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In Swaziland, a mobilized ``civil society'' seems to be a powerful actor. In Swaziland, even a realized ``liberal democracy'' would be considered a clear step forward from the unapologetically autocratic monarchical system in place there presently. But Michael Stephen does wax somewhat nostalgic for certain features of the quasi-traditional political structure now under so much popular pressure in Swaziland. (jbv)

vol 12 no 3

Swaziland: II - Of Kings and Compromises
Michael Stephen

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 3, June 1997
Page 9



Michael Stephen is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Staffordshire University, Stoke on Trent.

King Mswati III not only inherited one of Africa's last surviving kingdoms from his father Sobhuza II, Africa's longest ruling monarch, but also Sobhuza's ideology of reconstructed traditionalism commonly referred to within the kingdom as the "Swazi Way." What Mswati did not inherit from his father on acceding to kingship in 1986 was Sobhuza's charisma which had allowed him to become a virtual autocrat. Charisma came to Sobhuza over a lifetime of struggle: first to re-establish the Swazi kingship after a twenty year inter-regnum; then to build a Swazi land community in the colonial period by winning back alienated land and reasserting chiefly authority over it and its occupants; and finally by building the Swazi state and nation after independence by continuing to develop a "Swazi Way" in the face of necessary modernization within the kingdom and increasing instability and violence without. Sobhuza came to be perceived by the majority of his subjects as King - father of the nation and its independence, spiritual and ceremonial leader, representative of a heroic line of ancestors and communicator with them, and, in a real Weberian sense, one who embodied "the gift of grace."

Sobhuza intended that his reconstructed traditionalism and charismatic authority would control the forces of economic and social modernization set in motion from the 1950s by the British colonial authority . In particular, the King and his advisors (the "Central Authority," as they were to be known collectively) struggled, with some success, to retain control over Swazi Nation Land and regain the country's mineral rights after independence. The contemporary power of the Central Authority was to be built on this substructure by expanding control over the right of access to land and its use by the nation. Swazi national rights to land were made part of a web of rights and obligations between king and subject, serving as the basis of both citizenship and a form of mutual dependence. At the same time, the Swazi Central Authority, through its investment vehicle, Tibiyo, became the fulcrum of the new elite by building up a significant stake in the total portfolio of capital in Swaziland through the judicious exploitation of joint ventures with foreign investors, this in turn based on the Authority's monopolization of mineral and property rights and control over their transference.


With independence in 1968, Swaziland was obliged to accept a Westminster constitution which, in that first unsuccessful wave of imposed African democratization, was to introduce "alien" concepts of plurality and competition to leadership, politics and civil society. Sobhuza abrogated it in 1973 and imposed the tinkhundla system (or Central Authority conception of Swazi democracy) in 1978, which, with only small tinkerings since, is the system that has survived to be challenged today. This "no party" system allows the Central Authority the means to screen potential candidates for parliament and to nominate not only a proportion of the members of both houses but also the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Opposition organizations and political parties are prohibited and sixty-day detention is employed from time to time to quell dissidence in the labour movement, press and student circles.

As noted, Sobhuza's apparent objective was less to deploy "traditionalism" as a barrier to rural modernization, economic liberalism and democratization than to adapt these European concepts to some perceived "Swazi Way" and to construct appropriate institutions to control the process of change. It was also his clear intention to engineer these institutional guarantees of gradual change in such a way as to guarantee the succession beyond his death. It also bears noting that the use of power by the Central Authority in the time of Sobhuza was not characterized by any dramatic use of state violence - although the authority of the system was challenged, albeit quite discreetly, by certain chiefs during Sobhuza's reign and also, briefly and unsuccessfully, by a fledgling trade union movement (prior to its suppression and demise).

However, during the four year inter-regnum between the death of Sobhuza and the accelerated accession of Mswati, the Central Authority degenerated into a faction-ridden, visibly corrupt and self-interested cabal. A series of events served to bring the political and economic elite, their system and its institutions into disrepute: accusations and counter-accusations, a palace coup by one faction against another, flights into exile, imprisonment of competing elements of the nation's elite - all relatively freely reported by The Times of Swaziland, as it happens, but vehemently denied by the Central Authority-controlled Swazi Observer. Political and material corruption had been obscured by the belief in Sobhuza's charisma: without him knowledge of such corruption now rose to the forefront of the public domain. Anti-government leaflets circulated, unions began to reassert their potential, and photographs of riot police clubbing bleeding students featured on the newspapers' front pages during the inter-regnum. Sobhuza's elaborate constructions were tested and, in the absence of a king, found deficient in their capacity to prevent abuses of power and divisive disputes (even though the Central Authority did include a named regent and Queen Mother during this period) For Sobhuza's system of institutions had depended to a high degree for its survival (and for its supportive power base in the community) on the personal integrity of those it empowered and also on their continued commitment to the land community and the system's associated ideology of mutuality.

