Not Free
PR Political Rights 1 40
CL Civil Liberties 18 60
Last Year's Score & Status
16 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Eswatini (known internationally as Swaziland until 2018) is a monarchy currently ruled by King Mswati III. The king exercises ultimate authority over all branches of the national government and effectively controls local governance through his influence over traditional chiefs. Political dissent and civic and labor activism are subject to harsh punishment under sedition and other laws. Additional human rights problems include impunity for security forces and discrimination against women and LGBT+ people.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • A series of protests organized by trade unions and prodemocracy groups took place in August and September, as civil servants demanded salary increases and they and other participants denounced the monarchy. Police responded violently to one protest event in September, firing tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators.
  • The police raided the homes of a number of prominent opposition leaders in December, arresting and briefly detaining them. Although the police denied the raids and arrests targeted prodemocracy activists, those arrested were known for political-rights advocacy.
  • The High Court in August set aside the common law doctrine on property in marital affairs, ruling in favor of gender equality with regard to property rights and inheritance. The ruling was seen as a victory for women’s rights, and as reflecting improvements in judicial independence.
  • The finance minister in February promised to institute wide-ranging economic reforms under which state-owned monopolies—considered key to the monarchy’s control of the country’s finances—would be less directly involved in the economy.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The king is the chief executive authority, and is empowered to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and members of the cabinet. The prime minister is ostensibly the head of government, but has little power in practice. Ambrose Dlamini was appointed prime minister by King Mswati III in October 2018.

Traditional chiefs govern their respective localities and typically report directly to the king. While some chiefs inherit their positions according to custom, others are appointed through royal interventions, as allowed by the constitution.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The 69-member House of Assembly, the lower chamber of the bicameral Parliament, has 59 members elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, which allows local chiefs to vet candidates and influence outcomes in practice; the king appoints the other 10 members. The king appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, the upper chamber, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. All members of Parliament serve five-year terms. After the parliamentary elections in September 2018, the king appointed six members of the royal family to the House of Assembly, and eight to the Senate. The elections, which were tightly controlled and featured a slate of candidates almost entirely loyal to the king, did not offer voters a genuine choice.

In August 2018, a senior official at the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) reported that members of the House of Assembly were accepting bribes in exchange for their votes in Senate elections, but no apparent consequences followed.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

The EBC is not considered impartial. It is financially and administratively dependent on the executive, and its members are appointed by the king on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, whose members are also royal appointees. Details of the results of September 2018 parliamentary elections were only made public in March 2019.

Traditional chiefs also play an important role in elections, as candidates effectively need their approval to run for office.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0.000 4.004

Election to public office is based on “individual merit,” according to the constitution. There is no legal avenue for parties to register and participate in elections, though some political associations exist without legal recognition. Over the years, political parties seeking legal recognition have suffered court defeats, including a Supreme Court ruling in September 2018 rejecting a challenge by the Swazi Democratic Party (SWADEPA) to the ban on political parties competing in elections.

A number of prodemocracy organizations and trade unions have continued to lobby for political reforms and have publicly challenged King Mswati’s grip on power, even given the serious risks involved. A series of protests led by civil servants took place in August and September 2019, with one event in September drawing a violent police response. In December, the police raided the homes of a number of prominent opposition leaders, arresting and briefly detaining them. Although the police denied the raids and arrests targeted prodemocracy activists, those arrested were prominent political rights activists, indicating Eswatini’s continued intolerance of political reforms.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

The king has tight control over the political system in law and in practice, leaving no room for the emergence of an organized opposition with the potential to enter government. The vast majority of candidates who contested the 2018 general elections were supporters of the king.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

Traditional chiefs, as the king’s representatives, wield enormous influence over their subjects. In addition to vetting prospective candidates for office, they have been accused of ordering residents to vote or not vote for certain candidates.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

There are virtually no members of minority groups in the government, as most officials have some connection to the royal family or its broader clan. Women are politically marginalized, and the authorities have not met a goal of having 30 percent of representatives in Parliament be women. The passage of the Election of Women Members to the House of Assembly Bill ahead of the 2018 elections requires the House of Assembly to elect four women if the quota is not met. In 2018, only two women were directly elected to the House of Assembly, and with the addition of the women appointed by the king and elected to the Senate by the House of Assembly, as well as the election of four more women resulting from the new legislation, Eswatini still falls short of the quota.

