While African Union chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was extolling the virtues of empowering women on the continent at the African Union summit in Ethiopia last month, Swaziland’s attorney general, Majahenkhaba Dlamini, was warning lawyers and judges at the official opening of the country’s high-court year about the threat posed to Swazi society by women’s ambition to become chiefs.
Dlamini-Zuma tweeted during the summit that “women are part of this continent, and must be part of business. Empowering women makes business sense”.
Not so, according to the Swazi government’s chief legal adviser. Dlamini said: “We seem to have also entered a phase in Swazi history where more and more women want to play the role of chief, no doubt preparing to assume the full status of chief in the not so distant future. The result of this move is to weaken the pillars of Swazi chieftaincy and ultimately to destroy the institution of chieftainship. Should this materialise the very constitutional fabric of the Swazi family would be radically altered. Again, courts and lawyers are warned to have no hand in this.”
This is a shocking statement, even in a patriarchal society where the world’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, has a harem of 15 wives.
In Swaziland’s Parliament there is only one woman among the 55 members voted directly to the House of Assembly (MPs in Swaziland are not allowed to stand on any party-political ticket).
Swaziland’s 2005 Constitution has mechanisms to correct the composition of Parliament if, at the first sitting of the House, there is a less than 30% representation of women. But this mechanism has been completely ignored since the 2013 elections. Dlamini, an ex-officio member of Parliament and a principal adviser to legislators, has done nothing to correct this anomaly.
‘Iron lady’ Gelane Zwane
It is not very difficult to work out why the attorney general is so frustrated by the empowerment of women at chieftaincy level.
The president of the Senate, the upper chamber of Parliament, is Gelane Zwane, a woman appointed by King Mswati for three consecutive terms, spanning more than 15 years.
Zwane is a formidable woman known to have chastised men, from fellow senators to Cabinet ministers, for their ineptitude when dealing with parliamentary business – and she has not spared Dlamini either.
She also happens to be an acting chief in the south of Swaziland, in an area close to the border with South Africa, where she has been described as an “iron lady”. She does not suffer the chauvinistic tendencies of the rural men who surround her when she holds court.
What makes the outburst of the attorney general significant is that chiefs are the pillars of Swaziland’s monarchy. Mswati needs chiefs to exercise authority over his subjects. The idea that the king could rule Swaziland with women chiefs horrifies the attorney general.
The son of a chief and a senior prince in Swaziland’s expanded royal family, the attorney general’s father was prime minister in 1986, when Mswati assumed the throne.
Dlamini is married to a respected judge of the high court who has also demonstrated in the past that she does not suffer the excesses of chauvinistic men.
Misogynistic views not isolated
Whereas Dlamini actively supported Swaziland’s disgraced chief justice, Michael Ramodibedi, when he threw me and Thulani Maseko in jail last year, it was his wife, Judge Mumcy Dlamini, who released us and ruled that our arrest was illegal (we were rearrested three days later).
At a time when men still struggle to treat women as equals, Dlamini’s misogynistic views, though shocking, are not isolated.
United States presidential hopeful Donald Trump came under fire for calling Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly a bimbo when he said he would not participate in a Republican party debate if she was the moderator. Trump’s chauvinistic views are well documented and he has been quoted in many other instances making sexist statements during the run-up to the presidential race.
As Dlamini-Zuma was punting women’s rights at the AU, the Sunday Times was wondering whether the headscarves she wore during the summit were a sign of a bad hair day or a failure on her part to emancipate herself from oppression, and whether the style was still relevant today.
The article may have been intended as a light-hearted take on Dlamini-Zuma and her headgear, but it came across as petty and sexist.
Meanwhile, the uThukela municipality in KwaZulu-Natal said it would award scholarships to female university students only if they remained virgins.
In Sweden last year, it was revealed that doctors were conducting virginity tests on young girls without their consent and, in some cases, against their will, and issuing virginity certificates to parents and guardians.
Equal rights – on paper
In Swaziland, however, there is much more to worry the attorney general. At the opening of the high-court year, he expressed grave concern about women’s rights in customary marriages.
He said: “Customary marriage has become a private family arrangement, on today and off tomorrow … Various recent decisions of the high court are a testament of this insidious challenge to the security of our traditional marriage. What has happened, I do not know. What I know is that, unless quick action happens to stop these easy divorces, many a Swazi man will be without a wife. This cannot be tolerated.”
Swaziland’s Constitution gives women equal rights in all spheres of life – on paper at least. Under customary law, if a woman had left her husband’s home because of the collapse of the marriage, she could be recalled to the home and required to wear mourning clothing. The Constitution, however, says she is not obliged to follow this practice.
Issues such as these concern the attorney general. But, as a public official, he should be more concerned with understanding and supporting Swaziland’s Constitution.
Bheki Makhubu edits The Nation magazine in Swaziland.