Unfit for a King: Democratic Desires in Swaziland

Article excerpt

The recent elections in Swaziland were held under the auspices of King Mswati II's autocratic rule and effectively brought traditional political institutions and the modern democratic state to a crossroads. In a country where the king is supreme, the Swazi people are now questioning the effectiveness of one man's policies to combat immediate developmental issues and are starting to seek a popularly elected body to voice their concerns. It seems that change is inevitable in this struggle between old and new political systems.

Swaziland gained independence from British colonial rule in 1968, after the charismatic King Sobhuza II successfully steered the nation to full international sovereignty with surprisingly little bloodshed. As a result, political power was transferred under a democratic consensus to the Dlamini royal lineage, Swaziland's traditional rulers in pre-colonial times. Sobhuza, however, suspended the new democratic Swazi constitution soon after coming to power, calling for a system of constitutional monarchy more closely aligned with Swazi "traditional" culture. Since then, members of Parliament in Swaziland have become mere puppets of the King, strict laws have been enacted prohibiting unauthorized public meetings, and potential political opponents have been held in detention. Sobhuza and the Dlamini royal line has relied on superstitious causal relations and heavy traditional symbolism to justify their powerful position to the Swazi people.

Ironically, it is the abuse of symbolic royal power which has precipitated a public outcry against the royal house. In November 2002, a heartbroken mother filed a lawsuit to prevent Mswati from marrying her 17-year-old daughter, whom he had spotted at a performance of the ceremonial Reed Dance and subsequently ordered his guards to abduct. In response, Mswati, who is Sobhuza's son and successor, retorted that the mother had "no respect for tradition," since Swazi custom allows the King to choose wives among 10,000 to 20,000 scantily-clad young women at the dance. The royal rejection of the lawsuit severely undermined the independence of the judiciary, and Mswati was denounced by Amnesty International and other international watch-dogs for his disregard of human rights and women's rights. The Swazi King's choice of a young bride also came under fire because it was made immediately after he imposed a rule banning all girls under 18 from participating in sexual intercourse. …