The April 12 anti-monarchy protests in Swaziland, planned to coincide with the date in 1973 when King Sobhuza II unilaterally declared a state of emergency that banned political parties through Proclamation No 7 of 12 April 1973, were met with a severe police crackdown in the Swaziland town of Manzini.
In a dramatic turn of events, more than 200 people, including journalists, union members and members of political parties, are reported to have been detained in various police stations across the country. There have also been reports of police brutality and 'abductions' of protesters.
These events reportedly unfolded in Mbabane and Manzini - where at least half of the total urban population reside. Until recently the country has seen a relatively subdued struggle between pro-multiparty activists and supporters of the current system of governance. Although active resistance to the royal hegemony has existed, particularly in the urban areas, strong support for the monarchy and the current political system remains, particularly among the rural majority that constitutes 75% of the country's total population.
However, and most importantly, the aggressive crackdown on the planned peaceful demostrations may further inflame the desire for democratic change, sustain the anti-monarch momentum and result in historic political reforms in the country.
But this may also become a dialogue of the deaf. The pro-democracy movement, which includes labour and trade unions as well as political parties like the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) and others banned as terrorist organisations under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, unequivocally demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini's entire administration and the ushering in of democratic reforms.
Yet government has failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the discontent, claiming that the Swazis 'are not ready for democracy' and that elections under the controversial Tinkundla system allow for democratic participation. Caught in cross-pressures between protest structures and international scrutiny and condemnation over the violent retort, the course and consequences of the unrest will be determined by which side is more resilient.
Opposition to the monarchy in Swaziland has continued to gain momentum in the past few weeks, largely triggered by the government's decision to slash civil servants' salaries as part of fiscal austerity plans, to gain approval for a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
According to the government, 'the only way out' of the budget crisis was to reduce the high wage bill by retrenchments, salary cuts and freezing the salaries of some civil servants.
Conversely, there is a widespread belief that the budget crisis is a direct result of conspicuous consumption by the monarchy, over-expenditure by government departments and endemic corruption. The executive budget-making process is not transparent; detailed accounts of expenditures have never been published and structures to allow the independent monitoring of policy formulation, implementation and service are non-existent.
The budget crisis also follows a 60 per cent loss of customs duties from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU); declining export revenue and increased import demands; a shallow and undiversified financial system; and a cut in international aid receipts. Amidst all these, much of the country's estimated population of 1 167 834 have urgent humanitarian needs that remain unmet, with approximately two-thirds of Swazis living on less than US$1 per day and deepening societal cleavages resulting from the widespread income inequalities.
In fact, royal expenditure significantly exceeds the allocations for the social sector, making a mockery of King Mswati's development plans such as the overly ambitious Vision 2022 development strategy.
Prior to the demonstration, reports of police intimidation and unlawful arrests emerged. However, the violent security crackdown against the demonstrations is arguably the largest in recent times. In a clear government offensive, paramilitary units are reportedly using teargas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators, in addition to a blockade into Manzini.
Importantly, the Swazi military has no record of engaging in external combats outside the Swazi border and instead has been used frequently to suppress uprisings and the expression of opposition ideas. This has created an atmosphere of political unpredictability in Swaziland. News of new purchases of military hardware by the Swazi Defence Ministry and the fact that the army was recently sent for training in Pakistan have raised suspicions.
The pre-emptive assault on the public assembly was expected as Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini last week Thursday had warned against staging the anti-government rallies, describing the protests as illegal.
Although the current Constitution enacted in 2005 includes a clause guaranteeing freedom of association, it retains the state of emergency, the ban on political parties, and the King's draconian powers. The monarchy has so far signalled that it is opposed to reforms and seems unwilling to countenance any change.
As the only country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region that has abolished multiparty democracy, Swazi labour unrests, social strife and discontent against the consolidated power of the traditional aristocracy are well known to its regional neighbours. But South Africa and multilateral institutions like SADC have either ignored Swaziland because of its relative geo-political insignificance or have bought into the government's line that any change must come slowly from within the system.
The exception was in 1996 when South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe held an emergency meeting to press the King to institute a constitutional review process. Thus a stalemate of sorts persists: while South Africa and regional institutions insist on democratic governance as one of the overarching regional values, there is a remarkable silence on confronting the Swazi government on this issue.
These questions were posed to the South African Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane during a media briefing on 5 April. Nkoana-Mashabane briefly noted that the SA government was engaging the Swazi leadership on the looming crisis, but 'would await a formal request from Swaziland to respond'. The perceived lack of urgency can be widely interpreted. But the South African government certainly has strategic leverage in Swaziland because of its dominant position in the SACU; Swaziland's dependence on South Africa for trade; and the pegging of the lilangeni to the rand, which effectively puts SA in control of key economic decisions in Swaziland. This situation affords South Africa wide latitude in determining the fate of the Swazi political economy.
Therefore, a widow of opportunity for early intervention and preventative diplomacy exists. This should go beyond the conventional expressions of concern and calls for restraint to robust action. There is no such thing as a sudden crisis and the SA government needs to develop an effective early warning mechanism that would provide a basis for policy making and also allow an early counteracting of negative developments. A conflict on South Africa's doorstep would certainly pose a spillover risk to the country and may be an embarrassment for the current administration, which clearly finds itself under pressure to focus more on conflict mediation in the SADC region.
What is clear is that Swazi society is changing very rapidly and the potential triggers of conflict are now manifest. The tension between adherence to traditional ethos and norms and the increasing yearning for a democratic breakthrough looms large and will need to be resolved in a timeous fashion. The imperative for reforms that allow Swazi citizens to govern themselves and exercise their economic, political and social rights undoubtedly serves as the future model of political governance - and can no longer be postponed.
Dimpho Motsamai is a researcher in the African Conflict Prevention Programme of the Institute for Security Studies.