Swaziland - Democracy and Political Participation

A number of noteworthy political anniversaries occur in Swaziland’s historical calendar during 2013. This year marks 45 years of Swazi independence, 40 years since the 1973 Proclamation that repealed the 1968 Constitution and 27 years since King Mswati III’s ascension to the throne. The second national election under the 2005 Constitution is also due this year.

June 22nd, 2013

A number of noteworthy political anniversaries occur in Swaziland’s historical calendar during 2013. This year marks 45 years of Swazi independence, 40 years since the 1973 Proclamation that repealed the 1968 Constitution and 27 years since King Mswati III’s ascension to the throne. The second national election under the 2005 Constitution is also due this year. It is therefore apt to consider the democratic health of the Kingdom – an island of autocratic rule in the Southern African Development Community region, where the practice of democracy and multi-party politics stretches as far back as 48 years in at least one case (Botswana).

In 1973, King Sobhuza II decreed the abrogation of the 1968 Constitution and with it the removal of a Bill of Rights and the banning of political parties, and assumed supreme power as the Head of Government and all its branches. The effect was to close all space to those with differing political views, not only in the expression of those views, but also in terms of association with others in the collective pursuit of political and governance objectives. By declaring them illegal, the decree removed the ability of political parties to compete in elections for political power and to govern according to their manifestoes and proposed policies.

The 1973 Decree’s imposition of a state of emergency and proscription of all political activity succeeded in dissuading political discussion, quieting dissent and temporarily driving political opposition underground. During the past four decades since the decree, Swaziland has been grappling with calls for democratic transformation in the context of balancing tradition and ‘modernity’.

This report on Democracy and Political Participation in Swaziland by the (AfriMAP) and OSISA, shows that the current system of governance in Swaziland does not meet any of the regional and international standards on democracy and political participation that the country has committed itself to and the authorities simply do not have the political will to promote compliance by opening up the necessary political space. On the contrary, repressive measures in both law and action have demonstrated that the closed political space is intended and the exclusion of popular participation in the form of organised formations such as political parties is deliberate. The limited space for citizen engagement in policy- and law-making processes is further reduced when these processes threaten to touch on political issues and where there is likely to be dissent about the authorities’ proposals.

The monitoring of the implementation of and compliance with Swaziland’s obligations must continue and be strengthened in this climate as it will contribute to the body of evidence that informs the advocacy work of the pro-democracy movement.

The hostile attitude of government means that calls for democracy and political participation cannot depend on the good will of the governing authorities, but must be amplified through mass mobilisation and advocacy activities that make it difficult for the authorities to ignore them. The pro-democracy movement must therefore work hard at community and ‘grassroots’ levels with all sectors of society.

The four decades of deliberate de-politicisation of the populace have produced a nation that is filled with fear, apathy and resignation to the indefinite continuation of Swaziland’s undemocratic system of governance. The primary task therefore is the development of political awareness among the people so that they not only understand their civic rights and responsibilities, but are also willing to take action to protect them. The main challenge for the pro-democracy movement as it conducts mass mobilisation will be to craft their messages on democracy and political participation in a manner that resonates with people’s lived realities.

The current system, through law, custom and even religion have presented multi-party politics as a spectre to be avoided at all costs rather than a vehicle by which the populace can meaningfully participate in matters of governance at all levels.

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