Swaziland: Reforms Long Overdue

Image: Flickr, Brook Ward
Image: Flickr, Brook Ward

Swaziland’s parliamentary elections have underlined the dire and longstanding problems that confront the small southern African nation.

The country needs seriously to reconsider its political arrangements if it is to deal with the challenges it faces. Voting in the nation of a little more than one million people went ahead smoothly – in a technical sense – last Friday. But the country cannot be called a democracy; it is an absolute monarchy in which parties are banned and candidates must stand as individuals. The country’s constitution is quite explicit on this: the king – currently Mswati III – is “immune from suit or legal process in any case in respect of all things done or omitted to be done by him.” This is not unique for a monarch but in Swaziland the king has a direct role in governance, so the provision severely abridges his accountability.

Severe socio-economic difficulties plague the country, including widespread hunger resulting from prolonged drought. According to the United Nations Development Programme, about 48 percent of the population live on less than U.S. $1 a day, while 78 percent live on less than $2 a day. (Some figures suggest the situation is even worse – the Swaziland Household Income and Expenditure Survey for 2000/2001 estimated that nearly 70 percent were living on less that $1 a day.)

Swaziland’s formal economy depends on agriculture (sugar, fruit and lumber), some manufacturing and mining. But some 80 percent of Swazis depend on subsistence agriculture and if agricultural problems persist due to climate change, the whole economic base will need to be rethought. The economy also leans on revenue from the Southern African Customs Union, but the International Monetary Fund notes that the government has not used this optimally. Nor can the revenue be guaranteed if neighbouring South Africa’s economy takes a downturn.

Social services are stretched and many skilled people are leaving. More than 25 percent of Swazis between 15 and 49 are HIV-positive. “Swaziland is literally dying,” says Dr Richard Rooney, formerly of the University of Swaziland and a prominent commentator. “Average life expectancy… is not much more than 30 years. There is a high level of complacency among the government about AIDS and its economic impact…”

Meanwhile, the king and his family network are enormously wealthy, financed both from state coffers and by assets held “in trust” for the nation. These funds have provided the royals with a first-class standard of living. Recently some of the king’s wives, children and attendants went on a shopping trip to the Middle East to prepare for the joint celebrations of his 40th birthday and the anniversary of Swaziland’s independence from Britain in 1968.

This lifestyle has generated resentment. Opposition has tended to come from organised labour. Opposition political movements – such as the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and the Swaziland Youth Congress – do exist, but operate underground or from exile. There is repression – not of the violent kind practiced in Zimbabwe – but experienced rather as harassment, accompanied by the fear that courts might not offer protection (although at times they have).

So far, the opposition has favoured non-violent strategies to bring about change, although there have been some instances of violence and there are reports – the credibility of which is uncertain – that opposition groups might consider resorting to violence.

However, it is difficult to gauge what Swazis truly feel about the monarchy. The country is heavily rural, and most rural people depend for land and therefore their livelihoods on chiefs who are answerable to the king. The society is a deeply traditional one, and throughout history people have venerated their monarchs as rulers ordained by God, fathers and protectors of the nation and custodians of culture. Swazi royalists have played on this, to the extent that clergy who support them have condemned democracy as anti-Christian. But the mystique is fraying: for example, women demonstrated against the recent royal shopping trip, saying the money should have been used for anti-retroviral drugs.

Swaziland’s low international profile means its problems receive little exposure and its opposition little support, with the notable exception of the backing which unions of the Congress of South African Trade Unions give to their Swazi counterparts. In August, demonstrators at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit protested at conditions in Swaziland as well as at repression in Zimbabwe.

Richard Rooney suggests that “the kingdom will economically grind to a halt within five years.” If Swaziland is to survive as a viable state in the longer term, reform is overdue. Swaziland may never be a great economic power but it could work towards a future built on human capital – something along the lines of Singapore or Switzerland. This will not be easy but it can be done if the country focuses on education and state efficiency.

To achieve such a goal, Swaziland’s institutions would need significant reform. Personalised rule does not create the strong institutions necessary for a durable constitutional state. But even if the monarchy were displaced, there is no guarantee of a successful transition. Institutions take time to build and to mature.

Reforms could happen with the monarch’s cooperation. Constitutional orders have been established in other societies in Africa where traditional leadership is strong and where its coexistence with modern rule poses a challenge. In countries like Benin, people approach traditional authorities to deal with matters when formal state institutions cannot do so expeditiously, although the system does have problems. In Ghana, chieftaincy is constitutionally protected although chiefs may not participate in active politics. Botswana accords chiefs considerable powers. Lesotho has a respected king presiding as a constitutional monarch. South African chiefs fit untidily into the constitutional order, some being active in political parties, having their own assembly and retaining significant powers in traditional law.

These are experiences worth exploring as possible models – or considerations – for Swaziland’s future. This will be in Mswati’s own interest: throughout history, loyalties to kings have broken down before harsh realities or when subjects demanded the rights and freedoms that their counterparts elsewhere enjoyed. Today’s surviving monarchies are those that compromised.

Right now, Swaziland’s royal order faces no imminent threat, internal or external. If Mswati does not seize the opening he still has to initiate reform – albeit at the cost of some of his own power – the alternative is likely to be a gradual crumbling of the country, sometimes violently, which will bring a disorder that will inexorably creep towards the doors of the palace.