Historical Overview of Swaziland's Dictatorship | Freedom House

Historical Overview of Swaziland's Dictatorship

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King Sobhuza’s coup

Following 66 years of colonial rule, Swaziland became independent in September 1968. Leading up to independence, the UK administration introduced a Westminster style constitution providing for multiple political parties, a parliament modeled on the European prototype and a civilian executive to be formed by the majority party. Unwritten Swazi traditional law, which had operated in the colonial period parallel to the colonial administration’s legal system, was left intact. Although colonial rule bequeathed no tradition of democracy to Swaziland, the new constitution offered a platform on which Swaziland could have initiated and nurtured democratic institutions.

The elderly Swazi king, Sobhuza II, mistrusted political parties and constitutional government, which he viewed as foreign imports incompatible with Swazi tradition.[1] However in the final years of the colonial period, Sobhuza moved to protect the monarchy’s interests by organizing his own political party, the Imbokodvo National Movement[2] which won all 24 parliamentary seats in pre-independence elections. Then, in the first post-independence elections, held in May 1972, the king’s party received nearly 75% of the vote while another party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), won 20%, giving the party 3 seats. The NNLC leadership was made up of urban intellectuals most of whom favored continuation of the monarchy under a constitution. Sobhuza panicked, viewing the NNLC’s small incursion into his power base as a significant threat.[3] In April 1973, he issued a proclamation revoking Swaziland’s constitution, outlawing political parties, exempting the monarchy from legal accountability and granting the king absolute authority over all branches of government. The proclamation’s core paragraph stated: ‘Now THEREFORE I, SOBHUZA II, King of Swaziland, hereby declare that, in collaboration with my Cabinet Ministers and supported by the whole nation, I have assumed supreme power in the Kingdom of Swaziland and that all Legislative, Executive and Judicial power is vested in myself.’ The full text of the proclamation is Annex 3.

In revoking Swaziland’s democratic constitution, Sobhuza almost certainly had the support of the South African government.[4]  At that time, South Africa and western countries favored conservative African dictatorships which they viewed as bulwarks against the rise of socialist and nationalist political parties which were suspected of subservience to the USSR and China. 

Sobhuza’s coup was a bolt from the blue. In 1973, there was no internal or external threat to the Swazi government and conditions throughout the country were calm. It is likely that the king was motivated in staging the coup by fears that an opposition party might eventually grow to threaten the power of his Dlamini clan to control Swaziland’s sources of wealth and to rule Swazis as they saw fit. Thus began a feudal dictatorship which now, 40 years later, is Africa’s last absolute monarchy. In that period, Swaziland’s anti-modern government, presided over by an unaccountable elite, has thwarted the country’s development with devastating consequences for most Swazis.

By 1973, Sobhuza II had spent 7 decades at the pinnacle of the Swazi chieftainship structure. He was expert in wielding power according to Swazi tradition which holds that ‘a king is a king by and for his people’.[5] Sobhuza cultivated an image of a good father who protects and cares for his children. Nevertheless, Sobhuza did not hesitate to use his power to accrue gain for himself, his 65 wives and 100 children and a multitude of Dlamini kinfolk. However, during Sobhuza’s reign, the monarch eschewed a lavish lifestyle that would have distanced the king and his court from Swazi commoners. Such discretion has not been the style of Sobhuza’s successor.[6]

Mswati’s troubled accession

Sobhuza II died in 1982 leaving no designated heir and conditions rife for intrigues and rivalries.  Sobhuza named as Regent Queen Dzeliwe, an elder royal with a reputation for intelligence and high principles. The regent was soon engulfed by conflict as various senior princes vied for influence over selection of the successor. Although Swazi history and tradition provided guidelines for selection of a crown prince, history and tradition were shunted aside as a plot unfolded to designate as heir Makhosetive, a 14 year old illegitimate son of Sobhuza. The plotters had realized that further struggles among themselves might weaken the Dlaminis’ hold on power, and they assumed that Makhosetive’s gratitude would assure them great rewards. Makhosetive’s mother, a former cleaner in the house of one of Sobhuza’s wives, was found in a Manzini working class neighborhood, separated from her non-royal partner and married to Sobhuza’s corpse, thus legitimizing her probably bewildered son. Via this bizarre sequence of events, Ntombi Tfwala, a one-time teenaged servant, became queen regent in 1983. Her son, Makhosetive, became King Mswati III in 1986.[7]

Mswati was not prepared. His upbringing had not given him the customary socialization of a future Swazi king.[8] Such socialization would have stressed the requirement to listen to all sides and to maintain equilibrium in Swazi society. Although he was sent to a British public school for a while before his accession to the throne, the greater part of Mswati’s schooling occurred at an ordinary primary school. At the time of his installation, Mswati was a semi-literate teenager, unready to wield power and chosen specifically for his presumed vulnerability to manipulation.  The schemers who entrusted Mswati with absolute power apparently did not foresee that the young man one day might oppose their influence and do as he liked. Mswati’s reign has been characterized by shameless greed for money and profound insensitivity to the sufferings of his subjects. He has paid scant heed to the tradition that a king is a king by and for his people.[9]

The meaning of absolute monarchy

An absolute monarch holds and exercises all power within a state. For most people today, the concept of ‘absolute monarch’ defies comprehension. In our contemporary understanding of the nature of government, checks and balances are essential features which assure that no person can decide everything, take whatever he wants and imprison or kill whomever he wants. But in Swaziland, the king is immune from law and can commit crimes without fear of punishment.  

