Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-SWAZILAND: Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jul 21 2005 (IPS) - "We don’t want Swaziland to explode like Rwanda, Burundi or Sierra Leone," says Gabriel Mkhumane, founder of the outlawed People’s United Democratic Movement – a Swazi opposition party.

"The people of Swaziland cannot rise and take arms – that is out of the question: the Cold War has ended. We just need international pressure for political reforms in Swaziland," he told IPS.

But even as he rejects the notion of violence, Mkhumane – who lives in exile in neighbouring South Africa – fears that a lack of progress towards democracy may yet compel frustrated Swazis to take matters into their own hands.

Last week the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank, voiced similar sentiments, calling for steps to prevent confrontation in Swaziland.

"More outside pressure is needed to help pro-reform elements inside the country bring back a constitutional monarchy and genuine democracy – the best guarantees that Swazi volatility will not eventually infect the region," said the ICG in a report entitled ‘Swaziland: The Clock Is Ticking’.

"Opposition to the absolute monarchy in recent years has included strikes and demonstrations by trade unions, students, religious groups and youth movements, as well as periodic waves of arson and bombings against government buildings," the document noted.

The report also quoted Peter Kagwanja, ICG Southern Africa project director, as saying: "African institutions, the European Union (EU) and key countries like South Africa and the U.S. have thus far been too willing to accept the royalists’ line that change must come very slowly."

"The longer Swaziland takes to return to constitutional monarchy, however, the greater the risk of instability," he added.

Activists from the Southern African state find it hard to persuade the international community to act on Swaziland. This is partly because the country, despite its problems, is considered mostly stable.

"The only thing you hear about Swaziland is when the king is building, say, a mansion," Claude Kabemba, a researcher at the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, told IPS.

Sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland gained independence from Britain in 1968; it is Africa’s last absolute monarchy. In 1973, King Sobhuza introduced a state of emergency, banned political parties and suspended the country’s constitution. A new draft constitution – dismissed by democracy campaigners – was recently passed by parliament, but is now undergoing further debate.

Sobhuza was succeeded by his son, Mswati the Third. The 37-year-old monarch has hit headlines for his penchant for luxury sedans, some of which have been bought for his wives: to date, the king has married 12 times.

His lavish lifestyle is at odds with Swaziland’s unemployment rate, which stands at 40 percent. About 70 percent of the kingdom’s one million inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day, while HIV prevalence is estimated at about 40 percent, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Activists say a lack of external funding has further undermined their attempts to restore democracy in Swaziland. "Funding for political struggle has dried up internationally following the end of the Cold War," said Bongani Masuku, secretary general of the South Africa-based Swaziland Solidarity Network: an umbrella body for pro-democracy activists.

Liberation movements in Southern Africa that fought for independence in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa benefited from international support – particularly from Scandinavian countries.

Now, "Donors only support civil societies which, unfortunately, lack capacity to effect reforms in Swaziland," Mkhumane notes.

Without international support, observed Masuku, campaigners cannot do much. "We are fighting a regime which is militarily, economically and politically well resourced," he told IPS.

Perhaps inevitably, comparisons are drawn between Swaziland and nearby Zimbabwe, where years of political and economic instability – and restrictions on civil liberties – have sparked intense debate.

"We find it hypocritical for Mswati to travel all over Europe and then (President Robert) Mugabe (of Zimbabwe) is banned," Masuku said. "It shows that Europe is playing a double standard."

Swaziland’s government has been quoted in the media as saying the country is making efforts to address its problems – and that external intervention is not necessary.

Suliman Baldo, director of the ICG’s Africa programme, says such efforts cannot come rapidly enough.

"The monarchy can still save itself if it moves quickly to support meaningful limits on its powers," he observes, "but both the royal family and the international community have to realize that the days of absolutism are numbered in Swaziland."

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