Swaziland | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The Constitutional Drafting Committee worked on a draft constitution that was expected to be revealed early in 2003, following five years of work by the Constitutional Review Commission. Party politics are expected to remain banned, and the monarchy is expected to continue to wield absolute power. Although the commission assembled what it claimed were the views of ordinary Swazis regarding the type of government they want, no record of those submissions has been released, nor has there been an accounting of how many Swazis presented their views or what they said. To counter the draft constitution, Lawyers for Human Rights was drafting its own version of a new constitution in 2002. The group envisions a constitutional monarchy, a multiparty system, and a bill of rights that includes rights for women.

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.

In a letter, Father Claudio Avallone, who formerly resided in Swaziland, in 2002 accused King Mswati III of abusing tradition and of failing to alleviate poverty. The letter was authorized by the Roman Catholic archbishop in Swaziland. The Swaziland Democratic Alliance, an umbrella group of labor unions, human rights organizations, and political parties, endorsed the letter. The government in 2002 passed the Internal Security Bill, which upholds a ban on political opposition activity and stipulates that citizens can sue the organizers of protest marches if there is property damage resulting from demonstrations. The government action could have been aimed at stemming protests expected to follow the release of the draft constitution in 2003.

Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture. Many Swazi families depend on income from men working in South African mines. AIDS has taken a toll in Swaziland, where an estimated one in three people are infected with HIV. The monarchy provoked anger in 2002 when the king insisted on buying a $45 million jet while one-quarter of Swazis were suffering from food shortages resulting from poor harvests. The government in July 2002 announced that it was establishing formal diplomatic relations with Libya. The move was seen as an effort to seek a possible new source of development aid because the United States conditions aid on democratic reform.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 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 seeks 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.

A Swazi high court in August acquitted opposition leader Mariko Masuku, of the People's United Democratic Movement. He was detained in late 2001 and charged with sedition.

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. Swaziland's judicial system suffered a setback in December 2002, when six South African judges on the country's court of appeals resigned after the prime minister said the government would ignore court judgments that curbed the king's power. The judges had ruled that the king was acting unconstitutionally in ruling by decree and overturning court decisions. The government's relationship with the courts had been strained since the mother of an 18-year-old woman went to court to demand that her daughter be returned after palace aides allegedly abducted her from school to become the king's tenth wife. The government sent authorities, including the police commissioner and army commander, to tell the three judges presiding over the case that they must dismiss the lawsuit or resign.

There are regular reports of police brutality, including torture and beating. Security forces generally operate with impunity. However, prison conditions generally meet Western standards.

Freedom of expression is seriously restricted, especially regarding political issues or matters concerning the royal family. 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.

Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting the practice. The government restricts freedom of assembly and association. 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, and workers in all elements of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions. Wage agreements are often reached by collective bargaining, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized.