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HighBeam Research

Title: Overhauling the feudal regime in Swaziland.

Date: 12/1/1996; Publication: Contemporary Review; Author: Onadipe, Abiodun

The People's United Democratic Movement and other pro-reform groups in


Swaziland rose against the Kingdom to press for an overhaul of its feudal structure.
The damaging strike called for a reinstatement of the 1968 Constitution that holds
multi-party democracy and bans traditional chieftaincy. The constitution was
suspended by King Mswati's father upon state emergency declaration in 1973. The
strikers returned to work when the King compromised on modifying the constitution,
but pressure from Britain and South Africa may have also influenced this decision.

Being next door to the burgeoning democracy in the new South Africa, the feudal
government in the Kingdom of Swaziland is fighting a losing battle against the
increasing democratic tidal wave that is currently buffering the country. Nevertheless,
it appears ready and willing to dig in its heels in a last ditch attempt to survive with its
absolute monarchical style of government. Although Swaziland's King Mswati, the
only ruler in southern Africa resisting multi-party politics, is standing firm against the
forces of change in his tiny land-locked Kingdom, his absolute control has been
eased slightly following the staging of the country's longest national strike last
January. This marked the real genesis of democratic opposition in the country since
the state of emergency was declared in 1973.

The eight-day stoppage was called by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions
(SFTU) in alliance with pro-reform groups such as the People's United Democratic
Movement (PUDEMO) to press for multi-party elections and an end to the absolute
monarchy system. The strikers returned to work on January 29 under the guns of
royal troops and the police after a hard-line threat by the King. Although the strike
ended without any formal agreement between the government and the unions (which
was demanding a response to its 27-point list of grievances), the SFTU initially found
comfort in the fact that it had won a government promise that legalising political
parties through the reinstatement of the 1968 Constitution, suspended by Mswati's
father in 1973, was on the agenda and would be discussed. The trade union claimed
to have suspended the action and threatened to resume it unless the government
allowed it to call a mass meeting of workers - which is not allowed under Swaziland's
new Industrial Relations Act.

Under growing pressure from Britain (Baroness Chalker, the Overseas Development
minister visited in February) and South Africa (which is now openly critical of the
Swazi government - President Mandela visited in March), King Mswati declared that
he was going to reinstate the suspended constitution. But this failed to conciliate the
opposition. PUDEMO President, Kilson Shongwe, declared that the King could not
unilaterally decide to revive the constitution, neither could he appoint his loyalists to
write a new constitution for the country. 'He isn't the one to decide for the Swazi
nation. We think that is very dictatorial and unacceptable,' Shongwe remarked to the
South African news agency, SAPA. PUDEMO wants a national convention of all
parties to work out an acceptable way forward.

A PUDEMO spokesman in London believes that the King was merely stalling in
asking for time from the opposition groups to consider a 'new political dispensation'
for the country. There is deep scepticism about his intention of modifying this
constitution. Shongwe, according to SAPA, claims that Mswati was only trying to
protect himself and his government in the presence of Lady Chalker: 'We don't think
that he was very serious when he said this. Perhaps it was just to please her.'

However, political and labour analysts believe that the King's intervention was crucial
in ending this damaging strike (estimated to have cost [pounds]1,973,684 a day),
when he delivered an uncompromising speech to his royal warrior regiments during
which he accused the unions of trying to depose him and ordered his subjects back
to work. (The PUDEMO spokesman in London disclosed that the King, who had
been aware of the strike all along, waited until the action was nearing its conclusion
before delivering this speech.) The institution of the monarchy is almost universally
respected in Swaziland, though it is being sorely tested by the increasingly vocal
urban youth and by intellectuals who have been pushing for the introduction of multi-
party democracy in the country. The political situation is changing rapidly as young
people are getting increasingly restive and harder to control.
It is now more than likely that labour unrest will revisit Swaziland repeatedly until the
required political reforms are instituted. A planned follow-up of action in January was
called off in February, ostensibly to give negotiations with the government a chance
to succeed. The unions are insisting on the repeal of the 1973 Royal decree which
proscribed all political parties and established a state of emergency. 'The removal of
1973 unlocks everything', declared Jan Sithole, SFTU secretary-general, who was
arrested and detained briefly along with his deputy, Jublani Nxumalo and the
president, Richard Nxumalo, for 'violating laws of the country'.

