Swaziland | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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King Mswati III retained near-absolute power in 2007 despite the promulgation of a new constitution in 2006. Also during the year, prodemocracy activists continued to be arrested, and the country’s food crisis grew worse.

Swaziland regained its independence from Britain in 1968, and an elected Parliament was added to the traditional monarchy. In 1973, King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself absolute monarch. After Sobhuza’s death in 1982, a protracted power struggle led to King Mswati III’s accession to the throne in 1986.

A new constitution was implemented in 2006. While it removed the king’s ability to rule by decree, it reaffirmed his absolute authority over the cabinet, Parliament, and the judiciary. It also maintained the tinkhundla system—in which local chiefs control elections for 55 seats in the House of Assembly—and the ban on political parties. The charter provided for limited freedom of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited equality for women, but the king could suspend those rights at his discretion.

After a series of bombings in 2005, security forces arrested members of the prodemocracy People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) in 2006, charging 16 members—including secretary general Bonginkosi Dlamini—with treason, attempted murder, and malicious damage to government property. The suspects were later freed on bail. In April 2007, six PUDEMO members were arrested for carrying “seditious” material while protesting near the country’s border with South Africa.

An ongoing food crisis accelerated in 2007 amid the country’s worst-ever harvest: yields reached just one-third of a five-year low, 60 percent less than in 2006. As a result, over half the population will require food aid until at least the spring of 2008. The country has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection: estimates range from 26 to 33.4 percent of the sexually active population. In 2007, the government pledged to double the number of Swazis receiving antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment; currently, only about 15,000 Swazis receive such treatment. Swaziland also has the highest rate of tuberculosis infection. That disease, aggravated by HIV/AIDS, remains the country’s leading cause of death.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Swaziland is not an electoral democracy. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch with ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary. Of the House of Assembly’s 65 members, 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 remainder selected by the House of Assembly. Members of both houses serve five-year terms. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities and typically report directly to the king.

Political parties are banned, but there are political associations, the two largest being PUDEMO and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). The new constitution does not explicitly overturn—or even mention—the 1973 ban on political parties. In 2006, Sive Siyinqaba, a “cultural organization” formed in 1996 by powerful Swazis, hinted that it could become a legal political party under the new constitution.

Corruption is a major problem. The monarchy spends lavishly despite the largely impoverished population, and members of Parliament engage in fraud and graft. The large public sector belies the actual delivery of services; in 2006–07, 45 percent of the national budget was allocated to paying public-sector salaries. In 2006, Mswati signed legislation enabling the Anti-Corruption Unit, established nearly 10 years earlier, to seize assets and enforce penalties on both bribe payers and bribe takers. However, the government mandated a “public education campaign” before the new rules could be applied. Swaziland was ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The king may suspend constitutional rights to free expression at his discretion. Freedom of expression is severely restricted in practice, especially regarding political issues or the royal family. Publishing criticism of the monarchy is banned, and self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are subject to intimidation by the authorities. However, South Africa media are available, and both the state-owned (Swazi Observer) and independent (Times of Swaziland) newspapers occasionally criticize the government. The only independent radio station broadcasts religious programming. The government does not restrict access to the internet, but few Swazis can afford access. While several defamation lawsuits were launched in 2007, some were dismissed. Most prominently, in March the High Court dismissed the minister of education’s $100,000 lawsuit against the Times of Swaziland. In June, the government banned health workers from talking to the media following a series of articles on a critical drug shortage in the country.

  Freedom of religion is respected but not explicitly protected in the constitution. 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 has restricted freedom of assembly and association, and permission to hold political gatherings has often been denied. Although freedom of association is enshrined in the constitution, prodemocracy protesters are routinely dispersed and arrested by police. In 2005, the government issued guidelines for the creation, registration, and operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a longtime goal of local NGOs. An umbrella body of approved NGOs is allowed to submit reports on some legislation, including budgets.

Swaziland has active labor unions, and the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the largest labor organization, has led demands for democratization. However, government pressure—including the repeated arrest of SFTU leader Jan Sithole—has greatly limited union operations. Workers in all areas of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized.

  A dual judicial system includes courts based on Roman-Dutch law and traditional courts using customary law. The judiciary is independent in most civil cases, although the king has ultimate judicial powers, and the royal family and government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree.

According to the U.S. State Department, there were numerous incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody in 2007. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to torture, beatings, rape, and a lack of sanitation. While the new constitution prohibits torture, the ban is not enforceable in court. The spread of HIV/AIDS is a major problem in Swazi prisons.

The new constitution grants women adult status and equal rights. However, women’s rights are still very restricted in practice. While both the legal code and customary law provide some protection against gender-based violence, it is common and often tolerated with impunity. In September 2007, a survey found that one-third of Swazi women had been subjected to sexual violence and two-thirds had been beaten or abused. In 2006, the government proposed a law mandating tough punishments for domestic violence; the bill was still pending at the end of 2007.