Swaziland – the Land of the Forgotten Despot

5 Dec

– by Geraldine Donnelly, Community the Union

STUC nomination ACTSA 2011 Delegation to Swaziland

If you were asked what you knew about Swaziland, what would be your response? What do you know about this small country of less than a million people located between Mozambique and South Africa?

As the Scottish Trades Union Congress delegate on the recent ACTSA visit to southern Africa I had little knowledge of Swaziland. What I saw in this beautiful country shocked and saddened me. Seventeen years after the overthrow of apartheid another people in Southern Africa are suffering under a brutal tyranny that is relatively unnoticed by the world.

Swaziland is an absolute monarchy ruled by King Mswati since 1986. The Forbes Rich list named him in the top fifteen of the world’s richest royals with a personal fortune that is in excess of $100 million enabling him to provide palaces and new BMWs for his 14 wives. Three quarters of the country’s land is effectively owned by the King and administered by the local chiefs, with the government handpicked, the parliament has increased the King’s budget by 60 percent in the last two years. According to the US Government about “40 percent of the government’s workforce is allocated to security”.

In stark contrast two thirds of the people survive on less than $1.25 a day. Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV rate and half the population dies before 40. Perhaps the saddest statistic is that 1 in 12 of all Swazi are orphaned children. This is compounded by the growing economic crisis. The government threatens to cut 7,000 jobs, pushing thousands deeper into poverty, whilst spending increases on the king and his friends.

The bedfellow of this poverty is political tyranny. Swaziland has the unenviable achievement of having a worse record on political rights than Zimbabwe. Political parties are banned; it has endured a state of emergency since 1973 and opponents of the regime are often arrested, tortured or even murdered as the main opposition are declared “terrorist” under the repressive Suppression of Terrorism Act. Maxwell Dlamini, President of the NUS and Musa Ngebuni of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) are still behind bars awaiting trial, arrested ahead of protests held in April.

Women are subjected to horrendous levels of gender based violence. A 2009 survey reveals that almost one third of women and girls aged 13 to 24 had experienced sexual violence before their 18th birthday. The law provides no protection for women from domestic violence and rape by their husbands. The laws governing marriage ensure that women are treated as second class citizens as married women are denied the right to own property, with widows unable to inherit property forced from their homes by their husband’s relatives.

However, the people of Swaziland have continued to struggle for democracy. The trade unions, despite their leaders being regularly arrested and harassed, have held regular strikes and protests. Women and students have formed groups to campaign for democracy and rights and an underground pro-democracy party PUDEMO was formed in 1983. Despite constant harassment, including the arrest of one leader, Sipho Jele, for wearing a protest T-shirt, who died in custody in May 2010, they have grown in strength. In 2008 King Mswati held lavish celebrations costing millions of dollars to mark his 40th birthday and 40 years of independence but the people of Swaziland responded by organising the country’s biggest pro-democracy protests with 10,000 crowding the streets of the Manzini and reassembling in the capital Mbabane the next day.

The pro-democracy movement in Swaziland have called for smart sanctions including the denial of international travel for the Royal Family and their lackeys, a ban on investment in companies controlled by the regime and an embargo on military sales to Swaziland.

Until now the devastating situation in Swaziland has largely gone unnoticed by the international community, but gradually more and more voices across the world are beginning to speak out. Swaziland needs our solidarity now; the voices of the Swazi people’s struggle must be heard as Swaziland is still the land of the forgotten despot. In Swaziland we listened humbled as student leaders told us of the daily danger of death or imprisonment, but they left us in no doubt that they will continue to fight until Swaziland is free.

The international Labour movement must support them in their continuing struggle for political and economic freedom. In solidarity we must advance to strengthen the trade union and pro-democracy movements building upon partnerships and projects that have raised the profile and capacity building of trade unions and civil society in Swaziland to bring about change.

  • Action for Southern Africa, the successor organisation to the British Anti Apartheid Movement is one of the few organisations campaigning for democracy and rights in solidarity with the people of Swaziland.
  • If you want to get involved in supporting the fight for democracy in Swaziland contact ACTSA.

–  a Documentary about Swaziland Without the King is available on YouTube.


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