Friday, May 11, 2012


The fallout between factions in the Swaziland prodemocracy movement has thrown into relief the disagreements over their objectives for the future of the kingdom.

The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) hasindefinitely suspended the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) after the SSN criticised PUDEMO’s leadership in the struggle for democracy. 

In very broad terms SSN supporters seek a republic in Swaziland, where at present King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Political parties and most opposition groups are banned in Swaziland. SSN supporters want the monarchy abolished and replaced by a Communist-led state.

Other groups, including PUDEMO, have not been so explicit. There are many different organisations wanting democracy in Swaziland, but most have not come out for the full republic, neither do they especially want any future state to be dominated by Communists. Nor, are they necessarily demanding the end to the Swazi monarchy. Some favour a ‘constitutional monarchy’ with the King as head of state, but with reduced political powers.

So, what realistically might happen in Swaziland? About 70 percent of Swazis live in rural areas, engaged in subsistence farming of some sort. Their lives are controlled by local chiefs (who are the King’s representative) who allocate land, jobs and housing. Chiefs also decide whether young people will be given scholarships to study at university.

In such circumstances ordinary Swazi people are disenfranchised from politics and have little understanding of what democratic reform in Swaziland might offer them. The monarchy has successfully kept people depoliticised and largely unorganised. It controls the media (in some cases, such as broadcasting, formally; in others, such as the newspapers, informally). Intimidation from state police and the army is used to keep the majority of the Swazi population passive.

Because of this there is no hunger for revolution in Swaziland and not even much desire for significant change.

But, there are pockets of discontent in Swaziland: most obviously in the urban areas among organised labour and students. These people are the ones advocating for change and drawing the world’s attention to King Mswati’s undemocratic credentials, his profligate personal spending and the imbalance of wealth in the kingdom.

The King reportedly has a personal wealth of US$200 million and holds a trust fund ‘on behalf of the nation’, estimated to be as much as US$10 billion. This money is treated by the King as a personal fund to be spent as he sees fit on himself and his family. Meanwhile, seven in ten of the King’s 1.2 million subjects earn less than US$2 a day.

It is the obvious discrepancy between the King’s lifestyle, his repression of his subjects and the abject poverty of most of the Swazi people that might eventually put pressure on the monarchy and drive some kind of reform.

Swaziland’s economy is in ruins, brought about by years of mismanagement by successive Swazi governments, handpicked by the King.  To survive, Swaziland needs bail-out loans from international banks and help from donor agencies. This help might not be forthcoming without reform. As Swaziland slips further into the mire, and those who previously did well from existing conditions lose out, discontent against the King and his government will surely grow.

It is unlikely that King Mwsati and those he has around him would willingly yield total power and there will be no popular revolution to take it away from him.

As pressure mounts on the monarchy, the government might try to buy time with King Mswati appearing to commit himself to change. The start of this would be the King’s claim to a commitment to ‘dialogue’, followed by minor changes, but no yielding of power.

Or, in order to ensure that the status-quo is maintained, the government could ignore international opinion and consolidate the King’s position through increased repression. Events in recent weeks suggest that this is the option it has decided to take.

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