King Mswati's tyranny in Swaziland shows some cracks

File photo: King Mswati
File photo: King Mswati

Swaziland has recently experienced two events with potential significance for the country's democratisation.

The first was the issuing of a warrant of arrest for Chief Justice Michael Romodibedi in April.

The second is the release on bail of human rights activists Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, banned political party People's United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) leader Mario Masuku and youth leader Maxwell Dlamini.

Ramodibedi was largely thought to be King Mswati's pawn. He worked to ensure that opposition politicians and others opposed to the regime would be jailed on spurious charges and minor offences such as a critique of the judiciary and wearing T-shirts with the logo of Pudemo.

King Mswati shocked many in the judiciary when he opted to depose Ramodibedi after charges of corruption and abuse of power surfaced against him. This has been seen as his attempt to lend credibility to the judiciary.

The release of political prisoners was most likely a reaction to international pressure, especially from the United States, the European Union, and the International Labour Organisation. But it could also have been Mswati's attempt to redeem the judiciary following revelations of Ramodibedi's impropriety.

Only time will tell if it is possible to legitimise the judiciary. But these two events should give Swazis hope. Although a number of political prisoners remain behind bars, the Swazi government has demonstrated some level of willingness to accommodate international pressure.

Right now, the pro-democracy movement is rightly rejoicing with the released prisoners. But when the joy has been dampened, they need to put considerable energy into identifying new pressure points for advocacy and change. And this might prove difficult.

Arbitrary arrests of those opposed to the regime are easy content for international campaigning. Such state actions violate the country's own constitution and international laws. But their activism and advocacy will always be limited if they continue to agitate in the realm of the law.

Swaziland is an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, where laws stop and start with the royal family, more precisely the Queen Mother and her son King Mswati III. In this context the law itself is illegitimate. It is highly unlikely that the solution to the democratic deficit should be found within an inherently undemocratic constitution and accompanying set of laws.

The solution can only be found outside the legal system, not in terms of means but in terms of an end. It is simply not possible to logically rely on an inherently undemocratic constitution to achieve multiparty democracy - the end goal.

The pro-democracy movement should focus its attention on exposing the horrendous mismanagement of the country orchestrated by Mswati.

Despite Swaziland's relative high gross national income, on par with Namibia's, 80% of the population lives below the poverty line while the royal family fly around the world in their private jet.

Mswati seems completely oblivious to the HIV/Aids epidemic ravaging his country or is simply indifferent as he marries one young beautiful Swazi after another.

Other issues that could be used to sustain and increase international pressure is to highlight the dubious business relationships between the royal family's investment fund, Tibiyo, and South Africa's business elite, or even Mswati's occasional trips to the Middle East to apply for loans.

It is of course uncertain what will have the highest resonance with the international community.

The release of political prisoners and the seeming opening up of some democratic space through a re-shuffling of the judiciary might provide the best opportunity for the pro-democracy groups to apply greater pressure.

lKristensen works as the Swaziland political analyst and coordinator for Southern African Liaison Office

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