Swaziland: liberal democracy and its discontents

Swazis want reform, but do they want a multi-party system?

Swaziland's King Mswati III retains absolute power over the country [AFP]

September 20 marked Swaziland’s last round of parliamentary elections. For the occasion, international media have brought Swaziland’s “forgotten crisis” back into the spotlight. Locked between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland is a small country with a population of 1.2 million and is one of the last surviving absolute monarchies in the planet. The kingdom is at the crossroads:

  • 31 percent of Swazis are HIV-positive; 
  • a sovereign debt crisis is looming due to the public budget’s excessive reliance on fluctuating revenues from customs duties in the Southern African Customs Union; 
  • the formal economy is stagnating and is heavily dependent on sugar production for export; 
  • rural areas, where the bulk of the population resides, suffer from overcrowding and declining subsistence production and are ever more dependent on migrant workers’ remittances. 

The political system remains firmly in the hands of the king and the royal family. The royal elites enrich themselves by exploiting the vast wealth of the royal investment fund Tibiyo Taka Ngwane. Nominally a national development fund held by the king “in trust for the nation”, Tibiyo is in fact a cash cow outside parliamentary scrutiny for the benefit of a handful of individuals. It brokers partnerships with foreign capital, mostly from South Africa. Few others gain from this arrangement: the local white elites and the tiny minority of black Swazi businessmen and top managers benefit from this shady fund.

Meanwhile nearly 90 percent of the population lives with $5 a day or less. The unemployment rate is 41 percent. Workers in the formal sector receive appallingly low wages and little social protection. The rest get by with precarious informal economic activities or subsistence farming.

Analysts have rightly pointed out that the king and the government failed to tackle these challenges effectively. They dismissed the electoral process as a pointless exercise unlikely to bring real change. The view from the ground is somewhat more complicated. Nearly 415,000 Swazis registered to vote ahead of the elections, up from 350,000 in 2008. So far, official figures on voter turnout have not yet been released. We know from local reports that a substantial number of people participated. Was this just the result of royal propaganda? Or is there something more to the bleak picture painted by the international media?

Everyday politics in a ‘monarchical democracy’

The Swazi parliamentary system – known as Tinkhundla – was established in 1978 by the previous monarch to replace multi-party elections imposed by the British at independence. In an attempt to respond to accusations at home and abroad that Tinkhundla is not democratic, the current ruler King Mswati III recently rebranded it a “monarchical democracy, where the king supposedly rules together with his people.

Swaziland votes in ‘monarchical democracy’

Political parties are not allowed to participate in the elections. Candidates run for the House of Assembly in their individual capacity and cannot represent political organisations. There are 55 constituencies; each of them is composed of several chiefdoms. The nomination process for candidates takes place at the chiefdom level by a show of hands, under the eyes of the local chief who can exert considerable influence over the choice of nominees. On August 24, nominated candidates ran for primary elections at the chiefdom level, but could not campaign. Campaigning was only permitted for the last round, when winners from individual chiefdoms competed against each other at the constituency level. The list of newly elected MPs has been finalised, however it is impossible to make heads or tails of their political orientation.

A further 10 seats in the House of Assembly are appointed by the king. The king also selects 20 members of the Senate, while the House elects the remaining 10. Parliament does not choose the prime minister, the king does. The monarch can revoke any law passed by parliament.

The electoral system is not the only obstacle for pro-democracy organisations. Police brutality against activists is on the rise. Leaders are regularly harassed and often pre-emptively arrested ahead of big demonstrations. There have been several reports of beatings and torture of dissidents in recent years.

In 2011-2012, the government nearly defaulted due to a dramatic decrease in revenue from the customs union, and struggled to pay civil servants’ salaries and debts incurred with private businesses – instigating a major wave of strikes and protests. Apart from the demonstrators, most people have serious concerns about the current situation. They  complain, for instance, about mass unemployment, low wages, the dismal state of hospitals, and the lack of services in the rural areas. They condemn government corruption and the conspicuous consumption of the royal family.

Yet, there is no sign of a mass movement calling for multi-party democracy. Not all protesters are committed to the pro-democracy slogans pushed by the organisers. Most join the protests because they are concerned about specific issues, like wage disputes and poor service delivery. Many of them openly criticise the king and his politics, but remain sceptical of multi-party democracy.

The diversity of viewpoints is seldom argued along ideological lines and there is rarely full agreement on any single point. Some are keen to stress that this is the essence of “Swazi democracy”. Others argue that multi-party democracy has not brought benefits to their neighbours. A few confidently claim that in the absence of parties conflict is low and political violence rare. They claim that the people can have a say on issues of local and national development through the Tinkhundla system – political organisations are not needed.

The failures of democratic states in southern Africa are all too apparent to make Swazis wish for a radical overhaul of their system. The generally peaceful conduct of the recent elections is a further proof that the political atmosphere in Swaziland is far from the tensions and conflicts in Zimbabwe, or even Kenya. Polling stations were not heavily policed. The military was for the most part absent.

