The struggle for democracy in Swaziland

Two speeches by leaders of the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO -- Swaziland's liberation movement) on the developing struggle for democracy and social justice in the small southern African country of Swaziland. Mario Masuku is president of PUDEMO; Bongani Masuku is a former secretary general of the Swaziland Solidarity Network and is the Congress of South African Trade Unions' international secretary.

The historical and current political situation in Swaziland: What has been done and what remains to be done

By Mario Masuku

On behalf of the fighting people of Swaziland, dear comrades, please receive warm and fraternal greetings from the oppressed masses of our country. Our country stands on the brink of disaster, a catastrophe that has become accepted by some as beyond redemption, for its magnitude runs deeper than the source of the mighty volcanic eruptions.

This revolutionary gathering is a fitting tribute to the great work and contribution of our assassinated stalwart, leader and outstanding cadre of PUDEMO, the late Dr Gabriel T. Mkhumane. From where I am, I can already see where he could be seated, were he among us today, a seat that is still not occupied, for few among us would dare fit the shoes of such a great legend.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, words of wisdom have always echoed. Since 1973, so many things have happened to the lives of the people of Swaziland, but all those things have not changed the quality of life of the people for the better.

We do not seek to speak narrowly on behalf of our selves, but to acknowledge the massive contribution we have made together as progressive forces in our country, including all our comrades from Swaziland present here today.

We also appreciate unreservedly the support from our South African comrades, particularly from the Alliance [African National Congress, South African Communist Party, Congress of South African Trade Unions], who have done all in their power to raise the issue of Swaziland, much to the annoyance of certain forces who believe that Swaziland should still belong to some 17th century archive or political museum, as a source of tourist attractions and academic interests for European anthropologists keen on studying how 17th century Africa looked, a classical example of backwardness and primitive social relations of the worst order, with no regard for human dignity, of women in particular.

Since the first march and blockade against the Swazi regime, we have made great strides, but have also suffered setbacks and this moment provides a great space for deeper reflection on all these for a renewed push forward.

Should it not be of interest to all of us that in our region we have a country that has evaded the powerful media screens, the academic freedom train of political scientists and all the world’s watchdogs who should be ashamed of their witting or unwitting silence and failure to uncover more than 35 years of legalised political fraud in the name of Swazi culture and tradition.

But why should a fast-evolving world of information super highways and governance systems on a global scale afford to tolerate the longest state of emergency in the region, and most probably on the continent as a whole. These are the questions we should pose to our governments, multilateral institutions of governance in our region and continent, as well as beyond. But even more uncomfortably, we must also pose them to ourselves. Should we be pardoned, for we did not know, or we did not see or we just choose silence, for it is golden sometimes and more convenient than the sacrifice that comes with challenging things.

Background to the crisis in Swaziland

Swaziland was a British colony until 1968 when an arrangement of convenience was made between the colonialists and the local traditional leadership under the monarchy for a settlement that would comfortably accommodate both forces in some form of partnership, that would not upset the conditions designed by colonialism, but only integrate a few among the historically oppressed in the form of the monarchy and its appendages. This is what is usually referred to as ``independence'', which in less than a month from now will be costing the Swazi taxpayers millions to “celebrate” together with the birthday of the king, popularly known as the 40/40, as both are marking their 40th anniversary.

In 1973, the king proclaimed a decree that banned political parties and criminalised all forms of political activity, which paved the way for the monopoly over public affairs and politics by the royal family and their friends, a case that holds to this day. We have a royal family that regards all of us as mere objects of exploitation, oppression and the satisfaction of its greedy interests, disguised as our national pride and culture.

The luxury of elections is too farfetched for our people. Since 1973, the whole nation has never seen what it is like to participate in free and democratic elections, where you can openly contest, freely persuade people, be openly scrutinised and, finally, be held accountable for your promises.

Even when Southern African Development Community (SADC -- the regional grouping of Southern African contries] adopted the protocol of guidelines on the conduct of democratic elections, we raised our eyebrows that a new glimmer of hope was emerging on the horizon; guess what, we were to yet learn the mechanics of reality that, the nearer we get, the further we move away from our final destination.

Having considered all the factors above and seeking to characterise the ruling system in Swaziland, we can safely say, despite resistance from some quarters, that the tinkhundla system is and remains a neocolonial and semi-feudal system, founded on the premise of the exclusion of the overwhelming majority of our people, because of a royal regime that has failed to transform society and the economy to serve the interests of the people, but instead integrated itself as an extension and corrupt elite into the well-oiled system of accumulation already in place then.

A brief balance sheet of the socioeconomic profile of Swaziland

  • Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world, which is now at 38% from around 40%.
  • Swaziland has one of the highest levels of inequality between the rich and poor, with wealth being unevenly distributed.
  • The economy is no longer growing, but has stagnated and has, in fact, been going down every year since around 2000.
  • The abuse of women is ``dressed in nice gowns'' and called Swazi ``tradition and culture'', which undermines the rich heritage in our true culture, thus serving the narrow selfish interests of a royal minority.
  • About 70% of the population live below the US$1 a day and more 300,000 of Swaziland's around 1 milion citizens depend on food aid as means for survival.
  • The bulk of the economy is now based on the informal sector, and on casual and contract labour, which provide very insecure jobs and pay very low.
  • More than 52% of the total income of the Swazi government is derived from the Southern African Customs Union pool, and were this not so, and our reliance on the South African rand (to which the Swazi currency is pegged), inflation would be in the double-digit figures.

