News | Participation / Civil Rights - Africa - Southern Africa Is Africa’s Last Absolute Monarch under Threat?

The Kingdom of Eswatini has been rocked by protests in recent months. Is the country at a turning point?



Bheki Makhubu,

A protester holds a mock weapon during protests in Matsapha, Eswatini, 13 October 2021. picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

Some four months ago, it would have been unimaginable to speak of the people of Eswatini without mentioning their monarch, King Mswati III. Yet since the events of the week of 29 June 2021, when the country’s youth went on the rampage, looting shops, burning buildings, and setting fire to tyre barricades on public roads, calls for an end to the monarchy and the institution of a democratic government have grown louder.

Bheki Makhubu is Editor-in-Chief of The Nation, the sole independent publication in Eswatini. He was jailed in March 2014 on charges of contempt of court following the publication of articles criticizing the judicial system and spent 15 months in prison.

These unprecedented riots and the violence accompanying calls for political reform — the second wave of which broke on 20 October 2021 — are unprecedented in this country of just 1.2 million people. The violence and unrest are a sign that the symbiosis between the king and his people, cultivated over many centuries, has disintegrated. EmaSwati — the people of Eswatini — no longer see their king as the revered, unifying figure traditionally symbolized by an African lion.

Instead, King Mswati III has been reduced to an object of derision, a gluttonous monarch who seems to care only for his vast royal family of 15 wives and many children — an attitude underscored by his 2019 purchase of a Rolls-Royce for each of his wives and another for the Queen Mother. This, at a time when his people continue to sink into poverty, with no hope for salvation from the one person whose principal function is to care for them, and without whom they had believed there could be no future. The people of Eswatini feel abandoned by their king and are furious about it.

Mswati III’s Bitter Legacy

King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, ascended the throne at the age of 18 on 25 April 1986, bringing new hope to the people of this small country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique at the bottom of the continent.

His coronation had been preceded by four years of internal wrangling over the throne within the royal family after the demise of King Sobhuza II in August 1982. That in-fighting destabilized the country, and left Eswatini’s people with an even stronger conviction that their lives depended on the ongoing, stable reign of a monarch.

Not anymore.

In the 400 years that historians claim the people of Eswatini have existed as a nation, they have never known any other form of rule other than monarchy. That the country survived being annexed by the neighbouring Union of South Africa after the Anglo–Boer War of 1899 is attributed to the Queen Regent of the time, Labotsibeni. She appealed to the British colonial power for protection from the Afrikaners, who wanted control over Eswatini for its agriculture.

However, it was the 61-year reign of King Sobhuza II, from 1921 to 1982, that sealed the relationship between the emaSwati and their king. This is the relationship which King Mswati III has destroyed during the 35 years he has been on the throne.

The Role of King Sobhuza

When African leaders emerged from among the citizenry to lead the struggle for independence across the continent in the 1960s, it was King Sobhuza II who led the emaSwati to their independence from the British in 1968. The country attained its independence with no civil war, and it was King Sobhuza who took the credit — it was said that his wisdom, shrewd negotiating skills, and care for his people gained them their freedom without a single shot fired or the shedding of any blood.

However, on 12 April 1973, he abrogated the independence-era constitution, which had been imposed on the emaSwati by the British as a pre-condition for independence. The effect of this move was the banning of political parties, signalling the end of a multi-party democracy in the country.

At the time, King Sobhuza stated that in the five years it had been part of the country’s law, the Constitution had become a threat to peace in Eswatini and had allowed for the importation of foreign practices incompatible with the Swazi way of life. The proclamation issued by King Sobhuza also dissolved parliament. Henceforth, he assumed absolute powers to rule by decree, with a council of cabinet ministers he appointed himself.

Although King Sobhuza reconstituted parliament in 1978, the election of MPs through an electoral college meant that ordinary citizens did not have a say on who represented them in the House of Assembly. In the same year, he introduced the Tinkhundla system of governance, which was meant to decentralize service delivery and accelerate community development by facilitating easier access to government at the grassroots level.

What Do Progressive Forces Demand?

However, at the beginning of the 1990s, when neighbouring South Africa began to break the shackles of apartheid and Mozambique’s civil war on the eastern border came to an end, the emaSwati began calling for political reform that would allow for broader popular participation in national politics.

In 1992, King Mswati III, now six years on the throne, removed the electoral college system from the election process, allowing voters to directly elect candidates of their choice to parliament. While this was hailed as a progressive step towards reform, political parties were still banned, and parliamentarians could only be elected as independent candidates.

The argument in defence of this new political process was that it allowed individuals with political aspirations to stand for election without having to go through party-political processes. A seat in parliament was, therefore, guaranteed for any individual who managed to secure the popular vote.

The 1990s were nevertheless characterized by the rise of trade union activism which, while ostensibly directed towards collective bargaining with employers over bread-and-butter issues, gradually shifted its focus towards politics, with growing calls for democracy in Eswatini under a multi-party system.

