Swaziland: A Failed Feudal State | Freedom House

Swaziland is a little-known country of 1.2 million people where the government has popularized photos of beautiful girls performing traditional dances for the king. These images both attract tourists and distract outsiders from Swaziland’s shocking realities of oppression, abject poverty, hunger and disease. In actuality, Swaziland is a country in crisis where even the traditional culture risks extinction due to the absolute monarch’s malfeasance. In our contemporary understanding of governance, no  leader can have comprehensive immunity no matter what he does – seizing private and public property for his personal benefit, kidnapping pretty girls, imprisoning citizens who displease him and ordering assassinations. However under Swaziland’s laws the king is immune from civil suits and criminal prosecution[1], and he can commit crimes with impunity. He is also the only judge of Swaziland’s highest court of appeal.

Although the Swazi government boasts trappings of a modern state – a constitution and legislative, executive and judicial branches – the monarch, King Mswati III, chooses and controls all significant office bearers. These must obey his commands at all times. Elections occur, but political parties are banned from participating.[2] In the elections of September 2013, this ban will again ensure that the ‘winners’ will be fully under the king’s control. 

Trade unions previously enjoyed some influence, but more recently the national trade union congress has been officially ‘deregistered’.[3] Civil society activists must operate within constraints on rights of assembly, dissemination of information and public protest.  Over the 45 years since independence, civil society has supported the institution of the monarchy but with constitutional restraints. However, as the present king increasingly has departed from Swazi kings’ traditional responsibility to care for their subjects’ welfare in favor of his own self-enrichment, opinion on continuing the monarchy in any form has divided.[4]

The Swazi government’s budget has been largely funded by the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) which in some years has provided as much as 75 per cent of all government revenues. Perhaps as a result, the king has not learned fiscal discipline and has neglected the country’s economic development. As SACU receipts fell by almost 60 per cent between 2008 and 2011, the government nearly ran out of funds to pay government employees’ salaries. The king came under pressure from street protesters and international donors to implement economic reforms and allow representative government.[5] Mswati rejected calls for reform and responded to street protesters with beatings and detentions. Subsequently, the king increased the numbers of police and soldiers and beefed up their stocks of combat equipment causing fears that more repression rather than reform is the king’s plan for the future.

Human rights reports on Swaziland have cited serious abuses including killings by security forces; torture and beatings of pro-democracy activists; arbitrary arrests and interference with individuals’ privacy; restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, association and movement; prohibitions on political activity and harassment of activists, labor leaders and journalists.[6]

Most Swazis do not have access to international media, and domestic media are controlled by the king who personally owns one of the country’s 2 newspapers. The editor of the other newspaper is in the king’s employ. With the exception of a television station devoted to religious programs, radio and television are government departments under the king’s control. South African newspapers entering Swaziland are carefully screened. If an edition contains information that is unfavorable to the king or the government, the government purchases and destroys all copies.[7]

An elite 10 per cent of Swazis accounts for nearly half of total consumption. The king’s personal fortune is estimated at USD 200 million, and he controls 60 per cent of the country’s economy. In 2012, the finance minister admitted that government corruption was annually channeling USD 128 million in public funds to the elite. The 2012 national budget allocated USD 26 million for royal allowances. The king also draws funds from ministry budgets at will.

Unemployment, officially at 40 per cent, and under-employment are chronic problems. Around 75 per cent of Swazis attempt to gain a living from subsistence agriculture, many in areas where human settlement is too dense for successful subsistence farming. Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection, and there are 200,000 orphans and vulnerable children, many of whom have no adult care givers. Yet for 2013–14, the government budgeted USD 28 million for health care for 1.2 million people - only a little more than USD 23 per person.[8]

The compromised health conditions of the Swazi people contribute decisively to a vicious cycle of poverty, hunger, sickness and early death. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, Swazis have a life expectancy of 48 years, placing Swaziland near the bottom of statistics for all countries. 29 per cent of Swazi children under the age of 5 years are stunted. This is not a new problem; stunting has plagued the Swazi population for so long that sizeable numbers of adults are physically unable to perform the hard labor of subsistence farming due to the effects of under-nutrition which they experienced as children. 66 per cent of Swazis are unable to meet their basic food needs, and 43 per cent live in chronic poverty.[9] Levels of impoverishment and joblessness will continue to increase as ever larger numbers of the burgeoning youth cohort attempt to find employment and encounter economic stagnation.

Rural extended family structures are breaking down under the burden of the social effects of disease epidemics: caring for the sick, financing burial of the dead, the absence of breadwinners and families headed by children or the elderly. Rural communities are experiencing a major structural deformation due to the lack of parents who can teach the young how to obtain life support from the land. The loss of knowledge about planting, tending, and harvesting crops; caring for and using draught animals and building and repairing traditional houses and animal pens is exacerbating already severe poverty and further increasing flows of indigent rural people into peri-urban shanty towns with related problems of breakdown of families, increased spread of diseases, substance abuse and rising criminality.

This desperate economic and social situation is the product of 40 years of incompetent and unrepresentative government. In that time, 2 despots have used Swaziland for their personal purposes while ignoring the needs of the Swazi people and their legitimate rights to have a say over how they are governed and how the country’s resources are used.

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[1] The Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland, July 26, 2005, Chapter II, 11, ‘Protection of the King and iNgwenyama in respect of legal proceedings.’ ‘The King and iNgwenyama shall be immune from: (a) suit or legal process in any cause in respect of all things done or omitted to be done by him; and (b) being summoned to appear as a witness in any civil or criminal proceeding.’

[2] The ban on participation by political parties in elections is based on Chapter VII, 70 of the Constitution which stipulates ‘individual merit as a basis for election or appointment to public office.’ See Deane Stuart ,’ Chapter 12: Swaziland’, Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds.) ‘Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989 – 2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy’, EISA, Johannesburg,  pp. 497 – 498.

[3] ‘Swaziland: Update – Industrial court rules in favour of de-registering Trade Union Congress of Swaziland’, Front Line Defenders, March 4, 3013, http://www.frontlinedefendrrs.org/node/21878

[4] Freedom House interviews with Swazi civil society leaders, Swaziland March 11 – 15, 2013.

[5] For a detailed account of the Swazi government’s 2011 financial crisis, see African Development Bank, ‘Swaziland 2012’, http://wwwafdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/Swaziland%20Full%20PDF%20Country%20Note.pdf

[6] For more on human rights in Swaziland, see Freedom House, Swaziland – Freedom in the World 2013, //www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2013/swaziland

[7] Freedom House interview with former Swazi Observer editor Musa Ndlangamandla, Johannesburg, September 2, 2013.

[8] For a discussion of Swaziland’s financial problems, see Christopher Vandome, Alex Vines and Marcus Weimer, ‘Swaziland: Southern Africa’s Forgotten Crisis’, Chatham House, London, September 2013, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Africa/0913pr_swaziland.pdf

[9] World Health Organization, ‘Swaziland: Health Profile’, http://www.who.int/gho/countries/swz.pdf  AND World Bank, ‘Swaziland Overview’, April 2013, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/swaziland/overview