By Ntombenhle Khathwane

On Sunday April 12, Swaziland will be marking the 42nd year since democracy ended after a brief five years through the decree passed by King Sobhuza in 1973 that concentrated power in the monarch and flung Swazis a few centuries back in terms of political and social development, basically back into a feudal state. It is for this reason that I decided to attend an invitation to a workshop on building international and national consensus on Swaziland hosted by the South African liaison office last week to hear from key actors what exactly is the situation in Swaziland.

Like many, I had fallen off the bandwagon advocating for the democratisation of Swaziland, partly because my life got in the way and because there’s no cohesion among the different organisations and leaders fighting for democracy. There’s a contestation for power that does not exist yet, and it completely disables the ability for meaningful pursuit of democracy. However I do care that the people of Swaziland, like that of any country, should have freedom of choice.

It came as no surprise at the workshop that many of the voices representing solidarity from outside Swaziland felt and assumed there was little being done to push for democratisation from within Swaziland or Swazis themselves. This offended many Swazi activists, but even I felt that being at last week’s workshop was like being at the same workshop hosted two years ago, it was as if things were paused then, and hopefully the gathering was about pressing play again.

Off course democracy does not offer any guarantees. There’s no guarantee that democracy will bring economic development, jobs and income equality, or that it will ensure that all state institutions such as hospitals and schools work. In a good democracy, citizens are empowered to be involved in the building and running of the state of their choice, and have the power to do something about it should the state fail. The current state of Swaziland has been unable to reposition and rebuild the economy or evolve with times to permit social and political freedoms and has turned many households that were able to self-subsist into dependent families that rely on the goodwill of government and charities to survive. The state encourages its graduates to look for work in other countries and is reliant on South Africa’s good graces for transferring undeserved amounts through a disproportionate customs union (Sacu) for its budget, importantly, citizens can’t do anything to bring about change, they have no political or social power.

A network of elite men connected to the monarch and its institutions rules Swaziland. The claim of Swaziland being a form of democracy — monarchical democracy as invented by the kings’ men — is a complete farce. At grassroots level there are chiefs that “rule” over villages and they have control over the king’s land. They decide who and how much land a person gets. This is where 70% of the Swazi population resides. There is no freedom of the media, there’s only one radio and television station that is owned by government, therefore by the king. Radio is the best way to reach the 70% living in the chiefdoms. Independent print media exists as long as it doesn’t question government action and definitely not the monarch’s. The court case that has thrown Swaziland into the spotlight recently is that of a magazine editor that dared to publish articles questioning decisions and conduct by the country’s judiciary.

The Swaziland state has survived in this form because the pillars that prop it have not questioned the status quo. The citizens of Swaziland have not done enough to agitate for change and they allow themselves to be bullied to vote in farcical elections, therefore giving this parasitic state legitimacy. And external institutions such as governments and businesses prop the monarch and its institutions economically and that gives the monarch the ability to maintain a stranglehold over the people and the country. Things seem to be changing though in this regard, last year the US removed Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a preferential trade agreement that allowed duty-free shipping of goods manufactured in Swaziland to the US. This has led to the loss of some jobs and will lead to more. The US did this because Swaziland refused to agree to political and social reforms. Reforms similar to those given by the South African government for a loan Swaziland wanted. Swaziland chose not to go for that loan. By sacrificing Agoa and the SA loan at the time, gives indication of the lengths the regime will go to, to retain power.

It is unlikely that Swaziland will have the kind of revolution as experienced in Tunisia and Egypt. Political and social culture does not lend itself to this kind of change. The state has increased its spend on police and military, giving no chance to brave revolutionaries. The best chances of change is if institutions such as governments and regional bodies like SADC, AU and EU start excluding Swaziland if it doesn’t reform, because any benefit directed at Swaziland is actually directed at a small elite linked to the monarchical institutions, not the people of Swaziland. The continued Sacu transfers from South Africa and preferential trade agreements with the EU must be stopped under the current regime, it is just the right thing to do. Supporting a despotic institution that vandalises the rights of its people on a daily basis is just not the right thing to do. The notion that revolution needs to be led from the inside or else we do nothing has no moral merit.

I know many will say that’s not the way things are done, yet no two revolutions are the same. Swazis will say we will do things our way and won’t be dictated to, but truth is Swazis have no space to do anything themselves, they already live under the worst kind of dictator, the kind that makes you think (brainwashed) your freedoms and abilities are not constrained when they are in fact severely constrained.

Ntombenhle Khathwane is an entrepreneur who writes and researches the politics of identity and social justice.


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