MANZINI, Swaziland – For nearly 40 years, this placid mountain kingdom has lived under a state of emergency.
It began in 1973, a few years after Swaziland’s independence from the British. King Sobhuza II suspended the constitution and began ruling by royal decree, banning political parties and trade unions on the grounds that they were alien to the traditional Swazi way of life.
Swaziland is now run by Sobhuza’s son, King Mswati III — and the unspecified emergency continues.
But after a year of unrest stoked by an economic crisis and the biggest-ever challenge to the king’s rule, a growing number of Swazis are frustrated with living under an absolute monarchy, and are stepping up their demands for democracy.
Elections are scheduled for 2013 under the Tinkhundla system of local constituencies, which critics say are beholden to the monarchy. Swaziland’s justice minister — handpicked by King Mswati — has confirmed there would be no changes to the way next year's elections are run, meaning that political parties will remain banned.
Swaziland presents a threat to regional security as it prepares for its elections, warned a recent report by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
“The growing public dissent” to the Tinkhundla system having “the potential to threaten peace and stability, not only in the kingdom but in the region as well," wrote ISS researcher Dimpho Motsamai.
Sibongile Mazibuko, a pro-democracy activist and president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, said there is no point of even holding elections until the system changes.
“The constitution of Swaziland says he is above the law, he is above the constitution. So what is the point of elections?” Mazibuko said.
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Protests are planned for April 12, an annual demonstration to mark the anniversary of the day that King Sobhuza abolished the constitution. Many pro-democracy discussions and planning for protests are taking place on Facebook groups.
A coalition demanding multiparty democracy, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, was formed two years ago when a group of Swazi civil society organizations, church groups and unions came together.
Critics of the king’s rule are regularly harassed, beaten and arrested. The main opposition party is the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), whose leader, Mario Masuku, has been arrested repeatedly on charges including sedition and terrorism.
Last month the king fired the longtime chief editor of the Swazi Observer — and a former royal advisor — after he published interviews with pro-democracy activists discussing the country’s future.
Teachers' leader Sibongile Mazibuko said her union has become politicized in the past year and has shifted its focus from industrial action to governance issues, though at first some of its members were reluctant about this change.
“They thought there was a thick line between unionism and politics. It has been removed,” she said. “It is us workers that can challenge the government and challenge the law."
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Swaziland, a tiny, landlocked country bordered by South Africa on three sides, and Mozambique on the fourth, is considered the last absolute monarchy in Africa. While there are tribal kings in other countries, including Basotho King Jonathan in Lesotho and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in South Africa, none are reigning monarchs.
At school, students learn praise songs for the king and sing the national anthem, which has lyrics offering “thanks and praise” for his rule.
A 6th grade social studies textbook teaches students: “King Mswati III is the head of state of Swaziland. He has political power. Queen Elizabeth II is the United
Kingdom's head of state. She has no political power.”
But a growing number of Swazis are no longer willing to sing the king’s praise. At some of Swaziland’s schools, activist teachers and principals have quietly decided to stop requiring their students to sing the national anthem.
When Quinton Dlamini, a leading union official, was asked to say a prayer at the start of a meeting in January with the country’s labor ministry, he instead sang “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”), South Africa’s national anthem and a song used in many southern African countries during their fights for majority rule democracy.
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Zwelethu Jele, one of the leaders of a four-month boycott of the courts by lawyers protesting the king’s interference in the judicial process, said the role of the monarchy in Swazi society is beginning to break down.
“The limits have been pushed. It’s just a matter of time," he said. “The average Swazi has a great reverence for the institution of the monarchy. Once the institution starts neglecting the people, this will change. I think this is starting to break down, and will break down very soon.”
Not all activists want to abolish the monarchy altogether. Many would like to see the king in a ceremonial role, such as that of Queen Elizabeth II or Zulu King Zwelithini.
But Jele said he thinks public unhappiness with King Mswati III and his family has become too great.
“We’ve crossed the Rubicon, as it were,” Jele said. “It could have gone the way of the UK monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, but it’s too late now.”
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