At first glance, Swaziland’s government appears to consist of the standard elements of a modern state. It includes a parliament, a judiciary and a cabinet supported by a civil administration. Yet there is no mechanism or institution of government that can limit the king’s powers. He is insulated from public opinion and citizen participation, and no state institution can alter his priorities, fight his corruption, restrict his abuse of power or challenge his authority to make appointments. Cabinet decisions must be synonymous with the king’s preferences. The parliament is devoid of any political space from which it might question the king’s expenditure priorities or policy decisions. Any judge, who in deciding a case impinges on a royal interest, can soon be dismissed.[10]

2005 Constitution: semantic tricks and confused authorities

King Sobhuza’s 1973 proclamation had the status of supreme law until 2005 when a new constitution came into force. For nearly 2 decades, various constitution drafting committees appointed by the king had attempted to find a workable compromise between absolutism and democracy. Absolutism won. The 2005 constitution, echoing the 1973 proclamation, elevates the king above the law. Legal immunity for serving heads of state is not uncommon in constitutional law, but it is usually accompanied by laws, regulations and practices that guard against infinite abuse of power. In the Swazi legal and political systems, there are no such safeguards.

In the 2005 constitution, unwritten Swazi customary law is accorded an equal status with Swaziland’s version of Roman Dutch law. The UN has offered Swaziland assistance with the codification of Swazi customary law, but this offer has not been accepted.[11] In exercising the powers of the chiefdom, it probably is convenient for the Dlaminis and their allies not to be bound by written statutes. Thus customary law relies on oral tradition and ad hoc decision making. In important matters, decisions are made by the king, sometimes together with his mother, a traditional prime minister and a royal advisory council. In matters of lesser importance, local chiefs decide along with their local councils. Chiefs are also permitted to make and enforce additional laws as they see fit. As a consequence, ordinary Swazis must contend with an uncertain legal framework in which people more powerful than themselves can make up the rules as they see fit.[12]

Proscription of multi-party democracy in the 2005 constitution is more subtle than the blunt wording of the 1973 proclamation. Following provisions of guarantees covering internationally recognized human rights, the constitution states: ‘The system of government for Swaziland is a democratic, participatory, tinkhundla-based system which emphasizes devolution of state power from central government to tinkhundla areas and individual merit as a basis for election or appointment to public office.’[13] An inkhundla (plural tinkhundla) is a voting constituency made up of various numbers of chiefdoms.  Swazi chiefs, who receive their authority directly from the king, exercise substantial powers over their subjects including the allocation of the agricultural plots from which the majority of Swazis gain their livelihoods. With chiefs in control of elections, there can be little genuine freedom of choice.

A second obstacle to multi-party democracy contained in the constitution is the phrase ‘individual merit’. Swazi executive branch authorities and judges of the Supreme Court have decided that this provision means that only individuals, not political parties, are entitled to participate in elections.

The role of the occult in sustaining royal power

Anthropologist Hilda Kuper’s seminal research into Swazi culture conducted over 3 decades found that ‘the existence of witchcraft and sorcery is considered self-evident.’[14] Kuper also wrote ‘In the ancestral cult, the world of the living is projected into a world of spirits (emadloti). Men and women, old and young, aristocrats and commoners, continue the patterns of superiority and inferiority established by earthly experiences…..Although the cult is set in a kinship framework, it is extended to the nation through the king, who is regarded as the father of all Swazi; his ancestors are the most powerful of the spirits.’[15] The linkage which Swazis accept between the living king and their dead ancestors’ spirits is the deep foundation of Swazi monarchial power. Good and evil in the Swazi cosmology function as a struggle between the umtsakatsi (sorcerer) who “undermines the status quo and the inyanga (medicine man) who struggles to maintain it. Wedged between the chief and the tinyanga (medicine men) on the one hand and the batsakatsi (sorcerers) on the other, the masses are molded to accept a relatively unenterprising conservatism.”[16]

The 5 Swazi kings who preceded Sobhuza II all died in their prime. Kuper notes that Swazi tradition attributes all death to the effects of sorcery, and concern for the health and survival of the king has spawned elaborate ceremonies at which the king is treated with magic potions and spells with the purpose of strengthening the king against those who would seek to harm the king and the institution of the monarchy.[17]

