Swaziland's polls offer little hope of change, but some candidates believe they can be agents of change, writes Louise Redvers.
Campaigning is under way in Swaziland for this month's parliamentary elections and international observers are due to arrive in the next week.
But, despite all the local press intrigue about the candidates – one of whom has just been jailed for fraud – the results will be largely academic because, regardless of who wins, King Mswati III will remain in charge.
The 45-year-old, Africa's last absolute monarch, inherited the throne in 1986 from his father King Sobhuza II, who two decades earlier had banned political parties, which remains in force.
Any Swazi who wishes to run for Parliament must stand on an individual ticket, but only once he or she has made it through a primary round of local nominations, a process overseen by powerful local chiefs, all of whom are royal appointees.
There are 65 seats in Parliament, 10 of which the British boarding school-educated Mswati allocates himself when he picks the Cabinet and prime minister, who does not have to have been elected as an MP.
This system, which is known as tinkundla (the plural of inkhundla, the name of the country's administrative subdivisions), has come under fire from activists in Swaziland who want a multiparty system – many of whom are loudly boycotting the poll – international rights groups and several previous electoral observer missions.
Pro-democracy campaigners blame the country's poor economic performance, weak service delivery and high levels of poverty on the government's lack of democratic accountability because of the way Parliament is elected and run.
This week, Mswati tried to appease his critics by saying he had had a vision during a winter storm, which told him tinkundla was now to be called a "monarchial democracy".
But the statement has generally been met with derision though there are some who feel the king, who in Swazi folklore is "the mouth that speaks no lie", could be hinting about possible reform.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, accepts that, although the king will continue in power whatever the result, the elections are still important for Swaziland.
"Even though policy is ultimately decided by the king, there will be a new Cabinet and a new prime minister so that does offer a moment of opening for reflection and possible new policy direction," he said.
It was also significant that this year a number of candidates associated with the reform agenda were running in the election, with a view to winning a seat in Parliament and trying to influence from within.
"If we have some of these reformers getting elected, it could be significant in terms of nudging change from inside the Assembly," Vines said. "These people are unlikely to get positions in Cabinet but there are things that can be done."
Among those reformers is Jan Sithole, a respected labour veteran who runs the Swaziland Democratic Party but who, according to the rules, will be standing as an independent on September 20.
He shrugs off claims by his activist peers that, by taking part in the elections, he is legitimising tinkundla.
"It's about finding other ways, to twist and turn. In Swaziland, the call for multiparty democracy cannot just be on the picket line; we need to also influence from inside," he told the Mail & Guardian.
"If we are inside, we can challenge things like the budget directly, not just by waving our placards.
"We are not going there to enter the system; we are going there to raise the voices that are being ignored at the moment."
A civil society project officer, Lungile Mnisi, is also running for a seat in Parliament, although she says she is not affiliated to any party.
"I feel that I have the skills and the knowledge, [and] I am prepared academically. I also have a heart for the people because I have experience of working with them in the local communities," she said.
"If I stay on the sidelines because I am afraid of legitimising tinkundla then we are just going to end up with the same people in Parliament and nothing will get better."
While stressing the need for more pro-poor policies and an improved education system, the 35-year-old shied away from discussing the reform of Swaziland's political system, such as the unbanning of political parties.
She said: "It depends what the people themselves want. So, if the people who are electing me want change, then why not speak about it in Parliament?"
Those elected to Parliament in this election will have their work cut out in a country where two-thirds of the people live in poverty, one in four has HIV and the economic growth forecast for 2013 and 2014 is flat at zero.
Swaziland's economy is dangling by a thread. It lurched to near bankruptcy in 2011 after a sharp drop in revenues from the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu), on which it relies for 60% of its income, and the government had to seek private financing to pay public service salaries.
Besides many inefficiencies and a poor business environment, the size of the country's public wage bill, one of the largest in the region, and accounting for half of government expenditure, is a big part of the problem.
The International Monetary Fund has made repeated calls, which have been ignored, to reduce this by cutting jobs and reducing "nonpriority spending".
The government has been strongly criticised for pouring billions of rands into large infrastructure projects such as the new airport, which is still not open after a decade and which many say is not necessary.
Another issue is the lavish lifestyle of the king and his 13 wives, whose exploits regularly grace the pages of the global tabloid press, the reports of private jet purchases and shopping sprees in London sticking in the thirsty throats of the gogos (grannies) caring for Aids orphans in mud huts, without water or electricity.
Vines, who was due to present a new and detailed Chatham House report about Swaziland's perilous economy and its reform options at the South African Institute of International Affairs this week, said: "Expenditure is unsustainable and the situation is deteriorating rapidly.
"The new government that comes in after the election has to consider reform very seriously. The ostrich-like behaviour that we have seen to date is not going to work. Things have to change."
It emerged last week that South Africa's proposed R2.4-billion bailout for Swaziland is now off the table, according to a parliamentary response from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to a question tabled by Alf Lees, a Democratic Alliance member of the National Council of Provinces.
It is widely understood that Swaziland was unwilling to implement the fiscal and regulatory reforms attached as conditions of the loan. But it got by for the past 12 months thanks to a near tripling of their payment from Sacu.
But Vines warned that "the Sacu windfall was a get-out-of-jail-free card for Swaziland and it won't be easily repeated".
Pro-democracy groups' determined defiance
While a large part of the country focuses on the elections, Swaziland's trade unions and pro-democracy movement, which is largely, though not entirely, boycotting the poll, continues to lobby for political reform in the kingdom.
The annual Congress of South African Trade Unions-backed global week of action on Swaziland, held this week, was due to include a march through the capital, Mbabane, an election debate in Manzini, a border blockage and pickets in South Africa, the United Kingdom and Denmark.
Wandile Dludlu from the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), one of a number of pro-democracy umbrella movements in the country, told the Mail & Guardian that the groups expected to meet resistance from the authorities, but they were determined to press on with their events as planned.
"We are aware that there may be a clampdown, we have seen this in the past, and it has at times been ruthless," he said, referring to activists who had been arrested and allegedly mistreated or had simply clashed with police and security officers.
"But we can't just fold our arms because of what has happened in the past.
"We don't have a permit to stage the march in Mbabane. If we waited for a permit to do anything, we'd do nothing, because we'd never get a permit," he said.
Groups such as the SUDF, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), which is run from Cosatu House in Johannesburg, and Pudemo, with which many SSN members are affiliated, have been criticised for their disparate approaches and infighting.
Despite having a population of just more than one million people, about the same as the Northern Cape, Swaziland's fight for democracy has lasted four decades, and although the rest of the region has embraced multiparty politics, Swaziland remains a stubborn island of dictatorship.
Dludlu admitted there was division between democracy groups, but he said it was "only human" and existed in all struggles. South Africa was no different.
Responding to the criticism that the campaigns involved too much talk and not enough mobilisation and action, he said: "There are highs and lows. I agree, Swazis are not making enough noise, but I believe that people on the ground are listening and we are beginning to mobilise the masses.
"We are getting there, comrade. I believe this regime is crumbling, it is eating itself.
"Our struggle is not very dramatic or high volume, but it's a low and intense kind of approach and we need to be patient."
This view is echoed by civil society actors who have been running community-based civil education campaigns to teach rural Swazis – who often live in fear of their chiefs, on whom they depend for food handouts – about human rights.
"Things are changing. People are talking a lot more and we have had good turnouts at people's parliaments," one project worker said.
"We are definitely getting through to people and the financial situation has pushed this along because people want to know why they are poorer than they were before, but why chiefs and royalty are still well-fed and rich." – Louise Redvers