Overhauling the Feudal Regime in Swaziland

By Onadipe, Abiodun | Contemporary Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Overhauling the Feudal Regime in Swaziland


Onadipe, Abiodun, Contemporary Review


Being next door to the burgeoning democracy in the new South Africa, the feudal government in the Kingdom of Swaziland is fighting a losing battle against the increasing democratic tidal wave that is currently buffering the country. Nevertheless, it appears ready and willing to dig in its heels in a last ditch attempt to survive with its absolute monarchical style of government. Although Swaziland's King Mswati, the only ruler in southern Africa resisting multi-party politics, is standing firm against the forces of change in his tiny land-locked Kingdom, his absolute control has been eased slightly following the staging of the country's longest national strike last January. This marked the real genesis of democratic opposition in the country since the state of emergency was declared in 1973.

The eight-day stoppage was called by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) in alliance with pro-reform groups such as the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) to press for multi-party elections and an end to the absolute monarchy system. The strikers returned to work on January 29 under the guns of royal troops and the police after a hard-line threat by the King. Although the strike ended without any formal agreement between the government and the unions (which was demanding a response to its 27-point list of grievances), the SFTU initially found comfort in the fact that it had won a government promise that legalising political parties through the reinstatement of the 1968 Constitution, suspended by Mswati's father in 1973, was on the agenda and would be discussed. The trade union claimed to have suspended the action and threatened to resume it unless the government allowed it to call a mass meeting of workers - which is not allowed under Swaziland's new Industrial Relations Act.

Under growing pressure from Britain (Baroness Chalker, the Overseas Development minister visited in February) and South Africa (which is now openly critical of the Swazi government - President Mandela visited in March), King Mswati declared that he was going to reinstate the suspended constitution. But this failed to conciliate the opposition. PUDEMO President, Kilson Shongwe, declared that the King could not unilaterally decide to revive the constitution, neither could he appoint his loyalists to write a new constitution for the country. 'He isn't the one to decide for the Swazi nation. We think that is very dictatorial and unacceptable,' Shongwe remarked to the South African news agency, SAPA. PUDEMO wants a national convention of all parties to work out an acceptable way forward.

A PUDEMO spokesman in London believes that the King was merely stalling in asking for time from the opposition groups to consider a 'new political dispensation' for the country. There is deep scepticism about his intention of modifying this constitution. Shongwe, according to SAPA, claims that Mswati was only trying to protect himself and his government in the presence of Lady Chalker: 'We don't think that he was very serious when he said this. Perhaps it was just to please her.'

However, political and labour analysts believe that the King's intervention was crucial in ending this damaging strike (estimated to have cost [pounds]1,973,684 a day), when he delivered an uncompromising speech to his royal warrior regiments during which he accused the unions of trying to depose him and ordered his subjects back to work. (The PUDEMO spokesman in London disclosed that the King, who had been aware of the strike all along, waited until the action was nearing its conclusion before delivering this speech.) The institution of the monarchy is almost universally respected in Swaziland, though it is being sorely tested by the increasingly vocal urban youth and by intellectuals who have been pushing for the introduction of multi-party democracy in the country. The political situation is changing rapidly as young people are getting increasingly restive and harder to control. …

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