Political pressure has been building up in Swaziland over the past three years for
action to force the government to unban political parties and hold multi-party
elections. The SFTU is in an alliance of pro-democracy groups called Confederation
for Full Democracy in Swaziland - made up of PUDEMO, which has called for mass
action in favour of democracy, Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco) and Human
Rights Association of Swaziland (HUMRAS). PUDEMO, which claims to have 35,000
registered members and many potential members working in the party's
underground structures, has for the past two years maintained that it would make the
country ungovernable until reforms are instituted, but it lacked the necessary means
to realise this goal, because the political opposition in Swaziland were weak and
divided. But since its alliance with the SFTU, it has become more militant. The
SFTU, on its own part, is determined to back campaigning for the overthrow of King
Mswati's non-party Tinkhundla (traditional chieftaincy councils) system of
government.

The SFTU's January action has been condemned by royalists as an attempt by


political radicals to stop King Mswati from implementing the final stage of his own
political reorganisation, aimed at democratising the non-party system, which began
in 1992. The final stage involves the drafting of a democratic constitution which
would enshrine an hereditary monarchy, incorporate fundamental individual rights
and which could ultimately perpetuate the proscription of political activity. It now
seems that events have overtaken this issue as the King talks about reinstating the
1968 Constitution.
Though the reforms suggested by the Vesula (greeting) committees in 1990 and
1991 brought a marked improvement to the feudal political structure of the Kingdom,
they still fell far short of the opposition's expectations. It is undoubtedly a delicate
balancing act that the young King must perform as he tries gingerly to evolve the
ancient customary political structures he inherited in 1986. The King's reforms must,
on the one hand, be all-encompassing, to satisfy the demands of the pro-democracy
groups but, on the other hand, they must be curtailed enough not to upset the ultra-
conservative camp of royal courtiers, linked to the King through blood and marriage.
A classic case of 'between two stools you fall'. A brief examination of Swaziland's
recent political history would be beneficial in understanding the need for far reaching
reforms.

The Kingdom of Swaziland came into being on April 25 1967 under a self-governing
constitution. It was the last British territory in Africa (apart from Rhodesia) to gain
independence. Swaziland became an independent Kingdom, headed by King
Sobhuza II, and a member of the Commonwealth on September 6 1968. The new
Constitution provided that executive authority be vested in the hereditary King
(Ngwenyama - the Lion), who would appoint the prime minister and, on the latter's
advice, the cabinet.

In 1973, King Sobhuza staged a coup when he scrapped the constitution in reaction
to a perceived threat posed by increased support for the opposition in parliament.
(The King's party, the Imbkodvo National Movement, lost three of the 50 seats in the
House of Assembly in 1972 - its first loss since independence - to the Ngwane
National Liberation Congress.) The King's attempt to deport one of the opposition
MPs was successfully legally challenged and the King went on to declare a state of
emergency: he suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament and set up a
national army.

Five years later, parliament was reinstated and indirect elections on a non-party
basis were held, underpinned by the Tinkhundla (traditional chieftaincy councils)
which preserved the royal control of executive and legislative processes. The
functions of the Libandla, the bicameral legislature (comprising the House of
Assembly and the Senate), were limited to debating government proposals and to
advising the King. Eventually, the monarch's control became absolute, increasingly
conservative and personal. This was subsequently enshrined in the 1978
Constitution, which introduced the new system of government where the King
appointed ten deputies to the 40-member House of Assembly while the remainder
were elected indirectly through the Tinkhundla, comprising chiefs appointed by the
King. Equally, the King appointed the majority of senators, whilst the House deputies
nominated ten of their number to the 'upper house'.

