After Mugabe, could King Mswati be the next strongman to fall?

King Mswati III of Swaziland, at the ripe age of 49, is a spring chicken in comparison to his fellow African autocrats. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

King Mswati III of Swaziland, at the ripe age of 49, is a spring chicken in comparison to his fellow African autocrats. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

In the wake of Robert Mugabe’s fall from grace, commentators are rushing to ask: Which long-term African leader is next in line to hit the dust? Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s leader for the past 31 years, crops up in discussion quite a lot. Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president since 1982, and Teodoro Obiang, ruler of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, are also thrown into the mix. Will their grip on power remain or will the course of history sweep them from office, as it so ingloriously swept Mugabe off his perch? Museveni, at 73, is the baby of this lot. Obiang is 75 and Biya 84. Full of wisdom, perhaps. But reform? Energy? More to the point, how much do these leaders have in common with their youthful populations? All three countries have a median age of around 20.

But this article is not about these dinosaurs. It is about a man who is often left out of such discussions on the (possible) fall of long-time African leaders.

King Mswati III of Swaziland, at the ripe age of 49, is a spring chicken in comparison to his fellow African autocrats. But, like many of his elder colleagues, he shares little concern for the plight of his people and the development of democracy. The king has had since 1986 to fix a plethora of economic and health problems in his southern African fiefdom. Yet today, Swaziland has one of highest HIV rates in the world and one of the lowest life expectancies.

Recent progress has been made in combatting HIV, it must be said, but progress remains slow. And despite a few malls being built and several white elephant developments, a majority of people live in serious poverty. Flashy new malls and conference centres are great. But if there aren’t enough jobs then people don’t have the money to buy anything from the malls or attend the conference events.

Unemployment in Swaziland is hovering around 25 percent. Without the sugar industry, which remains relatively strong thanks to purchases from the European Union, unemployment would be much higher. In 2015, the US government removed Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a preferential trade agreement, because the kingdom failed to pass legislation that would allow more free speech and civil protest, further limiting trade opportunities.

King Mswati sits atop the kingdom’s parliament, judiciary and executive. He handpicks the prime minister and can hire and fire judges. Therefore, although Mswati enjoys the ceremonial pomp that accompanies his job, his role is much more than symbolic. His pronouncements directly influence government decisions and legislative priorities, and his sermons on social policy hold remarkable sway.

For example, in April 2017, the King told religious leaders that it is against Swazi culture to divorce - and instructed them to inform citizens accordingly. Civil rights organisation Swaziland Solidarity Network said that the King’s wish is likely to become law, if he tables it, even though the law would adversely affect women, whom it says are already oppressed.

So, despite the window dressing (Swaziland does hold elections and a parliament exists) and the soothing rhetorical flourishes (Mswati says his country is a “monarchical democracy”), the landlocked nation of 1.3 million people is far from free and democratic.

Political parties have been banned since 1973, when Mswati’s father King Sobhuza II unilaterally repealed the 1968 independence constitution. Dissent and opposition to the ruling clique has not been tolerated since. And while “respect” is a big word in Swaziland – “you must show respect for Swazi culture and tradition” is one oft-used phrase – the king and his friends show little respect to those who challenge their ideas.

Where does this intolerance come from?

Richard Levin, author of When the Sleeping Grass Awakens, a book on Swazi history, offers a concise insight. “In 1960, King Sobhuza made his views on party politics clear. He said that political parties could only lead Africans to hardship, and had caused the ‘crisis and confusion in the Congo’. [Sobhuza] also argued that the ‘policy of one man one vote can only lead us to hardship, giving as examples the systems practised in Russia and Nazi Germany’.”

Sobhuza was a learned man and, according to many, a distinguished statesman of the region. He is loved by most people in Swaziland and revered as the father of the nation. But, to run the risk of denigrating a dead king, it’s not political parties and free voting that causes hardship, it’s those in power who prevent such democratic institutions to emerge who cause the suffering. Moreover, it’s the oldest trick of the tyrant, no matter how amicable he was, to distract the audience by pointing at scapegoats. In this case, Sobhuza didn’t like political parties and free voting, not because they cause suffering, but because these things threatened his grip on power.

The former king’s thinking lingers in the minds of many Swazis today, particularly those who are scared of the ballot box. That is, the ruling elite and the crusted-on cronies who curry royal favour in order to climb the ladder. These folks, naturally enough, see few issues with a system that benefits them.

Many Swazis view their king as a god-like figure; or at least see him a man who has been chosen by god to lead the nation. And while the current king may not be overly popular, the institution of the monarchy is deeply revered.

