The Swazi Democratic Movement | Freedom House

The Swazi Democratic Movement

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The operating environment: violations of freedom of association, assembly and expression

The status of political parties in Swaziland is confused by inconsistencies in laws and government pronouncements and by the government’s distortion of language intended to delude outsiders into believing Swaziland is a democratic country. Political parties were banned by King Sobhuza’s 1973 Proclamation, and this proclamation has not been repealed. However a more recent pronouncement by the Attorney General termed political parties as legal but prohibited from participating in elections. The Swazi constitution allows Swazis to participate in elections only as individuals.

As an absolute monarchy, the authority to govern is accorded to a king through inheritance and then distributed by the king to royal family members and others whom the king trusts to do his bidding. To challenge government authority constitutes an offence against the all-powerful king. Under such circumstances, pro-democracy civil society organizations, including trade unions and most political parties, must attempt to function in an environment where their rights and standing are never clearly defined. Organizations and individual activists are constantly under threat from the modern and traditional government structures, both of which are under the king’s absolute authority. The king’s agents can at will search premises, ban meetings, detain persons and use legal and extra-legal processes to remove activists from society. The authorities also employ censorship, interference with communications, confiscation and destruction of property, beatings, attacks with weapons and torture.[1]

The situation of pro-democracy activists became greatly more difficult in August 2008 when the king signed into law the Suppression of Terrorism Act. The act does not clearly define the meaning of ‘terrorist act’ and therefore poses a constant threat to a broad spectrum of normal civil society activities. Amnesty International and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute found that ‘the offences prohibited by the law are defined with such over-breadth and imprecision that they place excessive restrictions on a wide range of human rights, such as freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly, without adhering to the requirements of demonstrable proportionality and necessity.’ The act reverses the onus of proof with respect to allegations of membership in a terrorist group. Thus an accused person must prove he or she is not a member of a terrorist organization rather than the more usual condition whereby the prosecution would be required to provide conclusive evidence of membership. The law also places prior restraints on courts in reviewing government orders that proscribe organizations.[2]

In September 2008 at a traditional gathering, King Mswati publicly endorsed suffocating dissidents and denying them all possibilities of earning a living. The king’s call was especially significant for rural dwellers because the king, through local chiefs, controls the allocation of family home sites and agricultural land, the distribution of food relief and the award of scholarships without which large numbers of Swazi children and youths cannot attend primary and high schools and university. The king allows chiefs, all of whom owe their jobs to the king, to make up their own by-laws and to use the full might of the state to ensure compliance. Swazis who speak out against royal and chiefly authority risk losing their homes and farm plots. These ever present threats cause most rural Swazis to be very cautious in what they do and say.[3]

Late at night on 21 September 2008, 2 days after parliamentary elections, a bomb detonated near a bridge on the Mbabane – Manzini highway about 1 km from King Mswati’s principal palace at  Lozitha. Of the 4 men involved, 2 were killed by the bomb, one escaped and fled Swaziland, and the other, a South African, was apprehended, tried and is still imprisoned.[4]

The bomb blast heightened tensions between the king and political activists, whom the king said would be eliminated. On 14 November 2008, the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), PUDEMO’s youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) and other groups were proscribed as terrorist organizations. Mario Masuku, the PUDEMO president, was arrested and charged with terrorism, as were 15 others, including the president of SWAYOCO. After a year in pre-trial detention, Masuku was acquitted of all charges by the Swazi High Court. Angered by this decision, the king moved decisively to gain greater control over the judiciary by appointing a pliable chief justice and eliminating independent minded judges from the bench. In 2013, PUDEMO, SWAYOCO and SSN continue to be proscribed, but PUDEMO leaders, including Masuku, go about their party business openly inside Swaziland. However the government prohibits large PUDEMO meetings.[5]  

Swazi civil society includes organizations that provide food and medical services to the poor and others that advocate for democracy and defend human rights. The former group usually avoids the latter due to their concerns about losing permission from the government to do their work. As a result, the organizations which help the victims of bad government feel they must avoid addressing the central cause of the problems of the people whom they assist. Some religious denominations sympathize with human rights advocates, but the vast majority of churches avoid association with organizations that promote democracy.[6]

On 31 August 2013, King Mswati announced that a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky had brought him a command from God to introduce ‘monarchial democracy’ as a replacement for the present electoral system. Under this ‘new form’ political parties continue to be banned from taking part in elections and Swazi people continue to be authorized to vote only for a small number of the power structure’s hand-picked candidates for the House of Assembly. The king will still choose the prime minister and other government officials, and all branches of the government will still be subservient to the king. In reality, only the name of the system changed.

