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Southern Africa Report Archive

Larry Swatuk's "tales of two kingdoms" (Lesotho and Swaziland) - where electoral proceedings have been more or less swallowed up in the negative fall-out from other political realities in these countries - make sobering reading. This article deals with Swaziland. (jbv)

vol 10 no 4

Troubled monarchy, troubled country: Swaziland
Larry Swatuk

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 4, May 1995
Page 14
"Southern Africa"



In Swaziland, King Mswati III faces a growing challenge to monarchical rule. According to Thulani Mthethwa, "Swaziland's ill political system can be described as a volcano whose eruption is imminent." In an effort to head off demands for multi-party democracy, elections were held in September and October 1993. Party political activity has been banned since 1973 when, in the wake of the country's first democratic elections (wherein the monarchy's political party, Imbokodvo National Movement, lost only one seat), the late King Sobhuza II suspended the constitution and declared a state of emergency.

Though the monarchy has continued to rule with an iron fist, underground political movements have arisen to challenge what they see as the arbitrary and undemocratic nature of government in Swaziland. Following the formal demise of apartheid in South Africa, these movements have gained confidence and aligned themselves with other elements of civil society, particularly labour. Moreover, they have received encouragement from the international community, particularly the United States. To many observers, it is the lack of effective opportunities for political participation and expression that represents the major visible threat to Swazi security.

Despite these real stumbling blocks, there are signs that Swaziland has a fairly good chance at making the transition to democracy and achieving sustainable rates of economic growth as well. Through the monarchy's private corporation, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, Swazi royalty have managed to create more than a rentier state. Swaziland's economy is moderately diversified. It has an entrenched, multi-racial national bourgeoisie which engages in productive enterprise. Moreover, various elements of this bourgeoisie are able to independently accumulate capital and are even hampered by dictates and decrees of monarchical rule.

Setting aside questions of redistribution, for Swaziland to further deepen its economic base and perhaps enter a period of sustained and sustainable growth, the monarchy must stand aside and let emergent, though stunted, capitalist classes take control of the state so that they may be better able to advance their interests. Recent events suggest, unfortunately, that the monarchy is not willing to consider such a move.

Odd bedfellows

Unlike Lesotho, instability in Swaziland mainly results from an on-going series of workers' strikes. These strikes have been centred in the larger, urban areas of Mbabane and Manzini but have, on occasion spread to other areas of the country and other sectors of the economy. For instance, in 1989 strikes in the banking and transport sectors gave way to labour disputes in the civil service, and among brewery, plantation and mine workers.

The Swazi monarchy has been more than willing to use both force and blanket dismissals to end these strikes. More recently, however, strikes by teachers and workers at the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation in July-August 1994 saw the government accede to their demands for increased wages. (The SPTC employees received a 13% increase while teachers received a pay rise of 13.5%.) This in spite of the expressed government commitment to limit recurrent expenditures, particularly relating to salaries of civil servants.

These limited strikes have widened to national proportions. During the first two weeks of March 1995, a mass stayaway called by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions brought businesses throughout the country to a standstill. The strike continued in spite of a court order retraining the union from engaging in strike activity.

According to one report, the trade union strike "has obviously been hijacked by the political elements." These "political elements" include most notably the Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco) and the Peoples United Democratic Congress (Pudemo). Both of these organisations came to prominence at the end of the 1980s, and have gained confidence in light of events in Eastern Europe and, more recently, South Africa.

Swayoco and Pudemo find common cause with labour in bringing to an end the arbitrary and authoritarian rule that characterises state-civil society relations in Swaziland. Given that party political activity, as well as more general forms of assembly, are illegal in Swaziland, labour activities are highly and overtly political.


Domestic and international pressures for democracy have continued throughout the post-1989 period. To ease this pressure, the monarchy, following recommendations of the two Vusela commissions, revamped its Tinkhundla electoral system. Elections were held in two rounds on 25 September and 11 October 1993. For the first time, Swazis were able to select their own candidates for the 55 seat lower house. (The King appoints 65 others to this house. These 120 parliamentarians then elect 10 people to Senate and the King appoints 20 others.) In the past, candidates were put forward by the chiefs.

2,094 people stood for election in the first round, which was designed to narrow the field to three candidates per district. Following the second round, only 3 members of the previous cabinet were returned to power. Among those defeated was Prime Minister Obed Dlamini.

Few beyond the monarchy were satisfied with either the outcome or the Tinkhundla system. The chiefs regarded it as further erosion of their traditional powers. Many citizens, particularly students and others supportive of Swayoco, Pudemo, Humaras (Human Rights Association of Swaziland), and Swanafro (Swaziland National Front) rejected the elections as a sham. According to Maxwell Lukhele, a member of Pudemo, Tinkhundla is a "vehicle used for political mileage by unscrupulous and politically bankrupt policy-makers."

These organisations have continued what might be termed a "guerrilla struggle for democracy." In June 1994, Pudemo presented a letter to the King demanding a "nationally constituted government and strict observance of basic human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Charter." On 1 March 1995, Pudemo published a proclamation calling for negotiations toward a new constitution. That document read, in part,
We as a Movement are firmly convinced that a formal and properly constituted negotiation process can only be effected through a broad-based representative National Convention . . . [T]he preliminary negotiations must not only be confined to the progressive forces but also be inclusive of traditional institutions - in fact it must be a microcosm of our society, i.e. political parties, political organisations, labour organisations, the youth, women's organisations, traditional institutions and other interest groups.

The proclamation also demanded the repeal of a number of contentious governmental decrees including detention without trial, the banning of political parties and mass organizations, and the prohibition of meetings, demonstrations and political associations.

How the monarchy will respond to this overture is unclear. What is clear, however, is the limited, primarily urban nature of these movements for multi-party democracy. Given that the power of the monarchy rests so heavily on the consent of those living in rural areas, until Pudemo establishes a base among the peasants, change will come slowly, if it comes at all.

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