There are two theories about what lies behind the intensifying campaign of repression directed at the media and political opposition in Swaziland.
One is that there are deep concerns in the ruling elite about Swaziland’s preferential status under the United States’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, due for renewal this month, and that anyone seen as tarnishing the country’s international reputation has been targeted. The irony is that nothing could be more damaging to Swaziland’s image than the crackdown. As reported in this edition of the Mail & Guardian, it includes the prosecution of the country’s leading journalist, Bheki Makhubu, threats by the chief justice to detain and charge another editor, and the arrest of leaders of the pro-democracy People’s United Democratic Movement.
The Makhubu trial has attracted world attention: US ambassador Makila James has voiced concerns about human rights in Swaziland and made a symbolic appearance at the court hearing.
The other theory is that there is a longer-term project by King Mswati to use Lesotho-born chief justice Michael Ramodibedi to roll back any democratic gains made by Swaziland’s new Constitution. Mswati has no intrinsic interest in advancing constitutional values. Freedom of expression and the rule of law threaten his absolute power and lavish lifestyle, so he subverts them.
The scandal is that South Africa does nothing to rein in Mswati and his despotic lieutenants. South Africa’s high commissioner in Mbabane, Happy Mahlangu, has claimed that Swaziland is a democratic state of a different kind, and a multiparty system should not be forced on the Swazi people.
Is South African policy influenced by Jacob Zuma’s personal relationship with Mswati, and perhaps by the fact that, through its investment arm Chancellor House, the ANC has business interests in the kingdom?
By refusing even to raise its voice in protest, South Africa is complicit in Mswati’s human rights crimes. Swaziland is not an African democracy; it is a thinly veiled dictatorship where basic rights exist at one individual’s whim.