For King Mswati III, becoming chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) while hosting the organisation’s 36th summit at the end of last month was his crowning glory in regional politics in his 30-year reign over Swaziland.
Even as his appointment as SADC chair drew widespread condemnation among commentators in the region because he rules Swaziland as an absolute monarch, it comes at a time when Mswati is laying down fresh policies to support his rule and the support shown by regional leaders can be seen as an endorsement of his plans.
In recent years, Mswati has sought to redefine Swaziland’s political system by describing his rule as a monarchial democracy.
He claims the system blends the monarchy with democratic values and allows people to elect anyone they choose to represent them in Parliament without the inhibitions of party-political patronage.
Mswati believes his monarchical democracy project does this while recognising kingship as the institution that embodies Swaziland’s sociopolitical discourse.
There is no doubt that the monarch has a firm grip on power in Swaziland and, over the years, has managed to suppress political dissent to the point where activists today are a subdued lot who only speak on the sidelines in hushed tones.
Political protest action has not been seen in the streets of Swaziland in more than two years. Instead, some of the leading voices for political change have crossed the floor and now sit in Parliament, pushing the agenda to strengthen the idea of this monarchial democracy.
As the only leader in the region to hold office for life, Mswati now seeks recognition outside the borders of his country at a time when Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos have reached the twilight of their rule.
When the two presidents finally leave office, Mswati will become the longest-serving leader in the region.
His intention to make himself the senior statesman in regional politics became clear when he announced, on becoming SADC chair, that he intended to establish the SADC University of Transformation during his tenure.
The university, said Mswati, would have an initial intake of 300 students drawn from all 15 SADC member states — 20 from each country — and would be fully sponsored by the Swazi government.
It is an extraordinarily ambitious project from a country whose economy is in the doldrums. In February, its finance minister said Swaziland needed prayers to save it from total economic collapse.
But Mswati seems oblivious, undeterred by fiscal indicators of an economic downturn in his drive to have Swaziland reach developed world status by 2022.
He seeks to fund a regional university at a time when the University of Swaziland is struggling to keep its doors open as a result of reduced government funding and continual strike action by students, who have to resort to boycotting classes to force the government to pay them their annual allowances.
Mswati hosted the SADC summit at a newly built and very grand convention centre in his palace. But the convention centre will not be available for public use except when he hosts gatherings of heads of state.
The state-of-the-art building drips with an opulence not seen before in the small country. No expense was spared in building it and, even though no figures have been made available, it probably ran into hundreds of millions of rands.
When asked how much had been budgeted to host the SADC summit, finance officials in the Swazi government said they did not have any figures and would only be able to reveal the numbers after collating the figures.
One thing that is starting to emerge from Mswati’s leadership style is that he will no longer be stopped from pursuing his dream of seeing his country sporting first-class infrastructure. He will not allow this vision to be stymied by “niggles” such as the high levels of poverty that hold back the people of his country, the challenges wrought by HIV and tuberculosis, and stagnant economic growth.
Over the past 10 years, the development of Swaziland’s roads infrastructure has accelerated at an unprecedented pace.
At the heart of the drive to modernise the roads is a desperate need to make the newly built King Mswati III International Airport in rural eastern Swaziland viable. A new road network is intended to make the airport easily accessible to the public.
Described as a white elephant by many, including the Economist, the idea behind the airport is to connect long-haul flights from Europe and Asia to shorter routes in the region. Despite the airport being officially opened in 2014, so far only a small Airlink plane occasionally lands there to take passengers to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
In the king’s blinkered pursuit of his dream, there is neither room nor time in his agenda for human rights and the general welfare of his people. A Constitution that was enacted in 2005 is struggling to find traction in a society where there is no rule of law and where the judicial system has all but collapsed.
In a clear indication that Mswati has no intention of changing Swazi politics, on the eve of the SADC summit he called the nation to the traditional sibaya (the so-called People’s Parliament), where he lambasted trade union leaders who go to international forums such as the International Labour Organisation to complain about Swaziland’s failure to recognise basic workers’ rights.
He sent a clear message that he would not tolerate any dissenting voices airing their grievances during the SADC summit and said people must speak only at the sibaya if they had any issues they wanted him to know of.
There is no doubt that Mswati now seeks to raise his stature in regional politics and, in the process, wants to create a legacy for himself as one of Africa’s foremost leaders.