This is what Swazi democracy looks like

Protest is escalating in Africa's last absolute monarchy reports Mike Marqusee

September 7, 2011
6 min read


Mike MarquseeMike 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.

The second Global Week of Action in Swaziland, organised by the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, which concludes this Friday (9 September), has already scored remarkable successes, amid terrible sacrifices. The week marks a new highpoint in the ongoing confrontation between an absolute monarchy that for decades has plundered the country and an increasingly emboldened democracy movement.

Events kicked off on 5 September with a mass demonstration through the heart of the capital city, Mbabane. One of the COSATU delegates who joined the protest reported: ‘The streets of Mbabane have been occupied by a range of different people, including workers, students, the legal profession, community and church activists, and all marching in unison and toyi-toying for freedom. They are united in one purpose, to challenge the continuing rule of Africa’s last absolute monarchy. There is an almost carnival atmosphere in the air!’

The next day the protest moved to the country’s largest city and economic hub, Manzini, where thousands surged through the streets. In a town of 75,000, this was equivalent to hundreds of thousands in a major European city. What’s more, these demonstrators were defying intimidation and a very real threat to their physical security, amidst conditions where the daily struggle for survival can be daunting.

Up until now, the police had stood back, a marked contrast with their behaviour at the last protests in April, dispersed with batons, tear gas and water cannon. The police were aware that they were being monitored by a variety of international observers and that the recently agreed, desperation-born South African bail-out was still vulnerable.

However, as the action spread on Wednesday (7 September) to other regions of the country, notably the small towns of Siteki in the east and Nhlangano in the south, the Swazi regime deployed the riot squads, firing rubber bullets and teargas. The regime is railing against an alleged ‘invasion by non Swazis’ – referring in particular to the 40 plus COSATU activists who crossed the border to join the protests. A number of COSATU representatives have been picked up by the armed forces and deported. It’s also reported, as I write, that senior Swazi trade union leaders and leaders of the main (banned) opposition party, PUDEMO, have been beaten up. In Manzini, police battled with young people.

However the week ends, the regime will have been the loser. The gains of the democracy movement in the streets may be fragile but they will have an intangible ripple effect.

In the run up to the week of action, Swaziland was wrestling with economic crisis. Years of maladministration, waste, corruption and gross inequality came to a head as a result of the global recession. A huge deficit opened, the government was unable to pay its bills and has only been saved from open bankruptcy by the loan of $370 million from South Africa. Public sector wages are being slashed or withheld, and the meagre provision for poverty relief has dried up. As a result of cuts in allowances, the country’s 6000 university students are boycotting classes.

The South African government seemingly had little reason to do Mswati any favours. The Swazi monarchy collaborated with the apartheid regime and harassed ANC activists on its soil. Nonetheless, the Zuma government’s concern for the established economic order overcame any historical resentment. COSATU, among others who wanted democratisation as a condition of a bail out, strongly disapproved. During the week of action, protests against the blank cheque bailout were held outside the South African parliament and branches of the South African Reserve Bank in cities across the country.

Mswati is known to have a personal fortune of more than $200million – while 70 per cent of his subjects live on less than a dollar a day. More than 40 per cent of the workforce are unemployed. The country suffers the world’s highest HIV infection rates and lowest life expectancy at birth (32 years).

However, Swaziland is also Africa’s third-biggest sugar producer and as such has become Coca-Cola’s southern African base. Mswati is a major partner in the business and is an honoured guest on his annual pilgrimages to Coke’s global HQ in Atlanta, Georgia. Mswati’s despotism is built on the sponsorship of multi-national corporations. Whether it’s telecommunications, media, mining, agriculture, or soft drinks, the royal family gets a piece of the action.

Mswati presides over the world’s longest running state of emergency, going back to 1973 when political parties were banned. Since then, the royal elite has ruled through the ‘tinkundla’ system – a top-down machine of patronage and corruption which they dignify as an authentic expression of Swazi ‘culture’. The king enjoys untrammelled executive and legislative power. Along with the vote, freedom of speech, assembly and association are suppressed, while the royal family treats the nation’s resources as private assets, accumulating vast fortunes without any kind of public scrutiny.

Long-simmering but disparate dissent acquired a new focus and channel with the launch of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign in February 2010. The Swazi trade unions provided the backbone and direction of the growing movement, working cooperatively and creatively with religious and community groups and civil society activists. Their Swazi unions’ joint work in this campaign has in turn led to the merger and unification of the country’s various labour federations, which can only add weight to the democracy movement.

SDC activists also highlight the vital contribution made by COSATU, across the border in South Africa. Unusually in the realm of trade union internationalism, they’ve matched words with deeds, putting material and political resources, and bodies on the ground, at the service of the SDC. The last few days have seen the regime challenged by a palpably united front of public sector workers, church members, lawyers, students and the unemployed. For the first time, there was significant mobilisation in rural regions, a hard-earned breakthrough for the democracy movement, and one that has elicited a violent reaction from the regime.

Despite harassment, detention and torture, SDC activists, bolstered by international trade union support, have mounted ever more ambitious actions, climaxing in this week’s events. They know the struggle ahead will be demanding, but they remain confident that the movement has taken a huge stride forward.

For supporters abroad, the priority is to isolate the Mswati regime, using all available forums and pressure points. One of the goals of the week of action is to raise global awareness – and across Africa it has succeeded in doing that. The lack of coverage in the mainstream media here in Britain by no means reflects the significance of developments in Swaziland, a small country with a big revolution-in-the-making.

For more background on the democracy struggle in Swaziland see Mike Marqusee’s previous article for Red Pepper


Mike MarquseeMike 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.


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