Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Nine years after appointing a constitutional reform committee, King Mswati III signed into law a new national constitution in July 2005. While the new constitution includes some cosmetic concessions to democratic rule, it effectively maintains the monarchy's ultimate governing powers. Civic groups opposed to the constitution staged a series of demonstrations during the year. In October, the government blamed numerous firebomb attacks in Mbabane on state targets on the banned political group People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).
Swaziland's 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. Swaziland regained its independence in 1968, and an elected parliament was added to the traditional kingship and chieftaincies. In 1973, Mswati's father, Sobhuza II, repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself absolute monarch. Sobhuza's death in 1982 led to a protracted power struggle and Mswati's eventual accession to the throne in 1986.
Voting in the October 1998 legislative elections was marked by a very low turnout and was neither open nor fair. It was based on the Swazi tinkhundla system, in which nominations and voting for 55 elected seats in the lower House of Assembly are tightly controlled by local chiefs allied with the monarchy. Security forces arrested and briefly detained labor and other prodemocracy leaders before the elections; the crackdown accelerated after a series of bomb blasts struck government targets.
Parliamentary elections in October 2003 were preceded by calls from critics of royal rule to boycott the polls. While the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) did not participate, other banned opposition parties ran candidates. The elections were not deemed credible by international observers. However, three opposition party members were elected.
In May 2003, the Constitutional Drafting Committee, chaired by Mswati's brother Prince David Dlamini, unveiled a draft constitution after three years of deliberations. The committee complemented the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), formed in 1995 after a period of civic unrest and chaired by another of Mswati's brothers, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini. While the document-intended to replace the 1973 constitution annulled by Sobhuza II-removed the king's ability to rule by decree, it reaffirmed the king's absolute control over the executive cabinet, both houses of parliament, and the judiciary. It also maintained the ban on political opposition parties and the tinkhundla electoral system. Although the draft constitution includes a bill of rights that provides for limited freedom of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited equality for women, the king may waive these rights at his discretion.
A subsequent period of "public debate" allowed individuals to submit their views to the CRC, although civic groups were shut out of the consultation process. The draft constitution was met with bouts of civic protest led by trade unions, banned political parties, and church groups. However, the government's use of force to break up demonstrations and threats against union members participating in a January 2005 general strike weakened the opposition. Approved by the rubber-stamp parliament in June 2005, the new constitution was rejected by Mswati the following month because of disagreeable clauses on dissolving parliament, women's rights, religious freedom, and taxation. On July 26, Mswati signed a revised version of the constitution into law, which is scheduled to go into effect in early 2006.
In October, unknown assailants firebombed a series of government-associated targets-including the Swazi National Court, the home of government spokesman Percy Simelane, and the homes of three police officers. The government blamed PUDEMO for the attacks, though no arrests were made by the end of November.
Swaziland saw slowed economic growth in 2005. Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture; 80 percent of the population lives on communal Swazi Nation Land. Many families depend on income from men working in South African mines. The country has the world's highest rate of HIV infection, at 42.6 percent. Only an estimated 4.3 percent of infected Swazis receive antiretroviral drugs to combat the disease; in November, government hospitals reported a national shortage of the drugs.
Citizens of Swaziland cannot change their government democratically. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch with ultimate authority over the executive cabinet, legislature, and the judiciary. Of the 65 members of the House of Assembly, 55 are elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, and the king appoints 10. The king also appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, with the remaining 10 selected by the House of Assembly. Members of both houses serve five-year terms. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities under the tinkhundla system and typically report directly to the king.
Political parties are banned, although there are political associations, the two largest being PUDEMO and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). The NNLC ran candidates as independents in the 2003 legislative elections. In March 2005, the high court dismissed a case brought by PUDEMO, NNLC, and two labor unions seeking to prove the constitutional process illegal; instead, the court cited the 1973 ban on political parties as cause for dismissing the case, thereby reinforcing the ban itself.
