Freedom in the World
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In November 2008, Swaziland held the country’s first parliamentary elections under its 2006 constitution. While the vote was peaceful, political parties remained banned and the legislature was unable to initiate legislation. Antigovernment violence and an ongoing crackdown on the opposition worsened in 2008, and the country saw its worst labor strife in decades.
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 In 1973, King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself absolute monarch.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 did not overturn a ban on political parties. The charter provided for limited freedoms 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. During 2008, there were over 10 bomb attacks on government targets, although no government officials or civilians were killed. In September, a bomb blast destroyed a road bridge near King Mswati’s palace in Lozitha; while no group claimed responsibility for the blast, one of the bombers, who died at the scene, was a member of PUDEMO. The government later banned PUDEMO, along with four other groups, by way of the newly-enacted 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act, and arrested PUDEMO’s head, Mario Masuku.
In November 2008, Swazis voted in elections for 55 of the 65 seats in the lower House of Assembly. While the voting was peaceful and transparent, the elections were essentially meaningless. Not only were candidates required to run as independents after vetting by local chiefs, but the Swazi legislature is virtually powerless, and members of parliament are unable to initiate legislation. Prodemocracy groups, led by PUDEMO, boycotted the election.
Crop production improved in 2008, though 20 percent of the population still requires food aid. 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; in 2008, only about 25,000 Swazis received such treatment out of an estimated 62,000 who require them. Swaziland also has the highest rate of tuberculosis infection. That disease, aggravated by HIV/AIDS, remains the country’s leading cause of death.
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. Legislators are not allowed to initiate legislation. 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), although PUDEMO was declared a terrorist organization in 2008. The new constitution does not explicitly overturn—or even mention—the 1973 ban on political parties.
Corruption is a major problem. The monarchy spends lavishly despite the largely impoverished population, and members of Parliament engage in fraud and graft. In August 2008, news that 8 of the king’s 13 wives and their entourages took expensive vacations in the Middle East and Asia spurred protests. 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 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is severely restricted in practice, especially regarding political issues or the royal family. The king may suspend constitutional rights to free expression at his discretion. Publishing criticism of the monarchy is banned, and self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are subject to intimidation by the authorities. While several defamation lawsuits were launched in 2008, some were dismissed. In September, the Swazi police uncovered a plot to bomb the state-owned Swazi Observer newspaper. The Swazi attorney general in November threatened critical journalists with arrest under the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act. South Africa media are available, and both the 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.
Freedom of religion is respected in practicebut 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 freedoms 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 the midst of the slew of bomb attacks on state targets in 2008, the government banned marches and demonstrations, and police used force to break up demonstrations throughout the year. In September, thousands of Swazis participated in a protest urging democratic reform, while there were smaller demonstrations during the previous month over the allocation of government spending. In 2005, the government issued guidelines for the creation, registration, and operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a longtime goal of local groups. An umbrella body of approved NGOs is allowed to submit reports on some legislation, including budgets. In 2008, the government prohibited the Southern African Social Forum from holding an October meeting in Manzini. The High Court, however, overturned the prohibition, and the meeting went ahead.
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. The year 2008 saw Swaziland’s worst labor unrest for decades, with public transport workers and textile workers both staging large strikes in March. The strikes were violently dispersed by security forces, who used rubber bullets and tear gas and allegedly beat textile workers. Some of the strikers vandalized Asian-owned shops; Swaziland’s textile factories are Taiwanese-owned.
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. The Swazi High Court made several notable anti-government rulings in 2008, including granting a stay of executionfor a $15,000 defamation penalty levied on The Nation magazine, and overturning the government’s prohibition of a Southern African Social Forum meeting in October.
According to the U.S. State Department, there were numerous incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody in 2008.Security forces generally operate with impunity. Inthe last four months of2008, the army was deployed to man checkpoints throughout the country due to unrest, and new army camps were set up in parts of northern Swaziland believed to be sympathetic to PUDEMO. 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 2007, a survey found that one-third of Swazi women had been subjected to sexual violence and two-thirds had been beaten or abused. A 2006 bill mandating tough punishments for domestic violence was still pending at the end of 2008.