The tiny monarchy of Swaziland threatens to become President Jacob Zuma’s diplomatic Achilles heel.
Zuma is under pressure from the ANC’s trade union and communist partners to deal more robustly with the worsening human rights crisis in Swaziland. But because of his personal friendship with Swazi monarch Mswati III and his support for traditional rule, he is likely to favour the softly, softly approach controversially applied by Thabo Mbeki to Zimbabwe, according to people familiar with the alliance debate.
Despite its formal commitment to finding solutions in Swaziland, the ANC — and Zuma — appears hesitant to speak out publicly against human rights abuses there. The ANC’s national general council in 2005 noted the constitution-making process in Swaziland. Echoing Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” on Zimbabwe, a resolution at the party’s Polokwane conference two years later was swapped for the purpose of “developing campaigns and accelerating our efforts to find solutions”.
During his recent state of the nation address Zuma mentioned other African flashpoints that will receive South Africa’s attention, including the Saharawi Arab Republic, Madagascar, Darfur and Zimbabwe. Swaziland was conspicuously absent from the list.
In the past year a number of members of the Swazi opposition parties have been detained without trial, including Mario Masuku, the leader of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo).
Masuku was arrested in November 2008 without charge and is still in jail. The Swazi police have raided homes and offices of Pudemo members and a civil society organisation, the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice.
Two-thirds of Swazis live on less than US$2 a day, while the king continues to live a lavish lifestyle. City Press reported in April that Mswati had bought several luxury bulletproof Mercedes-Benz S600L vehicles for R5.9-million each, which were delivered to the kingdom through Nelspruit. The vehicles are built to withstand chemical weapons and AK-47 fire.
The Suppression of Terrorism Act, passed after last year’s bombing of Lozitha bridge, a kilometre from the royal palace, provides for jail sentences of up to 25 years. It also allows the government to declare any organisation, statement or document a terrorist threat. Observers say the government has used the legislation to arrest Pudemo members.
Cosatu’s international relations chief, Bongani Masuku, told the Mail & Guardian that although diplomatic initiatives are taking place behind the scenes, no positive effects were yet visible.
Cosatu and the South African Communist Party have long called for tougher action against Swaziland and for Zuma not to welcome Mswati at international events, including meetings of the Southern African Development Community.
Several sources confirmed to the M&G that the friendship between Mswati and Zuma has grown closer in recent years because of their shared respect for traditional African culture and authority.
“Zuma is a close friend of Mswati and came here a lot on private visits before he became president. They’ve had several closed sessions at the king’s palace in Ludzidzini,” said Martin Dlamini, editor of Swaziland’s only independent newspaper, the Swazi Times. “Zuma comes with bodyguards, but without officials from the ANC or government.”
Another source close to Zuma said the two men share a belief in traditional authority, which would be undermined if Mswati agrees to full-scale democratic reform.
Zuma spent time in Swaziland when he was in exile but, according to Dlamini, the two men have become close friends only in recent years. “I think it’s something recent,” Dlamini said. “Zuma’s a Zulu and King [Goodwill] Zwelithini is married to King Mswati’s sister, Princess Ntombi, so there’s a link there too.”
One of Mswati’s daughters is engaged to be married to Zuma, but the marriage ceremony has yet to take place. In Swaziland it is said that the princess fainted when she heard Zuma had taken a new wife in January 2008 when she thought she was next in line.
In 2004 Mbeki asked Zuma to help the Swazi government with the country’s constitution-making process. Mswati ratified the Constitution in July 2005, a month after Zuma was sacked as deputy president. But the document still bans all opposition parties and provides for most MPs to be appointed by the king.
According to Cosatu’s Masuku, South Africa could rein in Mswati’s lavish lifestyle by closing the revenue stream through the Southern African Customs Union, which provides more than three-quarters of Swaziland’s annual income.
“But it might be difficult for Zuma. South Africa does not want to be seen as the ‘big brother’ in Southern Africa,” he said.
The Department of International Relations and cooperation failed to answer the M&G‘s questions.