Customary restrictions on widows in mourning—a period that can last from one to three years—effectively bar women from participating in public affairs during that time. LGBT+ people and people with disabilities also remain politically marginalized.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

The king and his government determine policy and legislation; members of Parliament hold no real power and effectively act as a rubber stamp in approving the king’s legislative priorities. Parliament cannot initiate legislation and has little oversight or influence on budgetary matters. The king is also constitutionally empowered to veto any legislation. The absolute authority of the king was demonstrated by his decision to rename the country in April 2018 without any constitutional process or parliamentary approval.

C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

Corruption is a major problem, and implicated officials generally enjoy impunity. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is perceived to be ineffective, with civil society groups accusing it of pursuing politically motivated cases and serving the interests of the prime minister. The commission, which reports to the Justice Ministry, lacks adequate financial and human resources, and must consult with the minister on hiring.

In November 2018, a cabinet committee was established to develop a zero-tolerance policy on corruption in government, but it remains to be seen whether the committee can produce an effective anticorruption framework. In his annual budget report, delivered in February 2019, the minister of finance acknowledged that the government was not doing enough to fight corruption and promised to focus on “preventive initiatives” to deal with corruption and the “recovery of illicit assets.”

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

Eswatini lacks access-to-information laws, and there is no culture of proactive disclosure of government information. Public requests for information are largely ignored in practice, and the budgeting process lacks transparency. The authorities tightly restrict access to data on spending by the royal family and the security forces. Transparency was further reduced by Parliament’s passage of the Public Service Act in June 2018, which broadly prevents officials from providing public information to the media unless given express permission by the secretary of the cabinet.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1.001 4.004

A variety of laws, including the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (SSAA) and defamation laws, can be used to restrict media coverage by criminalizing publications that are alleged to be seditious, as well as the use of words that are alleged to be seditious, for example, those that “may excite disaffection” against the king.

The state broadcaster is tightly controlled by the government, and the Swazi Observer, a major newspaper, is effectively owned by the king. Journalists often face harassment, assault, and intimidation, and self-censorship is reportedly common. In January 2018, Zweli Dlamini, the editor of the independent business publication Swaziland Shopping, fled to South Africa after receiving death threats over a 2017 article alleging the king’s manipulation of the telecommunications industry to benefit a company he owns. Swaziland Shopping was later shut down by the government. Dlamini returned to Swaziland in late 2018, and is now the managing editor of the privately owned opposition online newspaper the Swaziland News, which is based in South Africa.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2.002 4.004

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and bars discrimination based on religion. Rules requiring registration of religious organizations are not strictly enforced. However, members of the Muslim minority allege discrimination by officials and Christian residents, and police reportedly monitor mosques. Non-Christian groups are also denied airtime on state broadcasters. Construction of religious buildings must be approved by the government or local chiefs. Christian education is compulsory in public schools, and in 2017, the government banned the teaching of other religions in the public school curriculum.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

Academic freedom is limited by restrictive laws such as the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) and the SSAA. Student activists face potential violence, arrest, and suspension. In January 2018, police arrested 11 students protesting the administration at Swaziland Christian University and used excessive force to break up the demonstration. In August 2019, police detained seven students who had been part of a demonstration organized by the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) to call for scholarships for higher education students; the government-aligned Swazi Observer said the students had engaged in property damage, while the protesters said they were mistreated in custody. In addition, students at a number of colleges and universities boycotted classes in November 2019 after the government failed to make payment of allowances, but the action did not appear to be met with interference.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

Constitutional rights to free expression are severely restricted in practice. Security agencies reportedly monitor personal communications, social media, and public gatherings, and criticism of the king or other elements of the regime can be punished under laws such as the SSAA, the STA, and the Public Order Act. Under revisions to the Public Order Act passed in 2017, any criticism of Swazi culture and traditions or defacement of national symbols—including the king’s image—can draw fines and up to two years in prison.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

Freedom of assembly remained restricted in 2019. Surveillance of protests is common, and the information collected is reportedly used to deny protesters access to government jobs and services. Demonstrations, notably by public workers demanding higher wages, are often violently dispersed by police, and protesters risk arrest and detention. Nevertheless, labor and prodemocracy protests continue to take place in spite of these risks. In September 2019, police responded with tear gas and water cannons to trade unions and prodemocracy groups who marched to demand salary increases for government employees, and in favor of political rights.

Demonstrations that are not perceived as a direct challenge to the king have been allowed to go forward. LGBT+ parades took place without incident in 2018 and 2019, for example.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because significant labor protests have continued despite the risk of violent crackdowns, and because the government has tolerated some demonstrations that it does not perceive as threatening to it.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

The operation of nongovernmental organizations has been inhibited by broadly written sedition and terrorism laws as well as police monitoring and interference. Organizations that advocate for democracy remain banned.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

Eswatini has active, vocal labor unions, but workers’ rights are poorly upheld in practice. Although workers in most sectors, with the exception of essential services defined by the labor minister, can join unions, strikes and other labor activism routinely trigger crackdowns and arrests by the police. A number of prodemocracy activists and former trade unions are exiled in South Africa, where they have been accommodated by South Africa’s Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—whose members periodically picket against the Eswatini government on South Africa’s border with the country.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 2.002 4.004

Although the judiciary displays a degree of independence in some cases, the king holds ultimate authority over the appointment and removal of judges, acting on advice from the Judicial Service Commission made up of royal appointees.

In a rare instance of judicial review that sought to change gender power relations in the traditional structure of Eswatini society, the High Court of Eswatini in August 2019 ruled in favor of gender equality in civil marriages, regarding property rights in the event of divorce. The court held that sections of the Marriage Act, in existence since 1964, were discriminatory toward women and violated the constitutional right to equality because women could not inherit property. Of critical importance in the advancement of judicial independence is that the full bench (three judges) were unanimous in their decision. While the applicant on whose behalf the case was filed withdrew from it, the NGO she was working with, Women and Law Southern Africa-Swaziland, was allowed by the judges to proceed with the application on its own.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because a decision by the High Court of Swaziland to hand down a judgement mandating gender equality in divorce settlements reflected a degree of judicial autonomy.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, such as time limits on detention without charge, are not always respected in practice. Detainees are generally granted access to lawyers, though only those facing life imprisonment or capital punishment can obtain counsel at public expense. Lengthy pretrial detention is common.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Despite the June 2018 passage of the Police Service Act, which prescribes disciplinary measures for police officers who use illegitimate force, physical abuse of suspects and inmates by law enforcement officials is an ongoing problem, and investigations into such abuse lack independence and transparency. Some prisons also suffer from overcrowding and other harsh conditions.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Women’s rights remain restricted in law and in practice. Both civil and customary law treat women as dependents of their fathers or husbands, and societal discrimination further impairs their access to education and employment. Residents who are not ethnic Swazis also face de facto discrimination. People with disabilities experience social stigma as well as discrimination in education and employment. In June 2018, King Mswati signed the Persons with Disabilities Act, intended to address many of the inequities experienced by disabled residents.

Discrimination against LGBT+ people is not prohibited by law and is widespread in practice. A criminal ban on same-sex sexual activity is not regularly enforced.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedom of movement. However, minority ethnic groups and political activists have faced delays in obtaining passports and other citizenship documents. Traditional chiefs regulate movement and residence within their communities and generally deny access to groups advocating for human rights or democracy. Individuals who violate customary rules can face eviction from their localities. Widows in mourning are barred from approaching chiefs or the king and excluded from certain public places and activities. While free movement is restricted in these cases, no broad-based policies or practices prevent or punish internal movement generally.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because while movement remains restricted by laws and traditional practices, particularly for women and minorities, the country is generally free of severe obstructions to internal travel.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

The constitution provides legal protections for property rights, but women generally face limitations under customary rules that subordinate them to male relatives. Widows in particular face expropriation by the deceased husband’s family. Chiefs have broad authority to allocate and withdraw rights to communal land.

However, some progress was posted in 2019, when the High Court ruled in favor of gender equality in civil marriages, granting women property rights in the event of divorce.

Individuals can face expropriation due to land claims by state-owned companies and powerful private interests, and constitutional guarantees of fair compensation are not upheld. In April 2018, Amnesty International reported that 61 people were forcibly evicted from their homes on land owned by a private agriculture company in the town of Malkerns; the residents were not given adequate notice of the eviction, nor were they provided with substantial compensation.

The finance minister in February 2019 promised to institute wide-ranging economic reforms that would see state-owned monopolies—considered key to the monarchy’s control of the country’s finances—loosen their grip on the economy.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Women’s social freedoms are restricted by both civil and customary law, which puts them at a disadvantage regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody. Customary law allowed girls as young as 13 to marry. Sexual and domestic violence remains extremely common, and any penalties for perpetrators are often lenient. The Eswatini government made some progress during 2019 toward protecting and promoting women’s rights by amending the 1964 Marriage Act to prohibit marriages of persons under the age of 18, and passing the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act, which criminalizes nonconsensual sex between spouses.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Residents have some access to formal employment and economic opportunity, but the majority of the population lives in poverty. Forced labor remains a problem, with some chiefs compelling Swazis, including children, to work in their communities or the king’s fields. Among other forms of child labor, girls are particularly vulnerable to domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation.

On Eswatini

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  • Global Freedom Score

    17 100 not free