The present monarch, King Mswati III - the second youngest of King Sobhuza's 70
children - ascended the throne in April 1986 aged nineteen, after a turbulent and
divisive regency resulting from his father's death in August 1982. (Although
succession to the throne is governed by traditional law and custom, the 1978
Constitution provided that in the event of the King's death, the powers of the head of
state are transferred to the constitutional dual monarch, the Queen Mother
(Indlovukazi - the Great She Elephant) who is authorised to act as Regent until the
heir apparent attains the age of twenty-one.) Whereas Mswati was crowned in 1986,
his Kingship was confirmed in 1989 after he turned twenty-one.

As there was no genuine democracy or structures of accountability at the ascension


of King Mswati, corruption and nepotism thrived. The King moved quickly to
eliminate this by dissolving parliament a year earlier than expected. But the elections
of November 1987 seemed to perpetuate the problem, mainly because in the indirect
electoral system of the Tinkhundla, the chiefs appointed deputies at their discretion.
This time, however, none of the 40 deputies had previously been members of the
House of Assembly. But of the ten deputies nominated by the King, eight had been
ex-members. To make matters worse, most of the King's appointees became cabinet
ministers.

The limited impact of the ordinary Swazi voter on the composition of the government
through the discredited Tinkhundla system became the lightning rod for growing
disaffection amongst the urban population. Attempts by Parliament to review the
legislative structure were met by the royalist excuse that it would be 'un-Swazi' to
challenge an established traditional institution. But opposition to the Tinkhundla,
whose origin dates back to the 19th century when Swazi Kings established royal
villages to facilitate the centralisation of their powers, was also rife amongst the
chiefs. In 1989 they advocated a system of direct parliamentary elections.

This debate about the future of the Tinkhundla opened the Pandora's box of
democratic resistance to the absolute monarchy with the escalation of labour unrest
in the public and private sectors coupled with student demonstrations. This
culminated in the re-emergence in 1990 of PUDEMO - which had been formed
during the tumultuous regency. All this led to a predictable crackdown by the
government and a sensational treason trial in 1991 of twenty pro-democracy
activists, who were surprisingly acquitted. This trial highlighted the absence of basic
rights in Swaziland and gave the underground movement a boost. PUDEMO began
to establish blatant underground structures and alliances with other illegal
organisations such as Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco) and the Human Rights
Association of Swaziland (HUMRAS) to advance its objectives. Two further
opposition groups - Swaziland United Front (SUF) and Swaziland National Front
(SWANAFRO) - subsequently emerged.

Following growing public unrest, with several confrontations between trade unions
and the government, the King eventually agreed to review the Tinkhundla. He
established an indaba (popular parliament) co-ordinated by the Vusela (greeting)
committee to conduct a rolling forum to discuss and recommend improvements to
the controversial system of indirect elections. PUDEMO reportedly stepped up its
political campaign for reforms and an end to the corrupt system. In February 1992,
PUDEMO 'unbanned' itself and declared itself a legal opposition party in direct
contravention of the prohibition order.

In October 1992, King Mswati approved a number of amendments to the electoral


system. The House of Assembly was expanded to 65 deputies. Of these, 55 would
be directly elected by secret ballot from candidates put forward by the Tinkhundla,
the remaining ten would still be appointed by the King. The Senate membership was
also increased from 24 to 30, the King appointing 20 members and the House of
Assembly nominating the remainder from their number. The King also abolished the
notorious 60-day detention-without-trial legislation, but the state of emergency
persisted. The political parties remained unbanned, though as associations they are
tolerated by the government. PUDEMO declared its opposition to the electoral
reforms and insisted on the establishment of a national convention to discuss the
country's constitutional future.

