Swazis like King but Want Democracy AFRICA'S LAST ABSOLUTE MONARCHY

By Stefaans Brummer, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

Swazis like King but Want Democracy AFRICA'S LAST ABSOLUTE MONARCHY


Stefaans Brummer, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


'PATIENCE pays,' the inscription on the back of the bus admonished impatient drivers as it rambled through the undulating Swaziland hills. The legend may well have been a national motto: How else could this be the last surviving absolute monarchy in Africa?

Swazi society is deeply traditional, stratified into clans of royals, nobles, and commoners. Chiefs and princes rule the countryside in feudal fashion while the young King Mswati III and Queen Mother Nthombi Twala rule by decree.

On Jan. 22, the traditional hierarchy was stunned by a massive strike that shut down the country's economy for a week to try to force democratic reforms. The strike was led by the country's largest labor federation, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU).

In unprecedented civil unrest, Swazis looted shops and sabotaged government utilities. At least one protester, a teenage girl, died in security-force action. But after the king threatened "war," the strikers went back to work.

Things calmed down temporarily. A rally of union members yesterday, which had been banned by police, went ahead anyway, but with smaller numbers. At police orders, the 3,000 to 4,000 attendees dispersed, but did discuss resuming the mass strike possibly on Feb. 19.

Behind the strike was growing dissatisfaction with the autocratic rule of the monarchy.

Among 27 labor, economic, and political demands by the SFTU was one that King Mswati revoke a 1973 decree, which suspended the former British protectorate's Constitution and banned political parties.

Swaziland, a tiny mountainous territory landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, has lagged behind in the democratic groundswell reinvigorating the region. South Africa, Mozambique, and Malawi joined the "democratic club" of neighbor states Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia when they held their first democratic elections in 1994. Angola, long beset by civil war, now appears on the road to peace and multiparty rule.

Greg Mills, director of the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs, said last week if Swaziland does not join in, it may create regional tension. "South Africa would find it difficult to sit next to a country that is doing what the old {apartheid} government used to do."

But in a hard-line speech reminiscent of apartheid-style rule, Mswati on Jan. 27 ordered his subjects back to work. …

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