Under Mswati

Under Mswati, several features indicated the continuing strength of Sobhuza's system of government: the generally accepted reassertion of kingship, for example, and the legitimacy of both the "tinkhundla" political and electoral process and the dominant "Tibiyo" in the economy among the majority of rural, conservative and/or politically neutral Swazi. And yet Mswati and his purged Central Authority were also confronted by challenges. In the time of Sobhuza, opposition had been coopted, pushed into exile or had withered away. For example, the leadership of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, which predated independence, went into exile before returning in retirement. The Ngwane Socialist Revolutionary Party, founded in 1978, became dormant in the 1980s. By 1993, however, elements of both were to resurface in the semi-clandestine politics of opposition, alongside several new groupings. And there were other traditions of dissent as well: in 1982 the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), then no more than a few students and former students radicalized by contact with and support for the ANC, had began to circulate crude anti-government propaganda calling for revolt and revolution. And the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYCO), equally obscure, travelled the same path within two years. Such groupings shared a pointed hostility to the form of "traditionalist" electoral process which, they argued, had been created to maintain a monarchist male gerontocracy and they demanded effective reform. Nonetheless, by 1995 Swaziland stood, exceptionally in the southern Africa region, as the only state not to have instituted pluralism and multi-party elections.

True, the Swazi political system has seen some changes following the accession of Mswati, but they were not substantive and while the rural majority remain apparently quiescent, the much publicized but inadequate reforms have failed to satisfy the growing urban population, which views itself as more sophisticated. In his first years, Mswati was at a severe disadvantage due to his palpable lack of experience: he was eighteen when he took his title and twenty one when he claimed full royal powers. As a result his policy has veered from reformist to conservative, as he takes his advice from among his "elders," a group dominated by conservatives of the Sobhuza era (although lacking the latter's vision and pragmatism).

An early change was the appointment as Prime Minister of Obed Dlamini, an educated former trade union leader perceived as a competent administrator with some distance between himself as the King and likely to enjoy the respect of the growing, and now restive, trade union movement. He was a reformist and was also unwilling to repress the illegal but semi-overt activities of the increasingly vocal opposition movement that was evolving. Lack of support from the Prime Minister did not act as a restraint on the police, however, who used extreme violence to suppress a 1990 student demonstration in support of democratic measures (the university was closed in November of that year). This police activity hardened anti-government resolve, while at the same time the position of the Prime Minister antagonized the royalists who enjoyed the King's ear. And it this group's brand of reactionary conservatism that was to prevail especially in the period following the 1993 election.

Hostility to change

Thus the members of the Central Authority have remained hostile to virtually all change - influenced in part by the manner in which the Zulu King Zwelithini and his retainers were constrained and then divested of all power by the manoeuvres of the initially `traditionalist' and loyal Inkatha party led by the machiavellian Buthelezi. This lesson in the dangers of allowing political reform and accepting pluralism in any form was further demonstrated, it was felt, by the removal of Lesotho's King Moshoeshoe from power and the reduction of the office of kingship itself. Indeed, Mosheshoe's premature but, in the eyes of most observers, accidental death after his return to Lesotho only added fuel to the introverted speculations of the Swazi palace clique as to what might result from any change!

True, a consultation exercise, proposed by the government and sponsored by the Central Authority, had been launched in the period before the 1993 election to ascertain the nature of the political change demanded by the reformists, the degree of support nation-wide for change, and just what kinds of modifications of the system the monarchists would deem acceptable in order to preserve the peace. The result was modest: the insertion of a secret ballot of limited significance into the existing three stage tinkhundla electoral process. The first stage of imposed candidates and their approval by public acclaim, and the final stage in which Central Authority continued to nominate members to both houses were to be retained, while the middle stage, election of actual members of parliament by an electoral college, was to be conducted by secret ballot. But in the 1993 parliamentary election itself, the first to implement the new dispensation, all the nominated members, including the Prime Minister Prince Jameson Mbilini Dlamini and his cabinet members, were monarchists, entirely negating any reformist tendency arising from the secret ballot.

