Swaziland | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2012

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A combination of reduced customs duties, profligate spending by the royal family, and government corruption contributed to a stark financial crisis in 2011. Austere economic conditions and the monarchy’s continued resistance to political reforms spurred a rash of antigovernment protests in March and April.

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 In 1973, King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of a tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself an absolute monarch. After Sobhuza’s death in 1982, a protracted power struggle ended with the coronation of King Mswati III in 1986.

A new constitution implemented in 2006 removed the king’s ability to rule by decree, but reaffirmed his absolute authority over the cabinet, Parliament, and judiciary. It also maintained the tinkhundla system—in which local chiefs control elections for 55 of the 65 seats in the House of Assembly, the lower house of Parliament—and did not overturn the ban on political parties. The charter provided for limited freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited rights for women, but the king could suspend those rights at his discretion.

Also in 2006, 16 members of the prodemocracy People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) were arrested and charged in connection with bomb attacks in 2005, but all were later freed on bail. In 2008, there were over 10 bomb attacks on government targets, and while there were no casualties, one blast killed the bomber, a member of PUDEMO. The government banned PUDEMO and four other groups under the newly enacted Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA).

In 2010, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign organized two days of protests in Manzini, calling for political, civil, and economic reforms. Security personnel detained some 50 activists.

The year 2011 saw more antigovernment protests, most of which were violently dispersed by security forces. In March, thousands of civil servants marched in Mbabane to protest a pay freeze and government corruption amid the country’s worsening financial crisis, which had been brought on by a sharp drop in revenue from a regional customs union and lavish spending by the royal family. The crisis had led to massive cuts in public services, including pensions, education, and health care. In April, prodemocracy demonstrations were met with a massive security presence and dispersed with tear gas, arrests, and assaults. PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku was placed under house arrest. In August, South Africa agreed to extend a R2.4 billion ($355 million) loan if Swaziland met fiscal reforms approved by the International Monetary Fund and “confidence-building measures” on democracy and human rights; by year’s end, the kingdom had yet to accept the loan due to these conditions.

Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection. The financial crisis has led to shortages in antiretroviral drugs, as well as HIV testing.

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, in which local chiefs vet all candidates; the king appoints the other 10 members. The king also appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. Members of the bicameral Parliament, all of whom serve five-year terms, are not allowed to initiate legislation. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities and typically report directly to the king.

Political parties are illegal, but there are political associations, the two largest being the banned PUDEMO and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress.

Corruption is a major problem, and government corruption was widely blamed for contributing to Swaziland’s financial crisis. In October 2011, the minister of finance reported that the country loses $10.6 million to corruption every month, about double its annual social services budget. Swaziland was ranked 95 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Constitutional rights to free expression are severely restricted in practice and can be suspended by the king. Publishing criticism of the ruling family is banned. Self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are routinely threatened and attacked by the authorities. In March 2011, the government banned all state media from covering antigovernment demonstrations. In July, the Times of Swaziland received a court order to stop reporting on the case of a judge suspended for criticizing the king in a court ruling. In June, after a 14-year effort by local media organizations, the Swaziland Media Complaints Commission, a self-regulatory body, was registered with the government. South African media are available, and both the Swazi Observer and the independent Times of Swaziland occasionally criticize the government. Swaziland’s 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 not explicitly protected under the constitution, but is respected in practice. Academic freedom is limited by prohibitions against criticizing the monarchy.

The government restricts freedoms of assembly and association, and permission to hold political gatherings is frequently denied. Demonstrators routinely face violence and arrests by police. The government has sweeping powers under the STA to declare any organization a “terrorist group,” a practice that has been abused by authorities. Police harassment and surveillance of civil society organizations has increased in recent years, as have forced searches of homes and offices, torture in interrogations, and the use of roadblocks to prevent demonstrations.

Swaziland has active labor unions, with the largest, the SFTU, leading demands for democratization. However, government pressure and crackdowns on strikes have limited union operations. The government is the country’s largest employer, and recent retrenchments in the public sector have spurred increased activism by government employees. Workers in all areas of the economy can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized.

The dual judicial system includes courts based on Roman-Dutch law and traditional courts using customary law. The judiciary is independent in most civil cases, though the king has ultimate judicial powers, and the royal family and government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. However, the Swazi High Court has made a number of notable antigovernment rulings in recent years. In June 2011, Judge Thomas Masuku—head of the Judicial Services Commission—was suspended for allegedly insulting the king in a ruling.There were numerous incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody in 2011, particularly of leaders and participants in antigovernment protests. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to rape, beatings, and torture.

The constitution grants women equal rights and legal status as adults, but these rights remain 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.