Corruption is a major problem in Swaziland. Members of the palace spend lavishly (in 2005, King Mswati III purchased a $500,000 Maybach car and a fleet of 10 BMW cars for his wives) while presiding over a largely impoverished population, and members of parliament engage in fraud and graft. In March, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole cited a private consultant's estimate that the government loses 40 million emalangeni (about US$6.5 million) per month to corrupt practices. An Anti-Corruption Unit was established in 1998 but has failed to produce a single indictment. In 2005, Swaziland was assessed for the first time by Transparency International (TI); it ranked 103 out of 159 countries surveyed in TI's Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is severely restricted, especially regarding political issues or matters concerning the royal family. Legislation bans publication of any criticism of the monarchy, and self-censorship is widespread; journalists are subject to threats and intimidation from government officials. The new constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the king may waive these rights at his discretion. However, broadcast and print media from South Africa are received in the country, and both the state-owned (Swazi Observer) and independent (Times of Swaziland) newspapers occasionally criticize the government. In 2005, Prime Minister Absalom Themba Dlamini on several occasions stressed the importance of "positive" media coverage and threatened to monitor the press if it continued to cover the government in a sensationalist manner. There is one independent radio station, which broadcasts religious programming. The government does not restrict access to the internet, though few Swazis can afford access.
Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting the practice. Academic freedom is limited by self-censorship. While Swazis criticize the government in private discussions, they are less free to criticize the monarchy itself.
The government restricts freedom of assembly and association. Permission to hold political meetings, protests, or demonstrations is often denied by the government. Prodemocracy protests have been violently broken up by police, a trend that continued in 2005. In January, police used tear gas and a water cannon to disperse a PUDEMO demonstration commemorating the killing of a young girl during a 1998 strike. Similar tactics were employed to break up a Swaziland Youth Congress rally in August and a student march for government scholarships in September. In May, a protest organized by the Council of Swaziland Churches that delivered a petition opposing the constitution occurred without violence. However, the government threatened to block a similar effort in September, leading to its cancellation. In November, the government passed guidelines governing the creation, registration, and operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a longtime goal of local NGOs.
Swaziland has active labor unions, and the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the country's largest labor organization, has been a leader in demands for democratization. However, government pressure has greatly limited union activities. In January, a two-day national strike called by the SFTU and the Swaziland Federation of Labour elicited a poor response from union members after the government threatened to fire strikers and mobilized security forces. Jan Sithole, the SFTU general secretary, has been jailed several times in recent years, and he and his family have received death threats. Workers in all areas of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. Wage agreements are often reached by collective bargaining.
The judiciary is based on the dual system of Roman-Dutch courts-including magistrate courts, a high court, and a court of appeal-and traditional courts presided over by chiefs employing customary, often unwritten law. The judiciary is generally independent in most civil cases, although the king has ultimate judicial powers; the royal family and the government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. Swaziland's judicial system became mired in crisis in November 2002, when the six South African judges on the court of appeals resigned after the prime minister declared that the government would ignore court judgments that curbed the king's power. The appeals court was reconstituted in November 2004, following assurances that the government would adhere to its decisions.
There are regular reports of police brutality, including torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths of suspects in custody. A January coroner's inquest into the much-publicized death of Mandla Ngubeni in police custody determined that the suspect had been tortured but did not name a specific cause of death; the report has led to no arrests. Indeed, security forces generally operate with impunity. Prison conditions are poor and overcrowded, and prisoners are subject to torture, beatings, rape, and a lack of basic hygiene. The spread and treatment of HIV/AIDS is a major problem in Swazi prisons.
The legal code provides some protection against sexual harassment, but Swazi women encounter substantial discrimination in both formal and customary law. Married women are considered legal minors, requiring spousal permission to enter into almost any form of economic activity, and they are allowed only limited inheritance rights. Only men can pass on Swazi citizenship to their children, and female children have no right to inheritance under traditional law. The new constitution grants women adult status and guarantees equality under the law, although it is unclear how these rights will be interpreted vis-a-vis traditional customs. Violence against women is common despite traditional strictures against it, and rape-regarded by many as a minor offense-frequently goes unpunished.