The reason for the lack of democracy in the tiny absolute monarchy of Swaziland is an authoritarian reinvention of tradition, and a lack of both internal and external pressure on the regime, writes Swazi activist Bheki Dlamini.
If you are looking for books on political solutions in Swaziland in your local or university library, or in bookstores or on Amazon, you won’t find much to enlighten you.
A young Swazi activist and student of Public Administration at the University of Bergen, President of the Swaziland Youth Congress Bheki Dlamini, has tried to fill this void by writing his Master’s Thesis about “Democratization in Swaziland.”
“When doing the research for this thesis, I realized the huge void that exists in the literature about the political situation in Swaziland. Most of the writings about the political situation in Swaziland have focused on the domestic actors,” Dlamini tells me.
“My motivation was based on the ultimate legitimacy and support that the Swazi regime has received internationally, even from those external actors (USA, EU, SADC, AU) who claim to pursue democracy and human rights beyond their own borders, because I understood that the Swazi struggle cannot be isolated from the regional, continental and global trends.”
Failed to democratize
Amongst other things, the thesis focuses on the failure of Swaziland to democratize, while its neighbours, with their one-party states and others non-democratic systems, did so in the early nineties.
Unlike other African countries, whose regimes are or were based on one-party authority, military rule, or religion, Swaziland is an absolute monarchy.
Many other countries in Africa and elsewhere repealed their independence constitution and established an absolute and centralized power, Dlamini argues. The main difference was that Swaziland banned all political parties, centralized and based its regime around culture and tradition, and failed to subsequently democratize.
The thesis also focuses on the role of external and internal forces in ensuring that Swaziland will become a democracy in the future – according to Dlamini, because especially the study of the external dimension of regime transition in regard to Swaziland has been neglected.
This fact is important in properly diagnosing the struggle for democratic change in Swaziland, Dlamini writes. Because the present understanding leads those who wish to understand or help the democratic movement in Swaziland to emphasize the weakness of this movement, and not the lack of international support, in explaining why Swaziland has failed to democratize.
Divide and rule
British colonialist and settlers changed the social and political fabric of Swazi society, with an apartheid-like rural-urban divide, a land-partition that kept most of the arable land in the hands of British settlers, and a two-tier governance model. They thereby enabled the Swazi monarchy to create a royal supremacy “that is at the centre of the undemocratic nature of the regime,” Dlamini emphasises.
This was a traditional system, based on a “superficial culture carefully created by both colonialism and King Sobhuza [father of the present king Mswati], as a form of political control and for capital accumulation,” in a more classic “divide and rule”-strategy, which was employed throughout much of Africa.
“The shortage of land, because of the 1907 Land Appropriation Act, meant that land became a scarce resource,” says Dlamini. Suddenly, chiefs, who were previously judged on whether they could distribute land fairly and abundantly, realised that control over land allocation meant power.
“The alliance between traditional leaders and the colonial administration left the masses helpless, as they were now exploited by both the traditional leaders and the white settlers. This situation has not changed.”
An absolute monarchy
Today, King Mswati controls Swazi society. He appoints the Prime Minister, the government, ten MP’s and most of the senate, the Chief Justice and judges, and members of the Public Service Commission, who are responsible for recruiting civil servants. And he controls over half of Swaziland’s economy, which is based to a large extent on Swaziland’s lucrative sugar industry and mineral rights.
This he does, Dlamini points out, through the Tibiyo taka Ngwane fund, which was established to buy back land for resettlement of ordinary Swazi’s, in trust for the Swazi people. It is currently being used by the King on prestige projects, in partnership with foreign companies, and to finance his extravagant life style, however.
And there is seemingly no united opposition to challenge his rule.
Political parties are banned and divided amongst themselves, and most of the middle class in Swaziland, including some members of the democratic forces and trade union movement, “rely on the state or political networks to maintain its privilege,” and is thus “compromised by its proximity to the regime,” according to Dlamini.
Swazi’s living in the rural areas amount to about two thirds of the population, who are mostly subsistence farmers struggling to survive. They are controlled by a system that amongst other things enables chiefs, who act on behalf of the king, to evict them from their land if they cause any trouble.
Foreign friends and foes
But the fact that King Mswati pretty much runs Swaziland as a 17th century feudal manor is not only due to matters internal to Swaziland, or colonial issues from 50 years ago or more, Bheki Dlamini insists in his thesis.