Using the same system, Central Authority pressed on with such marginally reformed electoral procedures to conduct regional and local council elections in 1994 and town elections in 1995 - the Central Authority thereby continuing to retain more or less total control over the adjusted process of "Swazi democracy." But there has also been a growing realization of the need for further adjustment. During the election campaign, for example, some forty persons were detained and tried under the country's occasionally implemented legislation prohibiting political activity and organization. The fact that all were released within a short time did not compensate for the poor light in which Swazi politics were presented in the outside world. International media condemnation was exacerbated by the by-now customary brutality on the part of the Royal Swazi Police when apprehending detainees and subsequently interrogating them and this did have the positive result of putting some pressure on the government for improved observation of human rights and further reform. Still, despite the fact that the King soon announced another initiative, this time in the form of a Constitutional Review Commission to draft a new constitution for presentation in two years, half that time period has elapsed and there is little evidence of any progress.

More important to Mswati's attempt to firm up his rule has been his turning to an old project of Sobhuza's as a focus for national unity and mobilization, the claim for lands alienated along its border with South Africa during the early colonial years: in 1993, and again in 1996, Mswati has reiterated the demand for the return of these lands from South Africa. This is an old and thorny subject. Not all Swazi in Swaziland or all Swazi living inside South Africa in the alienated lands (formerly the bantustan of KaNgwane and the Ingwavuma district in KwaZulu), wish to see a reincorporation. The current South African government also has little enthusiasm for the claim, although President Mandela has suggested setting up an investigative commission.

Moreover, within Swaziland itself a rather different land issue - one that is much more ambiguous in its implications for the Central Authority - has recently come to the fore. Thus, Dr. Malangeni Simelane, an academic of the University of Swaziland, has opened a new debate within Swazi society concerning the claimed need for increased private tenure of agricultural land and the privatizing of non-commercially utilized nation land. His research presents the demands of a growing sector of the Swazi rural population and at the same time has potential to the social and economic foundation of Central Authority's power base - the rural population and its right to hold Swazi Nation Land held in trust for the nation by the King. This land issue is one that has been growing in the literature of development "experts" for some years but is now out in the open as a further arena of contestation within the general Swazi political constituency.

A contested present

Swaziland has lost its comparative economic advantages within the region. Southern Africa is at peace and therefore Swaziland has lost much of distinction and attraction as "the peaceful Kingdom." The end of apartheid and the new political dispensation in both South Africa and Mozambique have led to a relocation of some commercial enterprises. Thus, Swaziland has lost many of its comparative advantages, just as growth has begun to be negatively by such additional forces as economic recession in South Africa and local drought. Nor is Swaziland any longer the site of a "tame" labour-force either, as illustrated by the increasing labour unrest provoked by both political and bread and butter issues. Indeed, Central Authority resistance to political and economic reform and ensuing confrontation with increasingly organized labour are creating what might be termed an image problem with potential investors from outside.

In 1996 the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions struck for over a week in support of twenty-seven demands for political change, including such fundamentals as the ending of a twenty-three year old "state of emergency" by which Central Authority represses opposition. Three of the trade union leaders were detained under its provisions during the strike. As is also true of the actions of the opposition groups or parties, the strike was not against the monarch itself but for the introduction of democratic measures and opposed to the dominant and anti-democratic role of the secretive Central Authority. The response of the latter was to threaten to call out the traditional spear- and club-wielding regiments to put down the strikers. The police, too, performed their usual odious role during the strike, killing a school girl and a striker. Parliament was divided over the demands but as in the past was thus again revealed to be powerless. Nor were the demands met - although it is true that many of them should fall within the brief of the current constitutional commission.

This year, too, manifestations in support of democratization persist while support grows for democratic change in Swaziland - with support, importantly, from within the South African labour movement and political establishment as well - all combining to increase pressure for such change. [For more information on the growing Swazi resistance movement see also the accompanying article, in this issue, by Jacqui Salmond.] So far no change is evident. The Central Authority has showered abuse on the various South African structures who have attempted to mediate or advise, from the trade unionists to the President, and it continues to manipulate government, exert considerable leverage over the formal economy, resist change in the rural areas, and restrict freedom of speech, association, political activity and publication. And it continues to intimidate and detain would-be political activists, trade unionists and journalists, the police and the prison service brutalizing political and criminal detainees with impunity and as a matter of routine.

* * *

In sum, there is a great need for change in Swaziland, in terms both of the guaranteeing of human rights and of democratization. Given past history, the current constitutional commission is not unlikely to propose adequate reform. If King Mswati wishes to enter the next millennium in office, it is almost past time for him to take fresh account of his situation. Yet at this moment he probably could look to survive as the constitutional monarch with greatly reduced economic and political powers in a reconstituted democratic state. The office of the kingship remains generally popular and, in spite of some of his more outrageously negative public expressions concerning reform, King Mswati himself remains an attractive possible titular head of state to many Swazi. Whether he, or anyone else within the Swazi establishment, has the will and imagination to oversee such a peaceful transition remains to be seen.

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