In public, lavish and sugary praise is hefted upon Mswati. In private, though, it’s a different story. In quieter moments, many people express deep displeasure at how the country is run and would prefer a more open and free nation. The trouble is, because public dissent is risky, if you shout too loudly and critically in public then you may end up in jail. Two writers were sent to prison for 15 months in 2014-15 for daring to call for democracy while exposing corruption in the judiciary. This reinforces the fear and self-censorship that people feel in calling for change. To the wealthy leaders – removed as they are from the regular people – it may sound like peaceful silence. But this brings to mind another phrase that can be heard in the kingdom: “In Swaziland, one should not mistake silence for peace.”

It’s an ingrained respect for Swazi law and custom – the unwritten and vague rules that the monarchy uses to prolong its reign – that keeps most people silent when they might be thinking critical thoughts. But written laws also help keep the quiet, despite a 2005 constitution that, on the surface, seems to protect free speech and basic human rights. On a deeper reading, though, the current constitution was designed to entrench the monarchy’s hold on power.

On top of this, The Suppression of Terrorism Act, just one example of many bad laws, effectively bans dissenting voices and labels opposition figures as terrorists. Some people have been arrested and jailed for chanting songs or wearing the wrong t-shirt. And earlier this year new legislation was passed that can jail critics of the king and his government.

“The offences are classed as showing ‘contempt against the cultural and traditional heritage of the Swazi nation’ and are contained in the Public Order Act 2017,” writes Richard Rooney, a close watcher of the country, on his Swazi Media Commentary blog. “Contempt includes defacing a picture of King Mswati who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. The Public Order Act allows for a E10,000 emalangeni (US$770) fine, two-years imprisonment or both for inciting ‘hatred or contempt’ against cultural and traditional heritage.”

Tourist brochures and passing travellers also refer to the country as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy, in a somewhat romantic tone – and minus the follow-up critique. While it is true, less discerning but no less honest commentators refer to the country as a tin-pot dictatorship.

One such commentator is Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation, a monthly magazine which offers the most truthful rendering of the country’s affairs. The two daily newspapers are okay, but they don’t dare offer fearless reporting and analysis of real power and money in the kingdom - namely, royal affairs.

Makhubu laments the silence of Swazis on issues of national importance. He notes how Swazis will be loud and opinionated on stories relating to South Africa or other close neighbours, but will keep their mouths shut when it comes to their own country.

“[Social media] threads run long and debates sometimes take days while they give their take on what’s going on in that country, yet so much is going on in Swaziland and there is not a whimper,” says Makhubu, who was one of the writers who spent 15 months in jail in 2014-15, along with Nation columnist and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.

“Our country is collapsing right in front of our eyes,” says Makhubu. “Corruption is so ingrained in our society we have even started to believe it’s normal and that’s how life works. And no-one, absolutely no-one, wants to say anything about it.”

Where to from here?

Next year Swaziland will hold an election. If you’re a betting man, put a few bucks on King Mswati coming out on top.

The last two elections were criticized by international observes. The African Union noted how political parties are banned from competing in the elections – a clear violation of people’s rights to freedom of assembly and association.

The Commonwealth observer mission said: “The elections were well conducted but we strongly believe that there is considerable room for improving the democratic system, in light of Swaziland’s international obligations. We, therefore, cannot conclude that the entire process was credible, if measured against those obligations.”

Despite such concerns, Swaziland, under the stewardship of the king, has not taken steps to allow any form of meaningful poll.

Ironically, King Mswati was the chairperson of the Southern African Development Committee, a regional bloc of 16 nations, from 2016-17. Ironic because Swaziland is in violation of SADC principles on democracy and fair elections.

In next year’s election, Swazis can vote for individual members (i.e. no one who runs for office can be affiliated to a political party) to the House of Assembly. Voters are only allowed to select 55 of the 65 members of the House. The remaining 10 are appointed by the king. While in the Senate, none of its 30 members are elected by the people. The king selects 20 senators and the other 10 are appointed by the House of Assembly. The king then picks his prime minister from the House of Assembly, who by custom has to have the royal surname Dlamini. (There are a lot of Dlaminis in Swaziland.)

On these facts, it’s easy to see why many people call the vote a selection rather than an election.

Still, the king seems to have a good grip on the country. How much dissent is there? It’s hard to truly know. Is it because oppressive laws keep dissent down, or because Swazi “law and custom” causes self-censorship out of “respect”, or because civil society is weak and unable to find a united voice? All of the above, and much more, in all likelihood. It certainly can’t be because the king and his government are running an efficient and effective administration.

Whatever is going on, it’s hard to get a clear picture when there’s so much silence emanating from the kingdom. Understandable silence, it must be said, for who wants to go to jail for speaking out? But until the myth of the king is broken or some other unforeseen circuit breaker unfolds, the silence – and his reign – will continue.

There stands a dictator.

Bill Snaddon is an Australian journalist and filmmaker. He lived in Swaziland from 2012-15, when working at the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

Sibusiso Nhlabatsi is a Swazi human rights lawyer and a 2016 member of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). US President Barack Obama launched YALI in 2010 to support the next generation of African leaders.

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