“The regime is partly reproduced by the support it receives from the external actors, politically and financially. The proliferation of foreign capital into the country, and their dealings with Tibiyo and the king, helps in the reproduction of the regime,” Dlamini writes.
He names several external actors as being particularly important, and able to influence Swaziland’s stagnant democratisation process.
85 percent of Swaziland’s imports and 60 percent of its exports come from neighbouring South Africa, whose ruling party have historical economic interests in Swaziland, including a partnership with Mswati in the mining industry. The ANC government may be supportive of democracy in Swaziland, and pass resolutions to this extent, but “has not done anything to pressurize Swaziland.”
The Southern African Customs Union, which Swaziland has relied on since independence in 1968, for a large part of its revenues, the Southern African Development Community, which Mswati chaired last year, and the African Union have not done much to pressurize the regime either.
The EU, one of Swaziland biggest trading partners, “has publically condemned the authoritarian regime in Swaziland” but this ”does not transcend into action” through e.g. demands that Swaziland live up to the dictates of the Cotonou Trade Agreement with the EU, that includes matters of human rights observance and good governance.
“Our task is to engage, ‘put pressure’ is not the right word … I believe in constructive engagement from all levels … in order to promote dialogue on democracy … the Swazi people should not think that the EU is here to solve their problems,” as the EU ambassador – interviewed by Dlamini – put it.
The UK, Swaziland’s former colonial power, “is not doing much in Swaziland since it closed its High Commission office in 2005 … for economic reasons.”
Besides trying to broker negotiations between the democratic movement and Mswati, the Commonwealth, of which Swaziland is a member, “has done nothing to promote democracy in Swaziland.
The USA, a big donor and trade partner, has condemned Swaziland’s lack of democracy and poor human rights record and actually acted on this in removing Swaziland from the list of beneficiaries of the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2015 for human “rights abuses.” The USA has also supported arrested pro-democracy activists.
Observer mission reports from the African Union, EU and the Commonwealth have declared Swazi elections not free and fair, unlike SADC.
Walk the walk
But the fact that Swaziland’s trade partners and other external actors may play a positive role in the democratisation of Swaziland by pressurising Mswati’s regime through trade and aid is clear, just look at Malawi and Zambia in the early 1990s, and Swaziland to a degree 20-odd years later, says Dlamini.
“The wave of protests in 2011 and 2012 in Swaziland [calling for democratic change] was a direct response to the reduction of government revenue coming from SACU … and only last year, Swaziland lost preferential trade (through AGOA) with the USA for failure to respect human rights.”
Swaziland subsequently unbanned trade union federation TUCOSWA, is now looking into amending one of the main offending laws in regard to AGOA, the Suppression of Terrorism Act – an act that Amnesty International has called “inherently repressive.”
“Political pressure would compel the regime to consider democratisation,” especially if the international community focused more squarely on the critical questions of unbanning political parties and multi-party democracy, although the external actors need to coordinate their actions better, to be effective, says Bheki Dlamini.
For this political pressure to materialise, solidarity movements around the world will have to pressurize governments and companies that prop up Mswati’s regime, as well as mobilise financial resources for the democratic movement in Swaziland.
Like solidarity organisations Afrika Kontakt in ACTSA, who support civic education and advocacy work in Swaziland, or the Danish International Development Agency, who support political parties PUDEMO and SWADEPA.
Democracy begins at home
Because however much external forces can and may help democratise Swaziland, the main push must come from Swaziland’s democratic movement and mass mobilisation.
“Democracy cannot be embedded without the democratic forces growing strong inside the country. External forces cannot create these forces where they do not exist. Democracy cannot be imported from abroad, but the internal actors need solidarity from the external in pursuit of democracy,” as Dlamini writes.
And here, Bheki Dlamini – who has himself been tortured, imprisoned and exiled by the regime for his role in Swaziland’s democratic movement – has a message for his colleagues and comrades in Swaziland’s democratic movement: stop the disunity, infights and antagonism, and bring people in the rural areas on board, if you want to defeat the regime and bring about democracy.
“Presently, the democratic forces and divided amongst themselves. Their power base is mainly in the urban areas, and they are weak in the rural areas where the great majority of the people reside. The rural people take the brunt of the repression and exploitation of the regime. It is therefore central to mobilize these magnitudes if the building of democracy from below is to be realized.”