Western countries have not exerted much pressure on Swaziland's absolute monarchy to rectify its lack of democracy and human rights. Neither has another democracy, the People's Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan. A country with whom Swaziland (renamed Eswatini by King Mswati III in 2018) - as the only country In Africa - has diplomatic ties with, writes Peter Kenworthy for Afrika Kontakt.
The UN has not recognized Taiwan since it switched its diplomatic recognition to China in 1971.
In a statement on Swaziland-Taiwan relations from July 2019, government spokesperson Percy Simelane spoke of the "unbroken diplomatic relations" between the two countries, since Swaziland's independence in 1968.
- This relationship is based on mutual respect, friendship and loyalty ... Our commitment to strong diplomatic ties with Taiwan remains unshaken and enduring, he added.
Swaziland has thus far decided to stay loyal to its relationship with Taiwan, says Swazi political activist and former president of the Swaziland Youth Congress, Bheki Dlamini.
Dlamini, who has a degree in public administration from the University of Bergen, adds that China has been turning a blind eye to Swaziland's support of Taiwan, and Taiwan's aid and donations to Swaziland. But that the few other states that had diplomatic relations with Taiwan - such as Burkina Faso and the Gambia - have severed their ties with the island state.
- Swaziland has not been persuaded otherwise, but remains committed to Taiwan. Until recently, China has not publicly denounced the Taiwan-Swaziland relationship. In a turn of events China is now denying visas to people from Swaziland, he says.
Win-win or Catch 22?
In a statement, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa says:
- Since 10 January, some Eswatini people realized that all the Embassies and Consulate-Generals of the people's Republic of China (PRC), except the Embassy of China to Pretoria, have been closed for Eswatini citizens to apply for visas to mainland China, which will cripple their business and the country's economy development.
- Such an embarrassing situation is the result of Eswatini defying the One-China Principle and maintaining so-called "diplomatic ties" with the Taiwan authorities ... It is the right time for the Eswatini government and people to make a right choice for win-win cooperation, the letter adds.
Bheki Dlamini believes that Swaziland is thus in something of a Catch 22-situation, regarding Chinese pressure.
- The free lunch from Taiwan is good for the royal family, which has the luxury of behaving like Taiwan's spoilt child. But Taiwan needs Swaziland more than China needs Swaziland. If Swaziland dumps Taiwan for China, the monarchy will lose the financial and political benefits it reaps from Taiwan. However, going with China might be no guarantee that China will supersede Taiwan in development aid and donation to Swaziland, Dlamini says.
- But this will certainly benefit ordinary Swazis who want to explore business, educational and other opportunities offered by China. Can the monarchy truly withstand pressure from China and for how long? The monarchy is used to Swaziland getting away from any form of international scrutiny because of size, be it on human rights or democracy. However, I doubt it will escape the Chinese pressure, he adds.