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Overhauling the feudal regime in Swaziland.

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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Author:Onadipe, Abiodun
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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