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Swaziland made no progress in 2001 on political reform, despite completion of work by the Constitutional Review Commission in the previous year. Political activists had little faith that the commission, which was formed in 1996 and largely composed of traditional chiefs or members of the royal family, would make recommendations that would lead to genuine reform. Political change has effectively been ruled out beyond the introduction of a bill of rights. The commission recommended retaining the country's existing power structure, meaning that party politics will remain banned, and the monarchy will continue to wield absolute power.
Swaziland has been ruled by decree since 1973, when King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution and declared himself absolute monarch. Swaziland, Africa's last remaining absolute monarchy, is the only southern African country without an elected government. King Mswati III is the latest monarch of the Dlamini dynasty, under which the Swazi kingdom expanded and contracted in conflicts with neighboring groups. Britain declared the kingdom a protectorate to prevent Boer expansion in the 1880s and assumed administrative power in 1903. In 1968, Swaziland regained its independence,and an elected parliament was added to the traditional kingship and chieftaincies. Sobhuza II, Mswati's predecessor, who died in 1983, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system in 1973.
King Mswati III in August 2001 revoked a royal decree that stripped the courts of their independence and muzzled the press. The decree would have allowed him to ban newspapers, jail his critics, and overturn court rulings. It introduced a state of emergency, gave the justice minister the power to appoint and fire judges at will, and prohibited newspapers from challenging publishing bans. The decree was widely condemned by Swaziland's trade unions and pro-democracy groups, as well as the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions. The decree was revoked after the United States threatened to withdraw preferential trade benefits enjoyed by Swaziland.
Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture. A drop in the world price of gold has hurt the economy, as many Swazi families depend on income from men working in South African mines.
Swazis are barred from exercising their right to elect their representatives or to change their government freely. All of Swaziland's citizens are subjects of an absolute monarch, King Mswati III. Royal decrees carry the full force of law. Voting in the October 1998 legislative elections was marked by very low turnout and was neither open nor fair. It was based on the Swazi tinkhundla system of closely controlled nominations and voting that seek to legitimatize the rule of King Mswati III and his Dlamini clan. Security forces arrested and briefly detained labor and other pro-democracy leaders before the elections and after a series of bomb blasts. The 55 elected members of the national assembly were government-approved and were joined by 10 royal appointees. The king also appoints 20 members of the senate, with the remaining 10 selected by the national assembly.
The dual-system judiciary, which is based on Western and traditional law, is generally independent in most civil cases, although the royal family and the government can influence the courts. In 1998, the king issued an administrative order that strengthened the judicial powers of traditional chiefs appointed by the king. Prison conditions have improved slightly.
There are regular reports of police brutality, including torture and beating. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Freedom of expression is seriously restricted, especially regarding political issues or matters concerning the royal family. An opposition leader, Mariko Masuku, of the People's United Democratic Movement, was detained in October 2001 after defying bail conditions. Legislation bans publication of any criticism of the monarchy. Self-censorship is widespread. Broadcast and print media from South Africa are received in the country. There is one independent radio station, but it broadcasts religious programming.
A court overturned a government ban in 2001 on the independent newspaper The Guardian and the monthly Nation magazine. Police raided the offices of The Nation and confiscated copies of the magazine after a court said it could resume publishing. Eighty journalists of the Swaziland Observer sued the paper for unfair dismissal in 2001. It had been closed in 2000 after reporters were accused of meddling in the private affairs of the royal family. The newspaper was later reopened.
Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting the practice. The government restricts freedoms of assembly and association. A 1973 decree prohibits meetings of a political nature without police consent.
The legal code provides some protection against sexual harassment, but in general Swazi women encounter discrimination in both formal and customary law. Employment regulations requiring equal pay for equal work are obeyed unevenly. Married women are considered minors, requiring spousal permission to enter into almost any form of economic activity, and they are allowed only limited inheritance rights. Violence against women is common, despite traditional strictures against it.
The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, the country's largest labor organization, has been a leader in demands for democratization. Unions are able to operate independently under the Industrial Relations Act, which allows workers in all elements of the economy, including the public sector, to join unions. Wage agreements are often reached by collective bargaining, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. Swaziland's industrial court in May 2001 ordered the government and police to stop interfering with meetings called by Swaziland's trade unions.