Every year, hundreds of women travel across the tiny kingdom of Swaziland for the Umhlanga, or reed-dance festival. Having honoured the Queen Mother, the festival culminates in a magnificent display of dance, where a mass of marriageable women performs bare-breasted for the onlooking King Mswati III. Traditionally a showcase of potential royal wives, the festival is also designed to bring the nation together and remind people of their obligations to the monarchy.
A crucial element in the popularity of the royal family has been its philosophy of maintaining traditional Swazi values. Yet it was in the name of these values that, in 1973, King Sobhuza suspended the constitution inherited from the British at independence in 1968. He banned all political parties, effectively silencing opposition, and a state of emergency was announced which has, for all practical purposes, been in effect ever since.
Today his successor, King Mswati, continues to function as an absolute monarch – the only remaining one in Africa. He is ‘assisted’ by the Prime Minister, whom he appoints, and two legislative houses, the Senate and the House of Assembly. But his autocratic rule has come under increasing pressure to reform.
Much of this pressure has come from outside, particularly from South Africa, which is keen to promote a higher degree of democracy, not least because of Swaziland’s co-operative relationship with the former apartheid regime. But perhaps the most significant players in demanding reform have been student and labour groups. Growing domestic unrest in the last decade has forced the King to take grudging steps towards political reform. In 1996 he appointed a constitutional review commission. Last November, two years after its deadline, the commission presented its findings to the King – and there has been silence ever since.
If the Government is dragging its feet on the constitution, it is scampering backwards on the issue of freedom of speech. Political parties remain illegal and Swazis are positively discouraged from taking any interest in politics. Virulent anti-trade unionism abounds and dissenting voices are regularly silenced.
Photo: Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos Pictures
A recent royal decree not only prohibited anyone from impersonating or ridiculing the King but gave him the power to ban any publication that does not conform to ‘Swazi morality and ideals’. The decree has rapidly been put into practice: the weekly Guardian newspaper and the monthly magazine Nation have been banned. Considering that both are known to support democratic government, their forced silence has alarmed many Swazis.
Further indication of the Government’s increasingly detached relationship with the public has been its inert response to the horrifying AIDS pandemic sweeping the country. Swaziland has one of the highest rates of infection in the world – at least 18 per cent of the population lives with HIV or AIDS – but it has yet to come to terms with the problem.
In a parliamentary discussion at the beginning of this year various disturbing ‘solutions’ were put forward, including tattooing victims, isolating people with aids in camps, even sterilization. The only clear result was a new law banning miniskirts in schools, supposedly to prevent sexual relations between students and their teachers. The traditionalism so prided by Swazis is of course in part to blame for the spread of the disease, resulting in a chronic lack of information and high levels of denial and stigma.
But it was the issue of land that brought events to boiling point last year, when the Government evicted 40 families from their land to make room for the King’s brother. National outrage ensued: there was a two-day national strike and demands for democracy and labour rights gathered momentum.
While King Mswati claims to be in favour of reform, very little is actually changing, and it seems only a matter of time before public unrest reaches crisis point. Without rapid reforms, even the Umhlanga festival’s image of royal support may soon fade.
Leader: King Mswati III
Economy: GNP per capita $1,360 (South Africa $3,160, Britain $22,640).
Monetary unit: Lilangeni, plural is Emalangeni. The South African Rand is also legal tender.
Main exports: Soft drink concentrates, sugar, wood pulp, quarry stone.
Main imports: Transport equipment, machinery, petroleum products and chemicals.
The majority of Swaziland’s forestry, commerce, mining, manufacturing and tourism lies in South African hands.
People: 980,000. People per square kilometre: 56 (Britain 238)
Health: Infant mortality 62 per thousand live births. The country has been hit by a devastating AIDS epidemic – 18.5% of the population lives with HIV or AIDS (compared with 12.9% in South Africa and 0.8% in the US).
Environment: Swaziland is experiencing a serious soil-erosion problem due to overgrazing. Wildlife populations are also being depleted because of excessive hunting and there is a shortage of potable water.
Culture: 84% of Swaziland nationals are of the Swazi ethnic grouping, and 10% are Zulus. An estimated 3% are of European origin.
Language: Siswati and English are the official languages.
Religion: 60% Christian, 40% indigenous beliefs.
Sources: State of the World’s Children 2001; Southern Africa Profiled (2000); Human Development Report 2000.
Previously profiled June 1988
Swaziland is ruled by an absolute monarch and political parties are banned. The last decade has seen an increase in public unrest and calls for democratic political reform. As yet, though, little seems to have changed and the recent clampdown on the press suggests the monarchy is entrenching its position.