Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Back in the days of ancient Rome, it is said that Emperor Nero 'fiddled while Rome burned'. Similarly in Swaziland today, King Mswait III is away in seclusion 'being cleansed' while his country's political, legal and economic crisis worsens by the day.
On Thursday 27th, the continent's last absolute monarch officially commissioned the ‘water party’ (Bemanti), which marks the start of the Incwala ceremony - a quasi religious-political ritual that is traditionally regarded as a period of prayer and renewal for the Swazi nation. It is held annually and the chief protagonist is the king, who goes into total seclusion. It is anticipated that he will emerge from the ‘cleansing ritual’ in January next year.
The Incwala is an integral part of the Swazi cultural calendar - as well as its political calendar because the king's seclusion creates a serious vacuum in Swaziland's corridors of power. Culturally, once the king goes into seclusion, nothing save for a national catastrophe can pull him out. He is completely insulated from the public view and undertakes no official duties whatsoever. This is a time when the Swazi state is most vulnerable since everything goes into a lull.
This year, as Mswati goes into seclusion, he leaves behind a protracted judicial crisis that is rapidly escalating. Lawyers have been boycotting the courts for almost four months in protest at the maladministration of justice in the country by the incumbent Chief Justice, Michael Ramodibedi. But this week, they upped the pressure on the Chief Justice by staging a mass walk-out of the Supreme Court. This left all suspects and people with civil cases with no legal representation.
But astonishingly, the Chief Justice ordered that all cases be heard with or without the lawyers. This, as some have already observed, is the height of injustice. The Chief Justice is also on record as praising people who represented themselves saying that they actually argue 'much better than the lawyers'.
Subsequent to the directive to proceed without the lawyers, Ramodibedi then went another step further - banning all lawyers from setting foot inthe High Court. A heavily armed police contingent has been posted in and around the High Court premises and only government lawyers and people with cases have been allowed to enter. Banned from meeting at the High Court, the lawyers opted for a very innovative strategy, using their vehicles to ‘march’ through the capital city in protest and brining the city to a stand-still - much to the consternation of the police.
Meanhile, lawyers and civil society activists led by the Law Society of Swaziland staged another protest march today to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister voicing their dismay at the deployment of police at the High Court. The petition was received by the government spokesperson, Percy Simelane, who promised, as usual, to pass it on to the premier.
However, it is not just Swazi lawyers who have taken to the streets recently. Yesterday, over 2, 000 University of Swaziland students marched to deliver a petition to the Minister of Labour and Social Security over unpaid allowances. As is to be expected these days, the march was characterized by clashes between the students and the police over routes and other issues. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt or arrested. This protest is also not an isolated student demonstration since the William Pitcher Teachers’ College was this indefinitely closed this week after students undertook a sit-in strike over allowances and a host of other issues.
Maybe the king has left behind a plan to resolve the judicial and economic crises engulfing the country. Or maybe he is just hoping that it will magically resolve itself while he is enjoying his seclusion and his cleansing. The likelihood though is that there is no plan and that Swaziland will stumble along until he reappears. What state his kingdom will be in when he emerges is anyone's guess.