A previous US ambassador in Swaziland stated in a diplomatic report that occult practitioners, (tinyanga) and belief in muti, which includes charms and potions used to cast spells and curses, are important influences on Mswati’s conception of his role and powers.[18] Musa Ndlangamandla, who during many years worked closely with King Mswati, said ‘At the back of Mswati’s mind, he knows he was not intended to be king. This might be the basis of his paranoia. The king is certain muti can kill him, and his life is dominated by fear. Mswati believes that he is imbued with a potent aura (infukwana), and part of the aura can be transferred to any person or object in Swaziland that he might touch. This is the reason why no Swazi may shake hands with the king. Also when Mswati has visited a Swazi’s home, the chair where he sat must be taken away by the king’s servants and destroyed. If not, the host could hire a witch to use the aura left on the chair to make muti and harm the king.’[19]

Any suspected attempt to use muti to attack the king is taken very seriously and sets off procedures to sniff out and eliminate potential harm to the king. Ndlangamandla recalls a tediously long meeting when, as always, the king was seated in a comfortable chair and the other participants were seated on the floor. To alleviate his boredom, Ndlangamandla picked up a loose fiber from the carpet and twirled the fiber between 2 fingers. As the meeting ended, Mswati ordered Ndlangamandla to stay, questioned him about the fiber and brought in a team of tinyanga to doctor the fiber and the place on the floor where Ndlangamandla had found it.[20]

Large numbers of Swazis consider the king to be a powerful muti practitioner in his own right, and the king’s close association with occult practices is an important pillar of his power.[21] Highly educated Swazi cabinet ministers crawl in the king’s presence, and many rural people drop to their knees when they see the flashing blue lights of an official motorcade believing the king might be inside one of the cars.

Each year in December, the king enters into a month-long seclusion following the tradition of incwala. At a public level, incwala ceremonies commemorate the onset of the annual harvest and include events intended to bring together the population in seeking blessings from the spirits of their ancestors. Other incwala ceremonies involving cleansing and strengthening of the secluded king occur in deep secrecy. Only partial information about these ceremonies has leaked into the public domain. It is known however that during the incwala seclusion, the king must eat and drink without question whatever the tinyanga give him.[22] In the previously quoted diplomatic report, the ambassador commented: “If they are unhappy with the direction the king is taking the country, then the king has cause to worry.”[23] The present king’s grandfather, who is recalled as a violent and unbalanced man, is believed the have been poisoned during an incwala seclusion.[24]

In 2011, a man using the name Sithembiso Simelane published online a detailed description of secret incwala ceremonies that he claimed to have witnessed as a royal brigade member. From a practical perspective, some parts of Simelane’s description defy belief. However even if only a part of Simelane’s bizarre and gruesome description is true, it would mean that governance in Swaziland is strongly influenced by a conviction that the king is constantly in danger from enemies seeking to use muti to control and even kill him and by the need to employ stronger muti to protect the king.[25]


[1] Freedom House interview with Professor P.Q Magagula, Kwaluseni, Swaziland, March 11, 2013.

[2] The siSwati word ‘imbokodvo’ is evocative both as the stone used in traditional homes to grind corn in preparation of staple foods and as a crushing force.

[3] Interview with Professor P.Q. Magagula.

[4] Sobhuza’s attorney general, who drafted the proclamation, was a white South African. In the conditions of the time, he would have consulted the South African government in advance of completing his draft.

[5] The siSwati original is ‘Inkhosi yinkhosi ngebantfu.’

[6] Freedom House interviews with Swazi elders, Swaziland and South Africa, March – April 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Human Rights Watch World Report 2012: Swaziland, http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-swaziland

[11] Freedom House interview with UNDP-Swaziland, Mbabane, March 12, 2012.

[12] Freedom House interview with Council of Swaziland Churches, Manzini, March 13, 2013.

[13] The Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland, July 26, 2005, Chapter VII, 79, ‘System of Government’.

[14] Hilda Kuper, ‘An African Aristocracy – Rank among the Swazi’, Oxford University Press, London, 1961, p 174.

[15] Hilda Kuper, ‘The Swazi. A South African Kingdom’, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1986, p 61

[16] Ibid, p 69.

[17] Ibid, p 197.

[18] Swazi Media Commentary, ‘Private Truths about King Mswati’, August 2, 2012, http://allafrica.com/stories/201208090878.html/

[19] Freedom House interview with Musa Ndlangamandla, Johannesburg, September 2, 2013.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Freedom House interviews with Swazi elders, Swaziland and South Africa, March – April 2013.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Swazi Media Commentary, ‘Private Truths about King Mswati’, August 2, 2012, http://allafrica.com/stories/201208090878.html/

[24] Descriptions of beliefs and procedures relating to the incwala can be found in P.A. Marwick’s ‘An Ethnographic Account of the Natives of the Swaziland Protectorate’, Peter Dunseith’s ‘Bird of Heaven. The Story of a Swazi Sangoma’, Richard Levin’s ‘When the Sleeping Grass Awakens: Land and Power in Swaziland’ and James Hall’s ‘ Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa’.

[25] Swazi Media Commentary, ‘Swazi King and Bestiality Ritual’, November 28, 2011, http://swazimedia.blogspot.com/2011/11/swazi-king-and-bestiality-ritual.html