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Have the AU and SADC failed the Swazi nation’s democratic aspirations?

Swaziland is to go to elections in August 2013 and the tensions preceding these elections, as was the case in 2008, do not augur well for this southern African country. Both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) aim to, among other things, promote democratisation in their member states, which include Swaziland. Yet the Swazi people continue to wait patiently for rescue from the firm grip of their absolute monarchy. The question that this article discusses is whether the people of the kingdom of Swaziland can realistically expect the AU and SADC to help meet their democratic aspirations.

For 39 years now, Swaziland has been under a post-colonial monarchy, which in the recent past has faced difficulties that a state of emergency, the banning of political parties ,systematic repression of critical civil society, restriction of freedoms of association and assembly, and other draconian legislations have failed to resolve. Instead, the country has reached the brink of economic collapse. This has put to sharp scrutiny the extravagant lifestyle of the head of state, King Mswati III, which is in sharp contrast to the abject poverty that 80 percent of the population live under. The socio-economic malaise deepens by the day.


The Swazi people have not taken this lying down and they are not just waiting for someone else to help them. There has been growing public expression of concerns and protests against both socio-economic difficulties and lack of democracy within Swaziland. In April 2006, South African trade unionists and Swaziland political activists blockaded the border between South Africa and Swaziland, in an attempt to demand political reform, and in 2008 opposition groups, including Pudemo , boycotted the elections as part of their many campaigns to establish alternative political parties. Swaziland political parties such as the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) and other pro-democratic parties were banned since 1973.Additionally, in July this year teachers and nurses embarked on a public sector strike organised by the labour union, the National Association of Public Service and Allied Workers, in an attempt to pressure the government to grant them a 4.5 percent salary increase. However, their movement for democracy, rights and decent salaries was met with brutal repressions. In response, royalists opposed to democratic change have resorted to using treason legislation to restrain and harass these critical forces. Ministers, Judges and Chiefs, Members of Parliament, and heads of security forces, which are chosen by the king, have all been mobilised against forces of change. In the process, dozens of students, hundreds of protesters and activists are in jail, while many have been forced into exile as a result of repression.

The challenges can be traced back to 1973 when the then King Sobhuza II introduced the Tinkhundla system that promoted a customary form of governance with the king and chiefs given sweeping political powers and banned political parties such as the NNLC and the King was installed above the constitution of the country. According to critics, the Tinkhundla system is designed to protect the interests of the royal family at the expense of citizens’ rights.Under the system, citizens are therefore mere subjects.

The conflict over change in Swaziland is spreading to the southern African region with opposition to the Tinkhundla system having spread to critical civil society and trade unions in South Africa and other countries. SADC and the AU are also being put under pressure to demand the Swazi government to transform by democratising its governance in line with the principles enshrined in their respective governance instruments. These include the SADC Treaty, the SADC Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, the African Union Constitutive Act, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the AU Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG). The legal instruments that Swaziland is party to envisage the spread of an open and democratic political system based on human rights and the rule of law. They actually enjoin SADC and the AU to work proactively to promote democratic governance in Africa.

The argument is that in spite of the above-mentioned principles, SADC and the AU have failed both to promote democracy in Swaziland and to stop the repression of civil society and political parties. They have failed to veto the 2008 legislative elections that were held under a constitutional charter that reinforced the Tinkhundla constituency model without providing space for greater democratisation. Both the Commonwealth Expert Team and the Pan-African Parliament expressed dissatisfaction with the conditions under which these elections were held, especially the failure to extensively consult with the people, civil society and political parties, some of which remain banned. Accordingly, analysts have dubbed the Tinkhundla elections as ‘organised certainty’, since there is no upright opposition or multi-partyism against the monarchy regime, thus yielding same results and maintaining the royal status quo.

While the next Tinkhundla elections are scheduled for August 2013, analysts are concerned that with the polarised discussions on monarchism and democracy, this will turn into a façade that will only help deepen the crisis of governance and economy in Swaziland.

If there are any lessons from the transitions taking place in Zimbabwe and Madagascar, it is that SADC and the AU have sufficient influence to pressure national parties to negotiate out of crises. In this case too, they have the ability to promote constructive diplomacy and encourage serious dialogue between the Swazi government and pro-democracy groups. With Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the new chairperson of the AU Commission on a SADC ticket, it is not amiss to expect her to bring to bear the Commission’s influence on Swaziland, forcing it to respect the AU and SADC principles on political governance. Without this, there are prospects of real collapse taking place in this tiny country whose impacts would be huge throughout the region, as a collapsed state can only lead to domino effects on Africa.

Ms Mhlanga is a NRF research assistant at the IGD. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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