One result of the uncertain legality of political parties is an absence of legislation in Swaziland governing aspects of political party life such as registration, regulation, funding and financial control.[7]

Summary descriptions of civil society organizations                     

Political parties

As many as 10 political parties hope someday to be permitted by the government to present candidates for elections. Most of the 10 have few members beyond their own party officials, but 4 parties – PUDEMO, NNLC, the Sive Siyinqaba National Movement (also known as Sibahle Sinje) and the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) – probably have followings of at least several thousand.

The NNLC, Swaziland’s oldest still functioning party, draws its core membership from urban, educated Swazis. Its philosophical underpinnings are in Pan Africanism. NNLC’s win in 1972 of 3 parliamentary seats prompted King Sobhuza’s 1973 prohibition of political parties. NNLC demands the elimination of cultural practices of oppression and exploitation of the masses. NNLC and PUDEMO, which often are rivals for support from the same base, joined together to boycott the 2008 elections. NNLC is boycotting the 2013 elections.[8]

Although PUDEMO has been proscribed since 2008, it probably has the largest and broadest base of all Swazi parties. As the only active political party in Swaziland from 1983 to 1996, PUDEMO laid claim to the role of the sole legitimate voice of the Swazi opposition. This claim now has become an obstacle to broad cooperation among Swaziland’s pro-democracy organizations. The People’s Manifesto, which PUDEMO adopted in 1996, demanded the creation of a constitutional, multi-party democracy with an elected and accountable government. PUDEMO has longstanding relationships with the South African government alliance partners – the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). PUDEMO is boycotting the 2013 elections.[9]

The Sive Siyinqaba National Movement (Sibahle Sinje) was formed to push back against PUDEMO and shield Swazi culture from western influence. ‘Sive Siyinqaba’ means ‘nation united’ – by implication, around the monarch - and ‘Sibahle Sinje’ translates as ‘we are beautiful as we are with our culture and traditions’. The party’s aspiration to be seen as the monarchy’s defender was complicated in its early years due to the king’s opposition to the existence of political parties generally. By 2013 however, relations between Sive Siyinqaba and Mswati have improved. Prince Guduza, Mswati’s half-brother, who was speaker of the House of Assembly in the most recent parliament, is part of Sive Siyinqaba’s senior leadership. With the active encouragement of the Sive Siyinqaba leadership, members of the party are running as individuals in the 2013 elections.[10]

SWADEPA, Swaziland’s youngest party, was launched in 2011 by 2 well known agriculture workers union officials. SWADEPA’s game plan is to win seats in the 2013 elections and then to break down barriers to multi-party democracy from inside the House of Assembly.[11]

Non-governmental organizations

Around 70 organizations are affiliated with Swaziland’s Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organizations (CANGO). Most of these organizations’ work relates to humanitarian aid, and only a little more than 10 per cent of CANGO member organizations focus on democratic governance and human rights. Most notable among these are the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organizations (SCCCO), the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) and the Swaziland affiliate of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).[12]

SCCCO, which includes as its members professional and business organizations, labor federations, religious denominations, a media NGO and women’s groups, is the broadest civic organization in Swaziland. By conducting civic education directed toward grassroots communities, SCCCO seeks to promote acceptance of basic democratic values and respect for human rights.

SUDF was formed in 2008 as a coalition of pro-democracy groups including political parties, unions and churches. The founding of SUDF sought to strengthen civil society unity and coordination among civil society groups. Increasingly SUDF has come to be viewed by those who do not support PUDEMO as a PUDEMO affiliate, and this perception has created tensions in civil society some of which have developed into disruptive fissures.

OSISA’s vision is to promote the ideals, values, institutions and practices of open society with the aim of helping to establish vibrant and tolerant democracies in Southern Africa. OSISA supports advocacy on Swaziland issues and assists other organizations’ project initiatives through grant making.

Religious denominations

Swazi Christians, who make up around 90 per cent of the population, are divided into 3 groups: about one quarter are congregants of old establishment churches such the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, etc. which for the most part support democratic change; another quarter are Evangelicals whose interpretation of scripture prohibits involvement with politics; and one half are members of indigenous churches who overwhelmingly support the status quo. The general secretary of the Council of Swaziland Churches, which is mostly made up of the first group, said growing political awareness in the youth cohort presents a possibility that eventually the indigenous churches will find it necessary to adjust their pro monarchy position.[13]

Trade unions

Unlike other pro-democracy groups, trade unions have had a legal basis from which to operate provided by various Industrial Relations Acts which have been in effect since before independence and which define rules for the collective negotiation of terms and conditions of employment and dispute resolution mechanisms.  Reported figures of total trade union membership in all sectors exceed 100,000.

Swazi trade unions enjoy stronger international linkages than any other parts of civil society through their affiliation with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). These linkages are powered and protected by International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions and the ILO’s complaint system, through which Swazi trade unions have been able to bring international attention to abuses committed by the Swazi government. Over the past several years, Swaziland has been one of a small number of countries cited by the ILO for denial of rights guaranteed under ILO conventions. The ILO has repeatedly sent missions to Swaziland that have reported back on the government’s non-compliance with an ILO convention as well as crimes by government agents against union activists including intimidation, kidnapping, unlawful entry into and search of homes, torture and death while in detention. 

The Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) was founded in March 2012 bringing together the 2 labor federations and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), Swaziland’s largest union with 9,000 members. The association of SNAT with TUCOSWA was significant due to SNAT’s organizational strengths and history of success in bringing out its members for strikes and public demonstrations.[14]

At TUCOSWA’s founding congress, a resolution was taken that ‘the current system of Government in Swaziland is one that is undemocratic, repressive and dictatorial and that the Federation shall cause for a total boycott of the national elections in 2013 unless the elections are held under a multiparty system.’ This was an openly political pronouncement. Many in civil society, including the SNAT president, objected to what they viewed as undue influence from one political party in the TUCOSWA leadership. They also objected to a decision by the TUCOSWA president to associate TUCOSWA with the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), which they perceive as a PUDEMO affiliate. The SNAT president, who says she adheres to the principle that labor unions should be independent of political parties, withdrew SNAT and its financial support from TUCOSWA.[15]

[1] Freedom House interviews with civil society activists, Swaziland, March 2013.

[2] Amnesty International, ‘Swaziland: Suppression of Terrorism Act Undermines Human Rights in Swaziland’, London,

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

[4] IRIN, ‘Swaziland: Bomb blast kills two’, Mbabane, September 22, 2008,

[5] Freedom House interview with Mario Masuku, Mbabane, March 14, 2013.

[6] Freedom House interview with CANGO, Mbabane, March 12, 2013.

[7] Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, ‘Swaziland: Political party legislation’,

[8] Freedom House interview with former NNLC president Obed Dlamini, Sidvokodvo, March 13, 2013.

[9] Freedom House interview with PUDEMO president Mario Masuku, Mbabane, March 14, 2013.

[10] Freedom House interview with Sibahle Sinje spokesman Sam Mkhombi, Mbabane, March 12, 2013.

[11] Freedom House interview with SWADEPA president Jan Sithole, Manzini, March 12, 2013.

[12] Freedom House interview with CANGO director Emmanuel Ndlangamandla, Mbabane, March 12, 2013.

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

[14] Freedom House interview with TUCOSWA deputy secretary general Vincent Dlamini, Ezuluweni, March 14, 2013.

[15] Freedom House interview with SNAT president Sibongile Mazibuko, Manzini, March 13, 2013.