Sunday, September 6, 2020

As Swaziland marks the anniversary of Independence, what happened to the optimism?

By Richard Rooney

As Swaziland (eSwatini) marks the 52nd anniversary of its independence from Great Britain I can’t help but wonder what happened to all the optimism that was voiced in 1968?

In 1968, the New York Times reported ‘Swaziland achieves independence today with much brighter immediate prospects than the other two former British High Commission territories in south Africa.’

It added, ‘It is smaller (area 6,705 sq miles: population 400,000) than Botswana or Lesotho, but commands far greater natural resources and a robust foreign trade and payments surplus.’

Those prospects were soon extinguished. Even before the present coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency all but destroyed the economy the International Monetary Fund was reporting Swaziland’s economic situation was dire. In February 2020 the IMF reported the economy in Swaziland continued to be in free-fall. Public debt was still rising, domestic arrears had grown, and international currency reserves had fallen ‘below adequate levels’. 

The growth in private investment was slowing and declining external competitiveness was hindering the kingdom’s growth prospects. Now, 40 percent of the 1.1 million population are living in extreme poverty and unemployment is high.

The political situation is equally dire. In 1973 the then king, Sobhuza II tore up the constitution and began to rule by Royal Proclamation. Despite a new constitution that came into effect in 2006 that proclamation has not been repealed.

The present king, Mswati III rules as an absolute monarch. Political parties are barred from contesting elections and groups that advocate for democratic reform are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. 

People only elect 59 of the members of the House of Assembly; the King appoints a further ten. None of the 30-member Senate are elected by the people. The King chooses the Prime Minister and his Cabinet as well as top judges and civil servants.

King Mswati and his family continue to use public money to fund their own lavish lifestyles.

Back in 1968, people hoped for so much more (no, expected so much more from Independence). The New York Times reported (6 September 1968), ‘Swaziland achieves independence today with much brighter immediate prospects than the other two former British High Commission territories in south Africa. It is smaller (area 6,705 sq miles: population 400,000) than Botswana or Lesotho, but commands far greater natural resources and a robust foreign trade and payments surplus.

‘This is not to suggest that the Swazis lack problems. Their position as almost an island within South Africa would by itself insure long-range headaches. They currently enjoy political stability under the shrewd if traditional leadership of King Sobhuza II and the royalist Imbokodvo party of Prime Minister Mahkosini Dlamini.’

Swaziland was seen as a stable, peaceful country. Much of the credit for this was put at the feet of the then king, Sobhuza II.

The New York Times reported. ‘The 69-year-old King has been on the throne since 1921. He personifies his country: one foot in the past and the other in the future.

‘The king of the Swazis, once one of Africa’s great warring tribes, is equally at home in formal Western clothes or Mahia, the colourful national costume. He is reported to have about 170 wives and platoons of children. Statistics are sketchy, but the records do show that the king took his 50th bride in 1933.’

The Financial Times, London, UK, reported, ‘If, then, today [1968] the King reigns supreme in this tiny country ... it is very largely because it was he, and not some populist movement, that provided the impetus, back in 1960, which set his country on the road to independence.

‘This is important, for it meant that the King and his men were able to a large extent to call the tune in their negotiations with the British Government – the one attempt to impose a Whitehall-inspired constitution in 1964 was very short lived. Furthermore, by being identified from the start with the ‘struggle’ for independence in the minds of the people, the Imbokodvo has been able to stay one jump ahead of any local opposition – notably the Pan-Africanist Ngwane National Liberatory Congress – and in the end to annihilate it.’

It was the control exerted over Swaziland by King Sobhuza that for many was the key to the stability in Swaziland.

The Financial Times pointed out that it is arguable that the Whites in Swaziland would not have been willing to abandon their demand for an entrenched representation in parliament without the influence of Sobhuza.

‘There can be little doubt that Swaziland’s Whites draw great comfort from the knowledge that a conservative monarch who makes little secret of his appreciation for the White’s continuing economic contribution to the country is in charge.’

It was generally recognised internationally that ‘democracy’ in Swaziland in 1968 had shortcomings. The Financial Times put it like this, ‘In theory, he [King Sobhuza II] is only a constitutional monarch, and as Head of State he will have to live with a Parliament consisting of a 12 man Senate and a 30-man House of Assembly. But, in practice, it is very difficult to see the legislature going against the king’s wishes; for in practically every sense it is the King’s Parliament. To start with, all 24 elected members in the Assembly belong to the Royalist Imbokodvo National Movement, founded in early 1964, and headed by Prince Makhosini Dlamini, a member of the Royal family and now Swaziland’s first Prime Minister.

‘Secondly, the King has the power to appoint six Senate members with the remainder being elected by the House of Assembly.

‘Thirdly, there is his influence in the Swazi National Council, the body of chiefs and elders through which kings have traditionally governed the Swazi nation. And as long as Swaziland retains its unitary tribal structure, the SNC is likely to remain an important body for it is here that the vast majority of the people will make their grievances immediately felt, which will then be transmitted via the king to parliament, rather than the other way round...’

History tells us that this confidence in Sobhuza was misplaced. In 1973, after the people of Swaziland freely elected members of parliament of whom he disapproved, the King abandoned the parliament, tore up the constitution and ruled by decree. Swaziland is still (technically, at least) ruled by this decree.

The total lack of democracy in Swaziland, the banning of political parties and the stripping of power from Parliament dates from 1973. Most of the kingdom’s present day shortcomings can be directly attributed to the crushing lack of democracy that stifled debate and penalised those who dare to have a view contrary to those of the ruling elite.

The lack of political sophistication in Swaziland was noted by the Financial Times, ‘the very lack of political sophistication in the country – no small reason for the King’s strong hold over its affairs – is likely to bolster this stability in the short term.’

Even in 1968 there were concerns about whether the people of Swaziland were being truly represented in Parliament. Elections in 1967 had seen the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) get 20 percent of the vote, but no seats.

The Financial Times reported with more foresight than it probably realised at the time, ‘Votes came mainly from the tiny, but growing, white-collar urban working class.

‘Moreover, with hindsight it is now apparent that the vote was not so much for the NNLC but against the Establishment, so that even if Dr Zwane [the NNLC leader] disappears from the scene, the forces which had been channelled through his party, will remain.’

See also

Anniversary of day Swaziland stopped being a democracy and became absolute monarchy

Swazis did not choose political system

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