressing (Swaziland does hold elections and a parliament exists) and the soothing rhetorical flourishes (Mswati says his country is a “monarchical democracy”), the landlocked nation of 1.3 million people is far from democratic.
Political parties have been banned since 1973, when Mswati’s dad King Sobhuza II unilaterally repealed the 1968 independence constitution. Opposition to the ruling clique has not been tolerated since.
The former king’s undemocratic thinking still lingers in the minds of many Swazis, particularly those who are scared of the ballot box. That is, the ruling elite and the crusted-on cronies who curry royal favour. These folks, naturally enough, see few problems with a system that benefits them.
That said, many Swazis view their king as a god-like figure, or at least see him as a man chosen by god to lead them. In a deeply Christian nation, this matters. And while the current king may not be overly popular, the institution of the monarchy is deeply revered.
In public, lavish praise is hefted upon Mswati. In private, it’s a different story: many people express displeasure and would prefer a more open country. The trouble is, because dissent is risky, if you criticize too loudly in public you may end up behind bars. Two writers were sent to prison for 15 months in 2014 for daring to expose judicial corruption. This reinforces the self-censorship that people feel in calling for change. To the wealthy leaders – removed as they are from regular people – it may sound like peaceful silence. But this brings to mind a phrase that can be heard in Swaziland: one should not mistake silence for peace.
It’s an ingrained respect for Swazi law and custom – the unwritten and vague rules the monarchy uses to prolong its reign – that keeps most people silent when they might be thinking critical thoughts. But written laws also help. Despite a 2005 constitution that ostensibly protects free speech and human rights, this “supreme law” was designed to entrench the monarchy’s hold on power.
Alongside this, The Suppression of Terrorism Act bans dissenting voices and labels opposition figures as terrorists. Some people have been arrested and jailed for chanting songs or wearing the wrong t-shirt.
Tourist brochures and passing travellers, in a somewhat romantic tone, often refer to Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy. While this is true, less discerning – but no less honest – commentators refer to the country as a “tin-pot dictatorship”.
One such commentator is Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation, a monthly magazine that offers the most truthful rendering of the country’s affairs. Makhubu laments the silence of Swazis on issues of national importance. He notes how Swazis will be loud and opinionated on stories relating to South Africa or other neighbours, but will stay hushed when it comes to their own country.
“[Social media] threads run long and debates sometimes take days while they give their take on what’s going on in that country, yet so much is going on in Swaziland and there is not a whimper,” says Makhubu, one of the writers who spent 15 months in jail in 2014-15.
“Our country is collapsing right in front of our eyes,” he says. “Corruption is so ingrained in our society we have even started to believe it’s normal and that’s how life works. And no-one, absolutely no-one, wants to say anything about it.”
Later next year Swaziland will hold an election. If you’re a betting man, put a few bucks on King Mswati.
The last two elections were criticized by regional and international observer missions. To paraphrase, they said: points for effort but your elections weren’t credible.
Despite such concerns, Swaziland has not taken steps to usher in a more democratic system. In next year’s poll, Swazis can vote for individual members to the House of Assembly. (No-one who runs for office can be affiliated to a political party.) Voters are allowed to select 55 of the 65 members of the House. The remaining 10 are appointed by the king. None of the 30 senators are elected by the people. The king selects 20 senators and the other 10 are appointed by the House of Assembly. The king then picks his prime minister from the House of Assembly, who by custom must have the royal surname Dlamini. (There are a lot of Dlaminis in Swaziland.)
On these points, you can see why many people call the vote a “selection” rather than an election. For this reason, the king keeps a good grip on the country. The oppressive laws which stifle dissent and “Swazi law and custom” which causes self-censorship also aid in maintaining the royal status quo. Moreover, a weak and divided civil society that struggles to find a united voice gives the monarchy too many free kicks. One thing, however, is for sure: the king doesn’t remain on the throne because he’s running a successful administration.
All said, it’s still hard for the outside world to get a clear picture when there’s so much silence emanating from the kingdom. Understandable silence, it must be said. Who wants to go to jail for speaking out? But until the myth of the king is broken, the silence – and his reign – will continue.
Top photo: King Mswati III of Swaziland. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters.