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.
- King Mswati issued an emergency declaration in response to the COVID-19 in March, which included restrictions on assemblies and in-person education and largely lasted through the year. A journalist fled Eswatini after his news outlet reported on Mswati’s apparent COVID-19 diagnosis, and Prime Minister Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini died of the illness in December.
- In August, the government published a draft cybercrime bill that would institute large fines or prison sentences against those accused of disseminating purportedly false news. While the government withdrew it from consideration in November after facing heavy criticism, it introduced a social media bill in December, which remained under consideration at year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The king is the chief executive authority and is empowered to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and members of the cabinet. Mswati III took the throne in 1986, four years after the death of his father, King Sobhuza II.
The prime minister is ostensibly the head of government but has little practical power. Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini, a former banker, was appointed prime minister in October 2018. Dlamini died of COVID-19 in December 2020. Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku succeeded him on an acting basis.
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.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The 73-member House of Assembly, the lower chamber of the bicameral Parliament, includes 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 10 members. If female representation does not exceed 30 percent of the lower house, an additional four women may be elected by the body; parliamentarians did so in November 2018.
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 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.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
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.
|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?
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 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 Mswati’s grip on power, even given the serious risks involved. In May 2019, political activist Goodwill Sibiya filed a legal complaint over the king’s management of the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane (Wealth of the Nation) investment fund. Sibiya was then arrested on suspicion of sedition and membership in the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), though he was released by May 2020. Civil servants held protests in August and September 2019. In December 2019, the police raided the homes of prominent opposition leaders, arresting and briefly detaining individuals including PUDEMO secretary general Wandile Dludlu. Although the police denied targeting prodemocracy activists, the arrests indicated the authorities’ intolerance of political reform efforts.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
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.
|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?
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.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
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, with the lower house of Parliament falling well short of a 30 percent gender quota after the 2018 elections. Even after the invocation of the Election of Women Members to the House of Assembly Act, which allowed for the selection of another four female legislators, women only represent 9.6 percent of the House of Assembly. Women hold 40 percent of seats in the Senate, which is not directly elected.
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 are also politically marginalized.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
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 2018 without any constitutional process or parliamentary approval.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
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 ACC, which reports to the Justice Ministry, lacks adequate financial and human resources and must consult with the minister on hiring. In 2018, a cabinet committee was established to develop a zero-tolerance policy on corruption in government, but its ability to create an effective anticorruption framework remains unclear. The Tibiyo Taka Ngwane fund has reportedly been used for the king’s personal gain, with PUDEMO accusing Mswati of using it to bolster his personal income as far back as 2011.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
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 2018, which broadly prevents officials from providing public information to the media unless given express permission by the secretary of the cabinet.
|Are there free and independent media?
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. Journalists often face harassment, assault, and intimidation, and self-censorship is reportedly common. The state broadcaster is tightly controlled by the government, and the Swazi Observer, a major newspaper, is effectively owned by the king.
Several journalists faced questioning, detention, or other forms of scrutiny for their reporting or their own political activity during the year. Swaziland News editor Zweli Martin Dlamini fled Eswatini twice in 2020; in February, he left the country after being detained and physically assaulted by police for reporting on the king. In late April, he fled to South Africa after the outlet reported on King Mswati’s apparent COVID-19 diagnosis. In April, police interrogated and seized documents from Swati Newsweek managing editor Eugene Dube, who fled Eswatini in May. In November, Swazi Observer managing editor Mbongeni Mbingo was suspended from his post for his reported membership in Vuka Sive, which is considered an antimonarchical political group.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
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 early 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.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
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.
In August 2020, the government published a draft cybercrime bill that would penalize the dissemination of purportedly false news with heavy fines or imprisonment of up to 10 years. The bill was heavily criticized by legislators, who warned it would impinge on media and individual freedoms, and the government withdrew it in November after a parliamentary committee rejected the bill’s false-news provisions. In December, the government introduced a social media bill which remained under consideration at year’s end.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is restricted. 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 have taken place in spite of these risks. Demonstrations that are not perceived as a direct challenge to the king, meanwhile, have been allowed to go forward. Assemblies of greater than 50 people were restricted by King Mswati in March 2020 as part of the country’s COVID-19 response.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
The operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has been inhibited by broadly written sedition and terrorism laws as well as police monitoring and interference. Organizations that advocate for democracy remain banned.
Despite the restrictions, it appears there is limited tolerance of some forms of human rights-based legal activism. For example, Women and Law Southern Africa–Swaziland was allowed to bring a case on gender equality in divorce settlements, with the court deciding in its favor in 2019. In October 2020, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre was allowed to submit an opinion on the pending cybercrime bill to Parliament.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
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, 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 High Court’s full bench unanimously ruled 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. While the original applicant of the case withdrew, the NGO she collaborated with, Women and Law Southern Africa–Swaziland, was allowed to proceed with the application on its own.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Despite the 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.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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 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. In October 2020, the High Court considered a challenge from an NGO advocating for LGBT+ rights, Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities, to be added to the government’s registrar of companies. The court’s decision was pending at year’s end.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
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.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
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 made 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 2019, the finance minister 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. Progress in this reform effort was slow in 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
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; in March 2020, the UN resident coordinator for Eswatini reported that 48 percent of Swazi women and girls experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Punishment for perpetrators is often lenient.
The Eswatini government did made make progress on 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, in 2019.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
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. The royal family has extensive privileges compared to ordinary citizens.
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Global Freedom Score17 100 not free