JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Swaziland is Africa's last absolute monarchy. Its ruler, King Mswati III, is a pudgy, middle-aged playboy with 13 wives, 27 children and a fortune estimated at more than $100 million.
Life is not so sweet, however, for the King's 1.3 million subjects in their tiny, landlocked country that is almost entirely surrounded by South Africa. Eighty percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day and unemployment is estimated to be 40 percent. Swaziland also has the world's highest HIV/AIDS rate at 26 percent.
With Swaziland's economy crumbling due to falling revenues and the King's refusal to curtail his lavish lifestyle, a pro-democracy movement has been gaining steam. On April 13, political exiles from Swaziland and their supporters from South Africa and other African nations rallied outside the Swaziland Consulate in Johannesburg. Representatives from more than 20 organizations were on hand.
“We are here to openly and defiantly register that we cannot allow what the people of Swaziland are going through right now,” the group said in a joint statement. “We are angry, disgusted and determined to fight side-by-side with them. We offer solidarity for whatever form of resistance they choose to engage in and shall support them unapologetically.”
Human Rights Abuses
The protest came on the heels of a recent Human Rights Watch report detailing the arrest of dozens of pro-democracy and civil society activists in Swaziland. The report also highlights the harsh restrictions Swazi authorities have placed on freedom of assembly and the freedom of the press.
Activists at the rally also reported that life inside the regime is marked by extrajudicial killings by security forces, mob killings, torture, beatings and the use of excessive force on detainees, police impunity, arbitrary arrests, lengthy pretrial detentions, discrimination and violence against women, harassment of labor leaders and restrictions on workers' rights.
Skhumbuzo Phakathi, General Secretary of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), a
political movement banned inside Swaziland, told The Indypendent that he has been fighting for democracy in his homeland because of the harsh conditions in which he and his compatriots have been forced to live. “I come from a very poor background personally and my whole community is poor. While one was exposed to this poverty there was a contrast with the opulence of the royal regime. Even today I am still poor and my community is still poor, [after] more than 44 years of independence.”
“The struggle for freedom and democracy by the Swazis can no longer remain an internal issue,” added Mordekai Shumba of the Johannesburg-based Organization of African Youth. “…The world is changing and Swaziland cannot continue to be shackled by an oppressive regime under the guise of a traditional monarch.”
Swaziland won formal independence from Great Britain in 1968 but the New Jersey-sized kingdom has lived under a state of emergency since King Mswati's father and predecessor, Sobhuza II, announced in 1973 that he would rule the kingdom by decree. A new constitution was adopted in 2005, but King Mswati has ignored it.
South Africa Ties
Swaziland pegs its currency to the South African rand and conducts the majority of its trade with its larger neighbor. In 2011, South Africa provided a $335 million bailout to Swaziland after the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions denied it a loan. Many in South Africa criticized the move, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), an alliance partner with the ruling African National Congress since the end of apartheid. COSATU and others claimed South African President Jacob Zuma was propping up a corrupt regime with the loan. Zuma married a niece of King Mswati in 2002. South African officials said the loan would help to secure stability in the region and prevent an influx of political and economic refugees.
Private security forces kept the protesters at a distance from the Consulate while local police remained on site throughout the event to video record rally songs, chants and speeches. Many of the speakers called the forced removal of protesters illegal and commented that Johannesburg had be “Swazified.”
Skhumbuzo Phakathi said he was determined to press ahead. “As long as the injustice, oppression and violations of human rights continue in Swaziland, I will play my part to bring about change,” Phakathi said. “Unfortunately,” he added, “it has become very dangerous to be a member of PUDEMO but what can we do? Being in the struggle in Swaziland is walking side by side with death. We have accepted that for the common good of our people. We need our country to be free, but for that to happen we need the support of peace and democracy loving people of the world.”
Janis Rosheuvel is the former executive director of Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation. She is currently working as a Fulbright scholar in Durban, South Africa. For her previous South Africa coverage, click here.