Customary land tenure and the human economy of Swaziland

Some analysts tend to attribute the lack of desire for radical change to Swazis’ attachment to their culture, protected by the king in his capacity as the ‘guardian of tradition’. Others cite the purported supernatural powers of the monarch as a tool of political control. There are however strong material reasons explaining Swazi scepticism towards regime change. The latter have to do with how the economy works on the ground, as it is lived and produced by people in their everyday life – what economic anthropologist Keith Hart calls the “human economy.

The majority of the population lives in rural areas under customary tenure, known as Swazi Nation Land. This is an evolution of the colonial land partition imposed by the British at the beginning of the twentieth century. When Swaziland became a British protectorate, Swazis lost two thirds of their land, which was allocated to white settlers and foreign companies. They were restricted to live in the remaining one third under the political control of chiefs and the royal family.

Today, every Swazi has the right to a piece of land in the customary system. They obtain it for a modest one-off payment to a local chief – but they do not hold individual title deeds. Land can be passed on to their children and relatives but cannot be sold in the private market. Swazi Nation Land occupies about 60 percent of the country and is subdivided among nearly 400 chiefdoms.

Most Swazis do not have the capital to buy a house in the private market – Swazi Nation Land is their “welfare state”. They have little access to cash and get by with land and labour mobilised through their kinship and neighbourly networks in the customary economy. People use the land to build their homes and plan for retirement. They cultivate maize and keep livestock, supplementing their meagre wages and saving small amounts towards medical expenses and children’s school fees. With all its pitfalls, the rule of the monarchy gives a prominence to customary land rights that is unique in southern Africa.

Advocates of land reform argue that customary tenure is a barrier to economic development. For instance, customary land cannot be used as collateral for a bank loan. Uncertain property rights are mentioned among the principal factors inhibiting growth on Swazi Nation Land. Contrary to these claims, eviction from these areas is virtually unheard of. Rural dwellers feel more protected under customary law than they would in a private market where rich individuals and multinational companies could easily buy them out.

Life in the rural areas is no idyll. While the population continues to grow exponentially, the land available to rural residents has not significantly increased since independence. Soil degradation and scarcity of prime land are threatening long-term sustainability.

Yet, where proletarianisation happened on a much wider scale, with Africans losing almost all access to land like in South Africa, living standards for the vast majority are not higher than Swaziland. Multi-party democracy might sound like an appealing concept in the global mainstream, but does it actually put food on the table? Most Swazis seem to think it does not – and with reason.

Political change and economic democracy

What are the alternatives then? How can Swaziland successfully tackle its multiple crises? The binary opposition between pro-democracy and pro-monarchy supporters is not an appropriate frame to understand the available options. Any talk of democracy must go hand in hand with a clear vision for a more inclusive economy that caters for the needs and aspirations of all citizens.

Swazis’ pragmatic conservatism might not bring the desired effects. Despite the king’s propaganda, the monarchy has shown no interest in reforming itself.

Voters sent a clear message for change and booted out more than 80 percent of former MPs running for re-election. (On the down side only one woman was elected). There is an increasing awareness that MPs are not simply local ‘developers’ fighting for clean water and electricity, but legislators for the whole society. For instance people are now asking for laws to increase the basic social pension for the elderly or improve public education.

Some hope comes from the fact that a few well-known pro-democracy activists will sit in the new parliament. Jan Sithole, historic leader of the trade unions and at the forefront of the anti-monarchy struggles in the 1990s, is one of them. He reiterated his commitment to democratic ideals and promised reform through parliamentary activity. However Bheki Makhubu, editor of the independent Swazi magazine The Nation, warns that a pro-reform agenda had been pursued before by progressive MPs without much success.

After all, Swazis’ pragmatic conservatism might not bring the desired effects. Despite the king’s propaganda, the monarchy has shown no interest in reforming itself.

A frontal attack against the regime is also unlikely to succeed in the short term. Trade unions and progressive parties channel the wide discontent among the workers, whose livelihoods are constantly undermined by exploitative capitalism. At the same time, workers are not fully urbanised and are not fully rural. They move back and forth between the two economies. The protective function of the customary system cannot be easily dismissed as a ‘backward’ attachment to a static and meaningless tradition.

The pro-democracy movement needs to come up with a concrete plan for transition: what would happen to customary tenure and the chiefs who oversee it? How would the challenges of the dual economy be addressed in the new dispensation? So far activists have not provided satisfactory answers to these questions.

Furthermore, proposals for a different form of democracy that does not blindly follow the Western model should be taken seriously. ‘Democracies’ in the plural exist in a variety of forms around the world; liberal democracy is not the only way forward.

The Swazi case is not unique. Political movements coalescing around traditionalist idioms and customary rights are on the rise throughout southern Africa. They attract little or no media attention beyond the misleading labels of ‘ethnic revivalists’ or ‘tribalists’. In Swaziland these conflicts are out in the open because traditionalism is the hegemonic discourse. But the issues at stake in this small kingdom affect Africans in the whole region.

Vito Laterza received his PhD in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Human Economy Program, University of Pretoria.