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Swaziland’s long-awaited new national constitution came into effect in February 2006, even as the monarchy cracked down on its political opposition following a series of firebombings in Mbabane and Manzini. While the constitution includes some cosmetic concessions to democratic rule, it effectively maintains the monarchy’s ultimate governing powers. Throughout 2006, the country’s inchoate opposition sparred with the government over the constitution’s ambiguities concerning the legality of previously outlawed political parties. Separately, the government in July finally enacted legislation empowering the 10-year-old Anti-Corruption Unit to tackle the country’s massive graft problem.
Swaziland’s King Mswati III is the latest monarch of the Dlamini dynasty, under which the Swazi kingdom had 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 monarchy 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 In 1973, Mswati’s father, Sobhuza II, repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself absolute monarch.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. The process was based on the tinkhundla system, in which nominations and voting for 55 elected seats in the lower House of Assembly were 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 Prince David Dlamini, a brother of Mswati’s, 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 his absolute control over the executive cabinet, both houses of Parliament, and the judiciary. It also maintained the tinkhundla electoral system and the ban on opposition political parties. Although the draft constitution included a Bill of Rights that provided for limited freedom of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited equality for women, the king could suspend those rights at his discretion.
A subsequent period of “public debate” allowed individuals to submit their views on the draft to the CRC, but 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 over clauses on dissolving Parliament, women’s rights, religious freedom, and taxation. In July, Mswati signed a revised version of the constitution, which took effect in February 2006. While banned opposition groups and prodemocracy civil society organizations contended that the new constitution’s guarantees of freedom of expression and assembly provided a legal basis for the operation of political parties, the government forcefully disagreed, breaking up several prodemocracy demonstrations throughout the year. In March, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini stated that the new constitution did not legalize political parties, a warning echoed the following month by Mswati.
In the latter months of 2005, unknown assailants had 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 immediately blamed PUDEMO for the attacks. Arrests began in December, and by January 2006, 16 members of PUDEMO or its youth wing, Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), had been charged with treason, attempted murder, and malicious damage to government property. Those detained included PUDEMO secretary-general Bonginkosi Dlamini. All but one denied the allegations and accused the government of using the attacks as a pretext to crack down on the political opposition. In January, two high schools were bombed. Amid allegations of police torture of two of the suspects, the two South African lawyers hired by the state to try the case left the country without explanation in March; the suspects were then freed on bail.
Swaziland continued to experience meager economic growth in 2006, held back by retrenchment in the textile sector and a major drop in global prices for sugar, the country’s main cash crop. Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture, and 80 percent of the population lives on communal Swazi Nation Land. Many families depend on income from men working in South African mines. In February 2006, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole reported that about 800,000 Swazis—roughly two-thirds of the population—were living on only $21 a month. In July, the UN World Food Program reported that one-fifth of Swazis would require food aid through the end of the year.
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. However, in August 2006 a survey by the National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS revealed that a government HIV/AIDS-awareness campaign had positively affected Swazi attitudes toward sexual behavior. The campaign has been opposed by some civic groups, who claim it stigmatizes and insults infected Swazis by suggesting that the disease is caused by marital infidelity.
Swaziland is not an electoral democracy. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch with ultimate authority over the executive cabinet, legislature, and judiciary. Of the 65 members of the House of Assembly, 55 are elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla (local council) 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. In November 2006, members of Parliament staged an unprecedented suspension of legislative activity after the government failed to pay monthly grants to elderly and widowed Swazis. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities under the tinkhundla system and typically report directly to the king. In August 2006, a group of traditional chiefs gathered by Mswati condemned the new constitution as a political plot to “steal the country” from them, citing the document’s Bill of Rights as “un-Swazi.”
Political parties are banned, but there are political associations, the two largest being PUDEMO and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). The new constitution enshrines freedoms of expression and association, leading PUDEMO, the NNLC, and the umbrella civic organization the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) to claim that parties are now legal. However, the constitution does not explicitly overturn—or even mention—the 1973 ban on political parties, and in 2006, both Msawti and Prince Mangaliso Dlamini stated that political parties were still illegal. Mswati claimed that Swaziland was not economically developed enough for multiparty democracy. However, that year also featured the reemergence of Sive Siyinqaba, a “cultural organization” formed in 1996 by powerful Swazis that has hinted at ambitions of becoming a legal political party under the new constitution. The group counts government officials and members of the royal family among its members. In May, Health Minister Mfomfo Nkambule was rumored to have been fired because of his association with the group.
Corruption is a major problem in Swaziland. The monarchy spends lavishly while presiding over a largely impoverished population, and members of Parliament engage in fraud and graft. Swaziland has a relatively large and well-funded public sector that belies the actual delivery of services; in 2006, 45 percent of the national budget was allocated to paying public sector salaries. The Swazi tradition of kwetfula —gift-giving in return for patronage—has exacerbated a culture of corruption among government officials. In 2005 and 2006, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole cited a private consultant’s estimate that the government loses 40 million emalangeni (US$6.5 million) per month to corrupt practices. In July 2006, almost 10 years after an Anti-Corruption Unit was established, Mswati signed legislation to enable the unit to seize fraudulently obtained assets and enforce penalties on both bribe payers and bribe takers. In addition, a toll-free telephone hotline was established in August for members of the public to report corrupt practices. The government has mandated that a “public education campaign” be carried out before the new enforcement legislation is actually applied. Swaziland was ranked 121 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The new constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the king may suspend that right at his discretion. Freedom of expression is severely restricted in practice, especially regarding political issues or matters concerning the royal family. Legislation bans publication of any criticism of the monarchy, and self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are subject to threats and intimidation by government officials. 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 2006, the Times of Swaziland lost three separate defamation cases and was ordered to pay damages to the government’s UN envoy, to a member of Parliament, and to a Mbabane businessman. While the Supreme Court in May 2006 overturned a massive fine imposed on the newspaper in a 2005 defamation case, a number of other cases against it were pending at year’s end. In recent years, including 2006, cabinet officials have 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, but few Swazis can afford access.
Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting it. Academic freedom is limited by self-censorship. In May 2006, PUDEMO’s youth wing, SWAYOCO, announced a campaign to introduce “political awareness” about “governance … rights, and democracy” in Swazi schools. While Swazis criticize the government in private discussions, they are less free to criticize the monarchy itself.
The government has restricted freedom of assembly and association, and permission to hold political meetings, protests, or demonstrations has often been denied. However, freedom of association has recently been enshrined in the new constitution’s Bill of Rights. Still, as in recent years, prodemocracy protests were violently broken up by police in 2006. In March, a PUDEMO rally in Manzini was forcibly dispersed, and several party leaders were arrested. Also that month, the Swazi press reported the use of violent tactics by riot police breaking up a SWAYOCO march in Msunduza. Students involved in an October Mbabane protest march over scholarship commitments were violently dispersed by police near the prime minister’s office. In November 2005, the government passed guidelines governing the creation, registration, and operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a longtime goal of local NGOs. In October 2006, the NCA delivered a petition to the prime minister challenging the legitimacy of the constitution, calling for investigations into recent deaths in police custody, and urging the government to respect the rule of law.
Swaziland has active labor unions, and the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the country’s largest labor organization, has led demands for democratization. However, government pressure has greatly limited union operations. 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 dual judicial system consists of courts based on Roman-Dutch law—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, and 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. In 2006, the NCA continued its attempts to challenge the new constitution in the high court. In addition, the NCA in September challenged the government’s assertion that Swazis desired monarchial rule by petitioning the high court to force the release of citizens’ submissions to the Constitutional Review Commission.
According to the U.S. State Department, 2006 saw numerous instances of severe police brutality, including torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths of suspects in custody. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to torture, beatings, rape, and a lack of basic sanitation. While the new constitution prohibits law enforcement officials from engaging in torture, the prohibition is not enforceable in court. The spread and treatment of HIV/AIDS is a major problem in Swazi prisons.
There were minor advances for Swazi women in 2006. The new constitution officially grants women adult status and equal rights. Previously, women were considered legal minors, enjoying only limited inheritance rights and requiring spousal permission to enter into almost any form of economic activity. In October, Education Minister Constance Simelane was appointed to the largely honorary post of deputy prime minister. However, women’s rights are still very restricted. The constitution is unclear about whether it supersedes customary law, which is widely practiced and discriminates against women in family and property matters.
Violence against women is a major problem; while both the legal code and customary law provide some protection against gender-based violence, it is common and often tolerated with impunity. In August 2006, the government proposed a Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act. In addition to punishments for domestic violence, the act mandates life sentences for rapists who infect victims with HIV and retains the criminalization of homosexuality. The act was pending at year’s end.
Child labor and violence against children are serious problems in Swaziland. According to the South African NGO Reducing Exploitative Child Labor in Southern Africa, children orphaned by AIDS are being exploited as cheap labor, including prostitution. In April 2006, the government launched a $235 million campaign—the National Plan of Action—aimed at providing for the health and education needs of orphans and vulnerable children through coordination with NGOs and state agencies. In December 2006, the Royal Swaziland Police Force’s Domestic Violence and Child Protection Unit—established in 2005—announced a one-third reduction in child abuse cases in its first annual report.