In 1996, the then-Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions called for a mass stay-away that shut down the country for a week. It was a non-violent protest, in which workers stayed at home to pressure the government to act on 27 demands for labour reform and the democratization of the country submitted by the trade union. While the government responded positively to some of the demands, the most significant response being the enactment of the Industrial Relations Act in 2000, King Mswati would not budge on the calls for multi-party democracy.

The 2005 Constitution

Instead, the government began the process of enacting a new constitution. It was this document, the people were told, which would answer the question of the country’s political future.

Indeed, in July 2005, after extensive consultations across the country with ordinary emaSwati, King Mswati promulgated the new “Constitution of 2005” as the supreme law of the land. Although generous in granting fundamental freedoms under a Bill of Rights, the constitution still did not open up the space for multi-party politics. Freedom of association, assembly, expression, religion, and choice, were among the rights enshrined in the new document. However, the Constitution endorsed the rule of standing for elections on the basis of individual merit. In Section 79, it states: “The system of government for Swaziland [Eswatini] is a democratic, participatory, Tinkhundla-based system which emphasises devolution of state power from the control of government to Tinkhundla areas and individual merit as a basis for election or appointment to public office.”

The “Tinkhundla system” refers to the 59 local constituencies, where people are able to convene, discuss, and receive directions (and services) from the government. The intention of this system was to render political parties unnecessary. Despite all this, ordinary citizens have continually been frustrated by the fact that the courts, particularly the High Court and the Supreme Court, are reluctant to uphold the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights.

In May 2008, three years after promulgation of the Constitution, a coalition of pro-democracy groups challenged its legality in the courts. They sought a court order to force government to convene a constitutional assembly or national convention where a more legitimate constitution would be drafted and adopted by the people of Eswatini.

The Supreme Court declined the request. Justice Pat Tebbutt said: “The people of Swaziland, despite the protestations of the appellants to the contrary, took part in that [Constitutional] process. Views were expressed, submissions and representations made, and the reports collating and analysing those views were put before the King. It has been said that a Constitution embodies what is in substance an agreement reached by various shades of public opinion as to how the sovereign power of the state is to be exercised in the future. It is usually evolutionary, not revolutionary. That is what occurred in South Africa. It is also what happened in this country.”

The Constitution, despite its supremacy in law, has never found a firm footing in Eswatini in the 16 years of its existence. Besides the fact that it has been rejected by pro-democracy formations, traditionalists still consider it as a threat to the powers of the king. They are of the view that King Mswati cannot have his powers curtailed and be subject to a mere piece of paper, as they call it. This is why, in 2018, the king was able to change the name of the country from Swaziland to Eswatini without following the precepts of the Constitution, or any efforts being made by the legislature .

Eswatini’s Not-So-Democratic Parliament

Parliament, which is comprised by the House of Assembly, has 59 elected members and a further ten who are appointed by the king. There is also the senate, considered the upper house, which has ten members elected by the House of Assembly and 20 appointed by the king.

Despite the parliamentary reforms during the 1990s for the majority of MPs elected directly by the people, parliament still does the king’s bidding and protects his absolute powers. In addition to this, the Constitution allows the king to appoint the prime minister and cabinet ministers from among the members of both houses of parliament at his sole discretion.

Challenging the king’s powers to appoint the prime minister got three members of parliament into hot water early this year. Charges were brought against them under the country’s terrorism laws when they presented the matter to their constituencies, a move now considered to have triggered the countrywide protests in June. The three MPs had called on parliament to amend the Constitution to remove the king’s powers of appointing the prime minister, so that any individual could stand for election for that position. When they failed to garner the necessary support from other members, they spoke out about the situation in their local constituencies. Young protesters seized on the matter in order to bring up their own grievances about unemployment and poor governance, among others issues.

Two of these MPs remain incarcerated in the country’s maximum security prison awaiting trial, having been denied bail twice. The third is on the run, reportedly hiding somewhere in South Africa.

An Ailing Economy and a Society in Uproar

The youth of Eswatini, particularly university graduates, make up the majority of the unemployed. The latest official unemployment figures stand at 23.3 percent. An article published by the American financial news site 24/7 Wall Street in May 2021 stated that Eswatini was ranked fourth among the top five countries with the widest gap between rich and poor.

Yet an incident in early May this year, when a law student at the University of Eswatini in his final year died tragically in what was later described as an act of police brutality, is what triggered the wave of youth demonstrations. Students at the university were joined by the youth from other parts of the country in protest actions calling for the police to be held accountable for the death of Thabani Nkomonye, who died after a vehicle chase with the police.

Eswatini’s economy has been struggling for over a decade, having never really recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis. In the last five years, public servants have only received a 3-percent cost of living adjustment to their wages. The government has flatly told trade union representatives that there is no money available to improve workers’ conditions.

