Swaziland: Trouble waiting to happen

The political climate in the Southern African Development Community has been balmy of late.

South Africa held elections in April that made the continent proud, and the poll in Malawi also went smoothly—declared free and fair by most observers.

The recent coup in Madagascar was met with strong condemnation and suspension from the SADC and in Zimbabwe—the bad boy on the block—the tenuous unity government appears to be holding together, with the worst of Mugabe’s excesses seemingly behind us.

With this relatively rosy picture across the region, it is time for the SADC to concentrate on the challenges confronting Swaziland.
The SADC must learn from its experience with Zimbabwe that neglecting festering internal political crises is a recipe for disaster. Where democracy is in jeopardy and the rule of law has broken down, it is only a matter of time before the regional body will have to be pulled in to clean up the mess.

In the past 10 years Swaziland has slid steadily into a political, economic and social morass. The ruling elite has plundered the national coffers to fund all manner of lavish celebrations, the HIV/Aids infection rate has skyrocketed to such an extent that Swaziland now enjoys the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV prevalence in the world, sham elections continue to take place, in which political parties are not allowed to contest, and a series of repressive laws to silence opposition and dissent have been enacted.

In the past six months Swaziland has taken a turn for the worse. Critics have become more fearful of voicing their concerns about the state of the nation. The draconian Suppression of Terror Act—which defines terrorism in impossibly broad terms—has had a particularly severe chilling effect. Fearing being arrested and charged with inciting terror, many activists have grown silent, refusing to issue even the meekest of criticisms.

In the past two weeks another brave voice has been silenced in Swaziland. Thulani Maseko, a leading human rights lawyer who has consistently challenged the state in important jurisprudential cases, has been locked up and is facing charges of sedition.

Maseko’s crime was to speak his mind in a society that is increasingly being run like a dictatorship.

Swazi activists are hoping that his arrest and detention will mobilise support among civic actors to stage demonstrations similar to those that shook the nation in 2008, when ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest excessive spending on the king’s birthday celebrations, which coincided with the 40-year independence of the country.

At a time when this region is striving to set norms and standards of democratic practice, Swaziland is an outlier—dragging the reputation and image of Southern Africa down. The regional bloc would be wise to call for Swazi leaders to respect democratic principles and human rights, before the situation further deteriorates. The SADC is unlikely to do so. Swaziland is a small country with little in the way of economic power or natural resources and it is of little strategic importance—either to its neighbours or to Western powers.

Swaziland is well aware that it is flagrantly able to ignore the standards set by the SADC because it isn’t considered important enough to bother about. This is a shame because it undermines the premise of the SADC. The notion that all the SADC citizens—regardless of which country they happen to have been born in—enjoy equal rights to live in stable and democratic societies is an important one.

Indeed it is precisely because of Swaziland’s lack of importance in the world that the rights of its citizens should be defended. Were the SADC to issue a strong statement prescribing a time line for the restoration of political normalcy to the country—the unbanning of political parties and the repeal of repressive legislation for a start—it would send a clear message to the world that Southern Africa is serious about democratic practice. It would send the signal that the lives of all citizens in the region matter—not just those who live in countries that have strategic value.

And although the symbolic value would be important, there are even more pressing practical reasons that this should be done. The reality is that, without intervention, the plight of the one million inhabitants of the country will worsen as poverty deepens, restrictions on freedoms tighten, HIV soars and corruption explodes. Surely this is a crisis that the SADC can avert.

Sisonke Msimang is the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa

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