Swaziland is a small country with a big problem. The 1.3 million inhabitants of the land-locked southern African kingdom live under the thumb of one of the world's last absolute monarchies, a venal and repressive regime whose plunder of the country is systematic and comprehensive.
Now presiding over the 37th year of the world's longest running State of Emergency, King Mswati III controls the parliament, appoints cabinet ministers, judges and senior civil servants and makes and breaks the law at will. Political parties are banned, along with most demonstrations and meetings. Shouting the wrong slogan or wearing the wrong tee shirt can get you locked up as a 'terrorist'. Trades unionists and human rights activists face surveillance, house searches, arbitrary detention and torture. Strikes are illegal. Gatherings of any kind are often broken up by police assaults. The media is subject to constant harassment and intimidation. During the latest wave of repression, in May, democracy activist Sipho Jele, who had been arrested and interrogated, was allegedly 'found' by police hanging from the rafters in a prison toilet.
In July, Mswati (who was educated at the expensive Sherborne school in Dorset, England) ruled out future political dialogue, insisting that state structures in Swaziland were a 'closed book' and rejecting public consultation in favour of a carefully managed 'Smart Partnership' exercise.
Swaziland's autocracy is based on the 'Tinkhundla' system through which royally-sponsored traditional leaders dispense patronage and exercise control at local level. The system is celebrated by the government as an authentic product of traditional Swazi culture and those who question it are routinely denounced as 'not Swazi enough'. But Swazis themselves reap no benefits from it.
While 70% of the population live on less than a dollar a day and 25% rely on food aid, the royal family make do on some $67,000 a day. According to US-based business magazine Forbes, Mswati's personal net worth is an estimated $200 million, making him the 15th richest monarch in the world, not far behind Queen Elizabeth II, ranked 13, whose UK domain alone generates a GDP 365 times larger than Swaziland's.
Six in ten Swazis are engaged in subsistence farming, mostly on communal land owned in trust by the King, whose family also directly own a major share of the remaining 'privately-owned' land. Forced labour is commonplace. Under Swazi Administration Order No. 6 of 1998, it is a duty of Swazis to obey orders from local chiefs to participate in compulsory works (which may include construction and agricultural labour or even weeding the gardens in Mswati's palaces). There are severe penalties for those who refuse.
Mswati is also head of a multi-million pound conglomerate, set up in 1968 by royal charter, which owns a significant slice of nearly every major Swazi business and industry - sugar, mobile phones, mines, media, tourism. Theoretically, Mswati holds the conglomerate's assets in trust for the nation, but the fund, like all royal assets, is shielded from public scrutiny.
Compounding poverty and repression, Swaziland now suffers the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection - perhaps as much as 40% of the adult population and 42% of all expectant mothers. Swaziland has the highest annual rate of death from AIDS, about 10,000 a year or an annual cull of 1% of the population. Life expectancy has plummeted and is probably now as low as anywhere in the world. Fifteen per cent of households are headed by orphaned children.
The royal family's response to this crisis would be laughable if it weren't so lethally criminal. The government has issued a call for the circumcision of new born males (and also for Members of Parliament), though there is no evidence that circumcision affects HIV spread. Mswati himself declared a ban on teenage girls wearing mini-skirts. Recently a senior member of the Royal Family (and chair of the above-mentioned royal trust fund) Prince Logcogco claimed that the HIV problem was exaggerated and described himself as 'a fearless human being' undeterred by the threat of AIDS. The comments were part of the Prince's response to a custody battle over a child born four years ago to a 13 or 14 year old girl (the age of consent is 16).
Royal sex scandals are just about the only Swazi stories that make the international news. When I visited the country in mid-august, the Justice Minister had just been dismissed and arrested for having sex with the 12th of the King's 14 wives. Swazi media were prohibited from reporting the story and copies of the South African daily City Press were barred at the border. A democracy activist was then arrested for making photocopies of the banned report, which, in any case, seemed to be common knowledge across the country. The King had picked out this wife at the age of 16 when she took part in the annual Reed Dance, a much-hyped 'cultural' rite in which tens of thousands of 'maidens', many displaying bare breasts, dance for the members of the royal family and ogling tourists.
The government defends royal polygamy, like forced labour and the Tinkhundla system, on the grounds of 'tradition'.When Mswati's long-reigning father, Sobhuza II, proclaimed the state of emergency back in 1973, he did so on the grounds that open political competition was 'alien to, and incompatible with ... the Swazi way of life'. And 'culture' remains the continuing plea of the Swazi elite (and the big appeal of the royally-controlled Swazi tourist industry). But the 'culture' they claim to be defending is an artificial construction, a monopoly on power and wealth that stifles the creativity and independence of the Swazi people.
Over the course of 150 years, the Swazi monarchy has maintained its grip by collaborating with the prevalent regional powers, first with the Boer Republics, then the British Empire and in the 1980s with apartheid South Africa. Besides assisting in the arrest and killing of ANC members who had fled to Swaziland, the King denounced sanctions against South Africa, the only Commonwealth leader besides Margaret Thatcher to do so.
Swazi democracy activists are quick to highlight the disparity between the West's strictures on the likes of Mugabe and their indifference when it comes to the Mswati regime. But unlike Mugabe and others on the west's selective hit-list of human rights abusers, Mswati is an enthusiast for neo-liberalism and multi-national corporations. Take, for example his partnership with Coca Cola, whose concentrate plant, exporting to much of Africa, is located in Swaziland because of favourable tax arrangements and access to cheap raw sugar. Coke accounts for up to 40 percent of Swaziland's GDP, and an unknown but sizeable chunk of this goes directly into the King's pocket. Mswati's pilgrimage to Coca Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, has become an annual ritual.
On a visit to Britain in August, Mswati attended the graduation of one of his sons from the military academy at Sandhurst. Not long after, the UK government announced it would deport well-known Swazi democracy activist Thobile Gwebu, who had been staging a weekly picket outside the Swazi High Commission in London, as a 'failed asylum seeker'.
Earlier this year, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign was formed by labour unions, political parties, civil society groups and churches. It has called for a global day of action on September 7, which will include a mass protest and show of 'defiance' in Swaziland itself. Delegates from the international labour movement will join the action in Swaziland and messages of support for the SDC are to be delivered to Swazi embassies world-wide. SDC activists I spoke to are hopeful that the event will alert a hitherto indifferent global media to the Swaziland story. They see the day of action as a key moment in the development of a more united, more focussed democracy movement and believe that their message is spreading rapidly to new areas, inside and outside the country. Though they face an obstinate, ruthless ruling elite, they are now more 'optimistic' about the future of their struggle than for many years. 'The days of the absolute monarchy,' one told me, 'are definitely numbered.'
Swaziland Democracy Campaign
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Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.