Public hospitals are also falling apart. The severity of the healthcare crisis is demonstrated by medication shortages in many hospitals, as well as recent reports that the country’s biggest healthcare facility, Mbabane Government Hospital, had run out of food for admitted patients.

A 60-percent share of the revenue from the Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU) goes to Eswatini, funds which are necessary to keep the country running. When the 2008 global crisis hit, this revenue sank to crippling levels. Established in 1910, SACU is a revenue sharing scheme between South Africa and the former British Protectorates of Eswatini, Lesotho, and Botswana, and also includes Namibia. Its primary function is to improve economic trade in the region.

With reduced revenue from the customs union, a failure to attract foreign direct investment, and a dwindling tax base, the vast majority of the emaSwati have continued to sink deeper into poverty. However, King Mswati’s personal fortunes have soared exponentially over the same period. Besides the purchase of the most luxurious possible vehicles for his mother and wives, his vanity project —the construction of a five-star hotel and convention centre with taxpayers’ money, a stone’s throw away from one of his palaces — continues unabated, bedevilled by reports of corruption and money laundering as costs rise.

When building works began, it was said the project would cost 350 million South African rand to complete. It is currently far from completion, but the costs have already ballooned to an extraordinarily 6 billion rand, and are still rising.

The Role of the Southern African Development Community

South Africa almost completely surrounds the tiny kingdom, except on its eastern border, which it shares with Mozambique — a smaller trading partner, mainly because it is not a member of the customs union. Moreover, all goods consumed in Eswatini come from South Africa, which is the country’s biggest trading partner.

It was therefore significant that on 2 November, the SADC South African Development Community (SADC) sent South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as Chairman of the SADC Organ on Police, Defence and Security, to meet King Mswati III to discuss the political crisis in Eswatini. It was at this meeting that King Mswati finally agreed to call a national dialogue to thrash out the problems besetting the country in recent months.

The dialogue is scheduled for early 2022, when King Mswati will return from being secluded during the annual Incwala traditional sacred ceremony. He is expected to resume his public duties at the end of January or very early in February. Ramaphosa and King Mswati agreed that the terms of reference for the dialogue would be drafted by the SADC Secretariat, in consort with the government of Eswatini.

The communiqué released after the meeting stated that these terms of reference would take into consideration the country’s Constitution, the role of parliament, and the traditional forum of Sibaya. However, the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) which has been agitating for political reform, and represents political groups, civil society, women, children, the church, and labour, has rejected the SADC’s dialogue recommendations.

Which Way Forward for the emaSwati?

The major bone of contention is the use of Sibaya as a forum for a national dialogue. As a traditional structure, Sibaya is a centuries-old forum where the emaSwati meet at the national cattle byre in order to canvass issues of national importance.

However, over the years this structure has failed to produce positive results when held at King Mswati’s palace. While people have continually expressed their dissatisfaction on matters of governance, there have been no positive outcomes from discussion. In other words, the king has ignored the people’s grievances emanating from Sibaya.

A spokesman for the MSF was quoted in a newspaper report as saying: “It [Sibaya] is not a neutral venue, the king and his government cannot be referees and players with the advantage of their own playground.” However, other observers have pointed out that the Sibaya is an institution that symbolizes the cultural aspects of the process and that its venue is not relevant, demonstrated by the fact that it has always been held at the king’s palace. Given that it is also the manner in which parliament is constituted, through individual election of members of parliament and the appointment of others by the king, the MSF has also rejected the SADC recommendation to use this forum as a vehicle towards taking the national dialogue forward.

The Constitution of 2005 is also seen by the MSF as a stumbling block to the realization of a democratic society. The MSF is using the present crisis to take a second shot at removing the Constitution, after the failed attempt through the courts in 2008. Despite having a Bill of Rights that are justiciable, the groupings calling for democracy in Eswatini have said: “The Constitution has oppressed us since adoption and is not one to free us. It cannot be that the very document that should be reviewed be the same one to guide the process going forward. It will like going around in circles.”

If the Multi-Stakeholder Forum indeed has its way in rejecting the interventions by SADC to resolve the crisis in Eswatini, it is not clear how the present deadlock can be broken. The government has rejected calls by the MSF for the dissolution of government and parliament, and that an interim government be put in place while the dialogue continues.

The Director of the King’s Office, Percy Simelane, has said: “If we are to end up with decisions that would be accepted by SADC, the AU and the UN, we have to go through the process contained in the (SADC) Troika joint statement of 2 November. Shifting the goal posts can never be in the best interests of the majority of this great nation.”

Indeed, hitherto, the kingdom of Eswatini has remained the only peaceful country in the Southern African region since independence, despite the absence of democracy, thanks to the strong bonds that existed between the monarchy and its people. However, the monarchy’s shift in focus towards self-interest may prove to be its undoing.