For the first time since November 1972, parliamentary elections were held by secret
ballot over two rounds in September and October despite the reformists' groups'
attempts to organise a boycott. The low turn-out indicated widespread objection to
the revision. Although voting was still held on a non-party basis, the election
produced a number of surprising results. All but three ministers of the incumbent
cabinet were rejected at the polls, including the Prime Minister, Obed Dlamini.
Consequently, the King had to appoint a caretaker prime minister with responsibility
for all sixteen ministerial portfolios, pending the appointment of the new government.
Prince Jameson Mbilini Dlamini was selected prime minister, marking the return of
the princes to government. Mbilini's appointment was welcomed by the monarchists
because he was seen as a conservative royalist, despite the fact that his cabinet
included several reformist ministers.

In response to a 1994 US State Department report that the election had been
undemocratic, the Deputy Prime Minister, Sishayi Nxumalo, claimed that the majority
of people had expressed themselves opposed to multi-party democracy which, he
maintained, Swazis saw as being divisive and resulting in bloodshed. Inevitably, the
agitation became more militant following a warning by the Confederation for Full
Democracy in Swaziland in September 1994 that civil war was imminent if the
'undemocratic government' did not call free elections. In the early part of 1995,
Swaziland witnessed an outbreak of amateurish arson attacks on the parliament and
high court buildings and the property of government officials. This signified initial
manifestations of overt political violence sponsored by the opposition groups.

Unexpectedly, the focus shifted from the illegal opposition parties to the recognised
trade union movement when the SFTU called a two-day general strike on 13-14
March 1995 to press the government to act on a list of 27 demands which had been
put forward in January 1994. Although these demands focused on labour issues,
including the reinstatement of dismissed workers, the strike could be clearly seen as
part of the wider political struggle. The government reacted swiftly by setting up a
committee to consider the union's demands. The strike was called off to await the
committee's recommendations.

A second general strike was narrowly averted in July - a proposed repeat action for
the inconclusive March stay-away - when the government hastily passed legislation
to strengthen its anti-strike powers and the King announced that the boycott would
provoke a violent official response. This January's walk-out was the latest instalment
in the increasingly bitter battle since the SFTU joined forces with pro-democracy
groups last November. The uneasy political calm that has reigned for the past three
years in the Kingdom of Swaziland still hangs gloomily over the country as the
skirmishes for political reforms continue intermittently.

The Swaziland government and the monarch often get prickly when criticised for
their unusual democratic dispensation, especially by outsiders. King Mswati, backed
by the Senate, vigorously defended his country's political system during a visit last
year to South Africa. He impressed upon President Mandela that his people have
developed their own type of democratic institutions and had elected a representative
parliament which 'reflected the wishes of the whole nation'. The King asserted that
much of his country's development was 'unfamiliar' and 'misunderstood' by
observers. While the institution of the monarchy is almost universally respected in
Swaziland as seen in the way in which the King broke up the January strike - union
leaders, university students and pro-democracy associations have in recent years
being chipping away at this all-powerful traditional institution. For instance, the King
has been asked by the opposition movement to temporarily abdicate and go into
exile to allow real reforms to happen.

Although Swaziland's opposition remains small and fragmented, it has been


encouraged by the political changes that have occurred in South Africa and the rest
of the region. What is more, the opposition are relishing the victories and
concessions that are being wrested from the government. It is expected that
PUDEMO, with its support extending well beyond its paid-up membership will fare
well in an election and it is not about to give up after the achievements won thus far.
The ironic aspect of the whole issue is that Swaziland, which has been an oasis of
peace in a region wracked by political violence, is sliding into chaos at a time when
its neighbours are finding political and economic stability of sorts. The next few
months will be tense because Swaziland is in a very fluid state but it would be
interesting to see whether the young King will try to crush the opposition movement
as his father did. The opposition believes he would not consider such steps at this
stage. He might bow to the 'winds of change' that are currently blowing across the
region. King Mswati cannot afford to put off the inevitable and the sooner he accepts
and relents, the better. This is his chance to produce lasting peace in the country as
well as carving out a dignified role for himself as a constitutional monarch. Returning
to the Independence Constitution provides a good starting point for reconciliation but
giving the people a truly democratic voice in government is more important and
should not be denied them any longer.

Dr Abiodun Onadipe is a specialist in International Relations and Conflict Analysis.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

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