Ruled by fear

Swaziland gained its independence from Britain in 1968 and, after creating a new Constitution, held multiparty elections four years later with King Sobhuza II’s Imbokodvo Nation Movement claiming victory.

Five years later King Sobhuza II repealed the Constitution, banning all political parties and transferring all supreme, executive, legislative and judicial powers to himself as king. This became known as the 1973 Decree or state of emergency.

King Sobhuza II died in 1982 and in spite of attempts by the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) to install democracy through elections and a multiparty system, in 1986, British-educated Prince Makhosetive was crowned King Mswati III.

In April he is due to celebrate his silver jubilee—25 years in power—and although the country has a Parliament, it is seen as ineffective and toothless, subordinate to the all-powerful king who himself chooses a number of the assembly’s members.

Under Mswati’s rule political parties have remained banned with various figures finding themselves arrested, often violently, and some charged with treason, sedition and subversion.

The newly drafted Constitution in 2006 was supposed to bring about reform.
But although some civil society actors use it to articulate their governance questions in a country where traditional chiefs still hold court, it has had little real impact.

A further blow to activists came in 2008, when the Suppression of Terror Act was introduced, which states that any criticism of the king or government should be treated as an act of terror—a law that has been liberally applied to human rights activists for doing their job.

In 2010 the Swaziland Democracy Coalition launched a Global Week of Action for democracy in Swaziland. The plan was to stage a series of talks, meetings and marches across the country and to build national and international solidarity for the Swazi cause.

The police, however, had other ideas. Working on intelligence, which many say came from tapped phones and intercepted emails, they stormed meetings, broke up protest marches and arrested close to 50 people.

The majority were from Swaziland, including foreign NGO workers, but a number of trade union workers from South Africa were also seized and later deported.
There were allegations of police brutality and the crackdown was widely condemned.

Hoping to take advantage of the rumblings of discontent from within Swaziland, the South Africa-based Swaziland Solidarity Network says it is planning more pickets in Johannesburg in the weeks to come, and Vincent Dlamini from the trade union Napsawu said action in Manzini and Mbabane against public service job cuts could not be ruled out.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt will, no doubt, have provided much food for thought for those Swazis able to afford televisions and internet access. But the majority of the population are likely to have been too busy with their daily struggle.

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