Struggling for space

2011-04-19 00:00

IT looks certain that the pro-democracy-cum-crisis protests that escalated to unprecedented levels in Swaziland last week signal the beginning of a crisis that is likely to be for South Africa to resolve. What can South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) do to avoid a full political and economic meltdown similar to what happened in Zimbabwe?

Swaziland was the last British colony when it gained its independence in 1968. It was widely expected to buck the trend of other former colonies that descended into the abyss shortly after independence due to internal conflict, misrule and economic mismanagement.

Celebrating the end of the once-mighty British empire, a respected American newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal of September 6, 1968, reported that "Swaziland is comparatively well-off: rich in minerals with lots of land and water, and given its current good state of racial harmony, it has a fair chance of at least short-term stability and progress".

While the article was critical of King Sobhuza II's personal life — he was said to have had more than 70 wives at the time — it was thought that a combination of his strong leadership ability and a constitutional framework modelled on the British parliamentary democracy was the basis for Swaziland to buck the trend. A mixture of a monarchy and a parliamentary democracy was considered best suited to the African condition, and Swaziland was held up as the most likely trendsetter in this regard.

Therefore, the article concluded: "The Swazis are virtually a homogenous tribal unit ruled on tribal lines, which means it may be spared the tribal battles that tore Nigeria apart." Indeed, like Botswana, Swaziland has not been troubled by ethnic-defined divisions and conflict.

But the façade of good example lasted only a few years. In 1973, Sobhuza suspended the constitution and banned political parties which he saw as unAfrican. The new constitution of 1978 introduced a parliament elected only indirectly and strengthened the power of the monarchy over policy and politics in this tiny country.

In the climate of the cold war and political conflict in South Africa, in which Swaziland played a careful but entangled role, the kingdom would not be under the spotlight from international actors. Its controlled democracy, marked by a strong arm of the monarchy and its surrogate government, would remain largely under the radar until the nineties.

When the current king, King Mswati III, took over from his late father in 1986, he tightened his control by first abolishing an advisory body that made binding suggestions for him to decree in order to exercise his power more directly. With generous economic support from apartheid South Africa and political support from Western nations worried about the spread of communism through Angola, Mozambique, and Zambia, Swaziland avoided international pressure for restricting space for internal civil society to express itself. By the mid-eighties, apartheid South Africa would saturate the kingdom with security agents and spies in an attempt to weed out African National Congress activists running underground activities from there. This would also further limit space for a critical civil society.

But pressure from political formations that remained illegal under the 1978 constitution led to a dialogue on political reform, the result of which was the direct election of members of parliament in 1993. Further political campaigns led to a long and managed constitutional reform process culminating in the new constitution announced in 2003, which repealed provisions that limited the legal status of women and removed the king's right to rule by decree. But it avoided the issue of the banning of political parties and other formations.

Last week's protests must, therefore, be seen as part of the long history of the Swazi people's struggle for space and voice, as well as an attempt by pro-democracy forces to force the monarchy to make further concessions, especially the unbanning of political parties. It seems that protest politics have intensified in that protests are receiving greater international exposure than before and are threatening to make Swaziland ungovernable.

South Africa and SADC need to encourage Mswati's government to enter into dialogue with pro-democracy forces rather than suppressing them. Real dialogue would inevitably result in a move towards full democracy. It must ensure that SADC monitors the situation and offers to help facilitate the dialogue. Otherwise, with the current economic decline, Swaziland may collapse and further deepen South Africa's own problems.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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