Thursday, April 28, 2011


A Royal Mess: Mswati heads to UK to eat cake while his subjects suffer

By Sisonke Msimang

The BBC reported this week that Swaziland’s King Mswati has snagged a ticket to the royal wedding, and that he is expected to take an entourage of 50 people to London to participate in the festivities.

If this is true, and indeed the King travels with a few of his wives, he will get full marks from me for crassness – 70% of Mswati’s subjects live below the poverty line, and the nation is facing a serious crisis on the back of a substantial cut in Southern African Customs Union (SACU) revenues. Until recently, fully half of Swaziland’s national revenues came from the customs union. With the revision of the formula used to calculate revenue, Swaziland’s share has already dropped from 741 million dollars to 281 million dollars in the past financial year.

To flagrantly spend Swazi’s tax money on a frivolous trip to the UK, would certainly be in bad taste.

But it could also be politically suicidal: this week, inspired by the North African revolutions, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Swaziland and South Africa. After three decades of misrule, many in the tiny Kingdom are fed up. If Mswati and his wives undertake another bank-breaking jaunt, it might just be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

The uprising that took place this week didn’t take long to quell – the security forces came out in their numbers, and the trade unions that had organized the rallies, surrounded by armed men, called off the action.

For those of us who monitor events in Swaziland, neither the protest, nor its swift quashing – came as any surprise. Facebook had been abuzz for weeks, with plans for the action. But Swazis are notoriously conservative, and resistant to anything that is seen as anti-monarchist. While many will quietly tell you that they are disgusted by the King’s excesses, they are just as suspicious of the devil they don’t know: political parties that have been banned ofr so long that no one knows who they really represent.

In a country that is dominated by government-owned media, in which political parties are banned, and those who raise questions about governance and transparency can be brought up on charges of ‘terrorism’ under a draconian law intended to muzzle citizens – it is easy to understand this suspicion. Indeed, the similarities between Swaziland and that other bad-boy of the region, Zimbabwe – are striking. The tactics of both regimes have been similar: curtail freedom of expression and detain people with opposing view-points.

Thus far, SADC has had little to say about the excesses of Mswati, and there has been little progress in resolving Zimbabwe’s decade-long political and human rights crisis. But in the wake of the on-going protests in North Africa and the Middle East, where after decades of autocratic and kleptocratic rule, ordinary people have demanded democracy, SADC is showing signs that its leaders are as tuned into Al Jezeera as the rest of us.

At the SADC Troika meeting in early March, Zambia’s President, Rupiah Banda opened the session with the following words: “If there is anything that we must learn from the upheavals in the northern part of our continent, it is that the legitimate expectations of the citizens cannot be taken for granted.” At the same meeting, SADC finally demonstrated that its patience may be running out when it comes to Mr. Mugabe. President Zuma’s report was heralded as “frank,” and the Summit communiqué went so far as to call for “an immediate end of violence, intimidation, hate speech, harassment, and any other form of action that contradicts the letter and spirit of GPA.”

Strong stuff for an institution that has thus far failed to take the bull by the horns. The question is whether heads of states will be willing to turn their attention to the troubled Kingdom of Swaziland. The stakes are no less for Swazi citizens, than they are for Zimbabweans. Yet, for SADC, Swaziland would be an easy win: Mswati runs a small country that few in the world are concerned about. The likelihood of violence breaking out over political reforms would be minimal, but would signal to the citizens of southern Africa that the bloc is serious about democracy. Brokering a deal to force Mswati to unban political parties and open the media would be an important and relatively pain-free exercise given that Mswati has little leverage.

Whether our leaders are prepared to act on Swaziland, with the prospect of mini Cairos and Tunisia’s brewing in their own backyards, is the real question.

Sisonke Msimang is the Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA): she writes in her personal capacity.


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