Swaziland, where it’s good to be the king

By Marius Smith

If you’ve been keeping up with the news about Kate and Will’s royal wedding, you may have noticed the kerfuffle over the invitation extended to King Mswati III.  The leader of Swaziland rules his tiny African nation with an iron fist.  Political parties are banned, emergency laws have been in place for 38 years and the King lives a salubrious life with his 14 wives while most of his fellow citizens struggle to get by.

In recent weeks, the country has also been in the news for its burgeoning protest movement demanding economic and political reform.  Its streets have been roiling with discontent and anger in an echo of the unrest throughout the Arab world.  Despite what some media outlets say, however, the link between what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa and what is happening in Swaziland is tangential at best.  This is a locally driven revolution inspired by local factors.

Swaziland’s unemployment rate is 43 percent, about 70 percent of the population lives on $1 a day, and economic growth for 2010 was an anaemic 2 percent* (that’s bad enough for a rich country, but for a developing country it’s disastrous).  Health data is little better.  Swaziland is in the 15th percentile for infant mortality, its HIV infection rate is now the highest in the world and life expectancy is 46 and dropping. The economic and health statistics* are intertwined.  HIV/AIDS is cutting a swathe through Swazis of working age, meaning that there are insufficient people to work the land and fill other jobs, which in turn leads to a downward spiral of unsuccessful businesses and further employment.  Swaziland’s health problems may seem intractable, but near-neighbour Botswana has shown that infection rates can be reduced and effective treatment regimes implemented.

It’s a formidable job and it can’t be done without strong leadership.  Unfortunately the King seems happy for his country to be stuck in a time warp where he can postpone the start of the school year so that the children can weed the royal fields, and he can still choose his latest virgin bride at the annual Reed Dance. The 2002 Dance, which brought the country to international prominence, sums up much of what is wrong with Swaziland.  That year, the mother of the girl chosen by the King took legal action to try to secure the girl’s return after she was whisked away by palace courtiers.  Although the case was eventually withdrawn after the King announced his engagement to the girl (candidates for marriage are kept by other members of the royal family even if the King decides not to marry them), the three presiding judges were threatened with the sack by the Attorney-General merely for agreeing to hear the matter.  Such is the reality of life in a country where the judiciary, the executive government and the parliament all serve at the whim of His Majesty.

In a 2005 report on the Reed Dance, The Washington Times quoted a young woman who explained that she was participating in the ceremony because “I want to live a nice life, have money, be rich, have a BMW and a cell phone.” Marrying into the royal family is about the only way an average Swazi can achieve such a goal, and lately that aspiration has seemed further away than ever.

The carefree king has a US$30 million annual salary and a US$200 million fortune, and allots to each of his wives a palace, a luxury vehicle, a coterie of staff and a steady stream of cash.  For a long time, this arrangement was accepted by the vast majority of Swazis, but the global financial crisis, combined with the country’s already dire economic situation, changed the mood of the nation.  Not only that, Swaziland’s tariff revenue (which is collected and distributed to Swaziland and its neighbours by the Southern African Customs Union) dropped from US$741 million to US$281 million.  For a government with an annual budget of about US$2 billion, that is a catastrophe.  The International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank moved in and demanded austerity measures in return for ongoing support.

Since then, the Government has furloughed civil servants and wants to force early retirement on many.  Eventually 7,000 civil service jobs will be cut.  In addition, every government ministry has been forced to cut its budget by 25 percent and the first quarterly pension payment of 2011 was suspended.  In the midst of these painful cuts, the last straw seems to have been Mswati’s brazen disregard for his fellow citizens’ welfare.  Despite the austerity measures, the King gave himself a 24 percent pay rise.

The nation’s lethargic opposition finally jolted into action, demanding large-scale reform at a March rally and planning demonstrations for April 12, the 38th anniversary of the ban on political parties.  The response was swift and not much different from the tactics used by dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.  Prior to the April 12 events, ringleaders were arrested and any people congregating on the capital’s streets were summarily detained.  The demonstrations ran for three days and were countered by tear gas, water cannons and more arrests, forcing union leaders to abandon the demonstrations to protect civilian life.

So, the country’s people now stand at a crossroads: do they continue trying to unseat their leader, or do they give up and allow him to rule as he pleases?

Certainly the people of Swaziland can expect little, if any, help from neighbouring countries.  The Southern African Development Community and the African Union have failed to make statements on the situation, and South Africa is again missing the opportunity to use its power as a regional leader.  Apart from a brief statement from a junior minister calling for political reform, the South African government has remained silent.  President Jacob Zuma has previously been criticised for his similarly weak response to events in Zimbabwe, but his reticence in this case is perhaps even more unforgivable.  Landlocked Swaziland is sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique and relies heavily on the former for trade and military aid.  Without South Africa’s cooperation and assistance, Swaziland would be in even worse shape than it is now.  Were Zuma to apply serious pressure to the King, he would have little option but to implement reform.

Swaziland might be a bizarre anachronism but the recent actions of a dictator under siege are all too familiar: the hiss of teargas, the thud of rubber bullets, the disappearance of protesters. The time has come for a very modern response, starting with some serious diplomatic pressure and targeted economic and travel sanctions.  The playboy king obviously cares more about his social life than he does about his own citizens, so maybe seizing his international assets and curtailing the movements of his sizeable entourage of wives, extended family members and others will do the trick.  But sanctions will not work without the committed participation of South Africa, and we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for that.

*2010 economic growth rate, HIV infection rate and infant mortality rate available here.

Marius Smith is the Manager of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.  You can follow him on Twitter.

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