Swaziland Takes No Steps Closer to Democracy

5 November 2013

Despite a purported tête-à-tête with divinity and another round of elections, it seems that little has changed in Mswati III's mountainous kingdom.

At the start of September, following some unseasonal thunderstorms, Swazi and South African media began reporting that King Mswati III of Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarch, was claiming to have received a vision from God. Coming in between two rounds of parliamentary elections, the King's spokesperson announced that Mswati said he had been told by God to make his mountainous kingdom a "monarchial democracy".

Perhaps understandably, many of the country's opposition groups and activists - many of whom are exiled in neighbouring South Africa - ridiculed the news, highlighting the monarch's undemocratic record and criticising the elections as superficial window-dressing. However, amidst growing pressure on Swaziland to democratise, from within as well as from the likes of the South African government, there was perhaps some lingering hope that change could be afoot.

If this is the case, such hopes would have been dealt a blow last week when Mswati summoned his kingdom to a sibaya (a cultural gathering) at his royal residence where he re-appointed Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini as Prime Minister for a fourth time, and perhaps dashed completely when it was announced yesterday that the new cabinet would include eight members of the old guard.

A family affair

In the final round of Swaziland's parliamentary elections in September, over 400,000 Swazi voters cast their ballots to elect 55 MPs. However, the vote was again held according to an electoral system known as tinkhundla, which was implemented in the 1970s and under which political parties are not allowed to participate. In protest, Swaziland's main opposition party, the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), boycotted the elections, calling the polls a farce and a sham designed to maintain the King's absolute rule.

Commenting on the conduct and outcome of the elections, the African Union Election Observer Mission in its preliminary report said that although the elections were peaceful and credible, Swaziland's non-party system conflicted with the Swazi Constitution and the AU Charter, both of which guarantee the right to freedom of assembly and association. The observer mission therefore urged the country to review its controversial tinkhundla system. In response, the Swazi government spokesperson, Percy Simelane, told Think Africa Press that while the government welcomed the AU's recommendations, there would be no change unless the Swazi people called for it.

"Section 79 of the Constitution submits in no uncertain terms that individual merit is the basis for election or appointment to public office," he said. "The country's Constitution is a people's constitution and until the people of Swaziland decide to amend that section, it shall stand."

Indeed, keeping with tradition and continuity following the election, Mswati selected 10 MPs in addition to the elected 55, and re-appointed Dlamini, of the Dlamini clan, as Prime Minister. Mswati's unsurprising choice of a tried-and-tested monarchist and conservative to head government further cements the Dlamini clan's political legacy. Establishing their dominance through military conquest, absorption and subjugation of other smaller or weaker clans since the 1400s, the Dlaminis in present-day Swaziland continue to rule and dominate as its members occupy influential positions as traditional chiefs, royal advisors and top-ranking civil servants thereby reinforcing Mswati's power.

PM Dlamini is himself a member of the royal family and one of the country's longest-serving premiers. Meanwhile, the new senate composed of 30 senators - 20 chosen by the king and 10 elected by parliament - consists of six of the King's brothers and sisters as well as 14 loyalists including the controversial acting chief of KoNtshingila, Gelane Zwane, whose senatorial appointment sparked protest in her southern district of Shiselweni resulting in a heavy-handed state intervention. With a selection of family and trusted allies to keep a watchful eye on things, the King appears keen to maintain the status quo rather than yield to calls - whether domestic, international, or other-worldly - for democratic reform.

No room for rebels

As well as packing decision-making positions with loyalists, Mswati also seems to be trying to curb any potential influence the few opposition figures who managed to get elected might have.

Following the announcement of the election results on 21 September, Dlamini banned all private meetings between newly-elected MPs. On several occasions legislators tried to hold private lunches to discuss voting strategies for electing their ten members of the senate, but they had to be cancelled after the prime minister threatened police action if MPs held meetings other than those convened by parliament. Like their predecessors, it seems Swaziland's new MPs' wings have already been clipped.

In terms of individual opposition figures, much has been made of the election of trade unionist and anti-government activist Jan Sithole; the new MP for Manzini North is seen as a potential reformer and voice of dissent. Apart from Sithole, former teachers' union activists, Phineas Magagula and Saladin Magagula, as well as controversial youth activist Titus Thwala could be among those calling for change.

Yet early signs have not inspired a great deal of hope amongst pro-democracy observers. Shortly after their election, both former teacher activists quickly withdrew their previous criticism of the monarchy and promised to serve dutifully. Phineas Magagula was rewarded by becoming Minister for Education, a position which could suggest open-mindedness on the part of Mswati, but can also be seen as a way to ensure a potential dissenter toes the line. Meanwhile, at last week's official introduction of legislators to the King, Sithole pledged his allegiance to the Crown, raising eyebrows in both pro-monarchist and opposition circles. It is too early to predict what this might mean, but it is important to remember that given the overwhelming majority of monarchists and moderates in government, it is unlikely a minority will change the system from within no matter how outspoken.

For Swaziland's trade unions, news of Dlamini's return for another five years has been met with anxiety and unease. Last year, during a wave of industrial action in the education and public transport sectors, thousands of members of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) took to the streets calling for a 4.5% salary increase. After weeks of striking, other workers unions marched in solidarity demanding the same increment. However, rather than engage in dialogue with the protesters, the state, commanded by Dlamini, responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and widespread arrests. The salaries of striking teachers were slashed by 33% and government sought a court order to declare the strike illegal and have SNAT's leaders imprisoned.

Dlamini's return to the helm does not bode well for an improvement in labour relations. Although some union leaders have said they are hopeful his fourth term will be better, many are mindful of the hostile relationship between the state and the unions.

Despite a purported tête-à-tête with divinity in September and another round of elections, it seems that little has changed in Mswati's kingdom. All the king's men - and women - are sitting as comfortably around Mswati as before, and a few court jesters - even if they do speak truth to power - are unlikely to upset the apple cart. Rather than a divinely-inspired monarchial democracy, it seems the next five years will see yet more fractious and tense times in the Swazi House of Assembly.

Tendai Marima is a freelance journalist and post-doctoral researcher in African literature. Find her on Twitter @i_amten.

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