There is no better proof of the adage that ‘power corrupts and absolute power, corrupts absolutely’ than Swaziland. The absolute power of the King has corrupted the royal family and the rest of the ruling elite absolutely – fostering total contempt for democracy, human rights and the rule of law and complete disregard for the basic needs of the Swazi people. While King Mswati III is celebrating more than 25 years on the throne, his 1 million subjects have little cause for cheer. Swaziland boasts the highest prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the world and the lowest life expectancy. It is one of the most unequal countries on earth with a GINI coefficient of 0.69 and with 63 percent of the population living on less than US$2 per day – despite its official classification as a Lower Middle Income country.
Corruption is rife – allowing a small elite linked to the monarch to enjoy a lavish lifestyle while the majority of the population lives in acute poverty with little – or no – access to water, sanitation, health, shelter, education and other basic human rights. And the situation is getting worse. An economic crisis has left the government scrabbling for international loans. Increasing misery and economic hardship has led to the most significant public protests in years – most of which have been brutally suppressed by the security services. It is the latest in a long list of human rights abuses – including forced evictions, destruction of houses, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the harassment of journalists and activists – abuses that occur with total impunity.
The 2006 Constitution held out hope of a new era of social, political and economic rights but very little has changed. The King retains absolute power in both the ‘democratic’ and traditional Tinkhundla systems and Swazi citizens continue to have their basic, universal rights violated by the whim of the powerful, who can afford to ignore the will of the people. The result is a crisis of governance that has led to economic and social crises that threaten to leave long-suffering Swazis worse off than ever. The international community has ignored Swaziland for too long. If it continues to turn a blind eye to the reign of state terror in Swaziland, then Swazis will have to brace themselves for more of the same: more violence, repression and economic pain – and more poverty, inequality and other social ills.
And opposition is growing as ordinary Swazis become increasingly frustrated by the gap between the lavish lives of the elite and the desperately hard lives of most Swazis. The swelling discontent is evidenced by the annual Global Week of Action for Swaziland, which is held in September and aims to focus both local, regional and international attention on the governance crisis in Swaziland – and to expose the world to the myth that Swaziland is a quiet kingdom with no problems, and in which democracy does not have a place.
In 1973 King Sobuza II suspended the Independence Constitution and abrogated all political power to himself. Among other things political parties were banned and parliament suspended. The bill of rights was also abrogated in its entirety. Due largely to a significant internal pressure led by workers, a Constitution making process was started in 1996 and through various committees and versions eventually a constitution was enacted and came into force in 2005. The process of formulation was deeply flawed as civil society organisations and the general population were not provided with an opportunity to make meaningful submissions. The contributions of communities had to be in the presence of their chiefs who wield considerable social, economic, cultural and political power over the individuals and their families. The media was barred from shadowing this process as it went through Swaziland.
The constitution brought back most of the provisions of the 1973 Proclamation. Political parties remain unable to compete legitimately for political power. Parliament remains supine to the appointed executive and members of the judiciary are appointed by a committee made up of appointees of the King. Elections themselves continue to be a farce with Swaziland failing to achieve all but one of the 2004 SADC Election Guidelines - only satisfying the need to hold 'elections' every 5 years. The Commonwealth Elections Observation team described the General Elections of 2008 as not credible as the process was contrary to democratic norms and principles.
The Constitution contains a Bill of Rights but these are watered down by wide ranging ‘claw-back’ clauses and an executive that has largely ignored the spirit and the letter of the Bill of Rights. This has been demonstrated in the case of women whose quota of MPs has not been fulfilled thereby compromising the constitutionality of parliament; the Elections and Boundaries Commission whose members fail to meet the constitutionally prescribed qualifications; the Human Rights Commission which was appointed outside the constitutionally prescribed time frame; the free primary education programme whose roll out has been compromised and altered to favour a government determined programme as opposed to a constitutionally prescribed route. The Suppression of Terrorism Act enacted in 2008 has been criticised by human rights organisations as it has been used to been used to further restrict the activities of political parties including the imprisonment of the leader of PUDEMO. It has also been used to threaten journalists.
Swaziland is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional body largely embracing democratic governance through multiparty systems, but the authorities steadfastly resist the movement towards democracy, arguing that the majority of Swazi citizens reject democracy. This, of course, is an argument that has never been tested independently and scientifically.