The economy of Swaziland is centred around the royal family and its friends. Cabinet dances to whatever tune that sung by the master; recently the royal family received funds and aid and distributed it through the king, queen mother, princes and princesses, in order to be perceived as benevolent and caring for the poor and suffering, while they are the primary cause of the hunger experienced by our people. Balancing these handouts with the extravagant expenditure by this family on itself is like chasing a wild goose.

A new constitution or a revised 1973 king’s draconian decree

In his proclamation to the nation, the monarchy on April 12, 1973 said:

"Now, therefore I, Sobhuza 11, king of Swaziland, hereby declare that, in collaboration with my cabinet ministers and supported by the whole nation, I have assumed supreme power in the kingdom of Swaziland and that all legislative, executive and judicial powers is now vested in myself and shall, for the meantime be exercised in collaboration with my cabinet ministers. I further declare that to ensure the continued maintenance of peace, order and good government, my armed forces have been posted to all strategic places and have taken charge of all government places and all public services. All political parties and similar bodies that cultivate and bring about disturbances and ill-feelings within the nation are hereby dissolved and prohibited."

Many spectators have convinced themselves that this decree has ceased to be the foundation of the ruling political architecture of our country. Our view is that it still continues to be the force behind the establishment. The new constitution is rather a reinforcement and further entrenchment of this decree and its fundamental provisions.

The royal regime, in response to the pressures of our people’s struggles, tried a hasty constitutional review process in which it was the player, the referee and the match commissioner at the same time and all we were privileged to be was spectators in a game we were supposed to be the players.

This is why we rejected the process and its outcomes with the contempt it deserved and still maintain that no shortcuts will take Swaziland to the promised land of milk and honey, but only a protracted, honest and all-inclusive process leading to a multiparty democratic constitutional dispensation will deliver us to the land of our dreams.

That is why the Swazi constitution reaffirms the fundamental perspectives of banning political parties and all forms of political activity, frustrating the popular aspirations of the whole population and undermining the supremacy of the rule of law. Such an arrangement will not take us forward.

Undemocratic elections or elections without democracy

In the circumstances in Swaziland, what are the possibilities of holding free, fair and democratic elections that should constitute the basis of a legitimately acceptable outcome and whose product could be the express will of the people?

We have, time and again, affirmed the centrality of a process that will lead to a democratic outcome for our country, in many documents, such as the “Way Forward to a Constituent Assembly Through a Negotiated Settlement” and the “Road Map to a New and Democratic Swaziland”, which fundamentally outline the essence of our alternative route out of the mess tinkhundla has plunged our country into.

The regime has once again, as expected, defied all logic and organised an electoral process that lacks even the most basic semblance of democratic participation. To test its authenticity and claims for a free democratic space, as PUDEMO we held our rally to commemorate our 25th anniversary in Manzini on the July 6, 2008, and four of our leaders were arrested and brutalised, while other comrades were hospitalised as a result of police brutality. Further, it has been made clear beyond doubt that political parties remain banned and illegal, which means they cannot contest the coming elections.

The following conditions obtain as regards elections:

  • Political parties remain banned.
  • The media, judiciary and all public institutions remain tightly in the monopoly of the royal family and its friends and are used to criminalise political parties as divisive, fomenting war and are described as ``unSwazi''.
  • Traditional institutions and structures continue to be vehicles of intimidation and abuse, agitating against democratic practices.
  • Parliament has no powers, but is a mere rubber stamp of the royal family.
  • The constitution remains illegitimate and does not have fundamental guarantees for the creation of a conducive environment to conduct democratic elections.

We also note that various international organisations have clearly refused to condemn the current king, Mswati, at best preferring to play hide and seek with words like “not sufficiently democratic for proper elections”.

We further note the hypocrisy of the UN in encouraging women to participate in undemocratic elections against the progressive movement's call for a boycott of the elections. This is an attempt to use a very legitimate issue -- the dehumanisation and under-representation of women in Swazi decision-making processes -- to support an undemocratic, highly patriarchal and oppressive system, which shall turn a few women in parliament into stooges or agents of patriarchy and political tools of oppression.

We condemn this in the same way that we condemn the Commonwealth which designed the current constitution, supported tinkhundla oppression and is now turning against the product of its own failures, the royal elections, because it has been exposed for its hypocrisy and opportunism and is shying away from associating with the mess of its own making, which unfortunately is costing our country, people and the struggle in general.

The same Commonwealth of Nations dressed down the last national elections in 2003, and ran short of calling them a sham, elections that elected a legislature which does not have political power, where power is entrusted to one person, and where political parties are banned.

The European Union has romanticised the tinkhundla system, politely calling for some changes and failing to act with the decisiveness required or known of it in other instances. It is not assisting the process in any way. We did call for smart sanctions against the royal family, specifically, but the EU played its games, and preferred to passively raise concerns and not confront the evil system directly.

The royal regime prides itself in the hope that there would be various observers who would declare, at the end, that the elections were free and fair since there was no violence. In this case we ask ourselves if it is indeed worth the trouble of going to watch a basically undemocratic election process –- would these observers be (actually) legitimising an illegitimate process.

As mentioned earlier in my presentation, we believe that for the process to be worth its salt it must embrace broader democratic participation, clear constitutional safeguards and the respect of all the international human rights principles and conventions, including the Declaration on Human Rights, the African Charter on People's and Human Rights, the Harare Declaration of the Commonwealth of Nations and the SADC Principles on National Elections.

The Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) is the way forward to a new and democratic Swaziland

We are proud to be members of the newly formed Swaziland United Democratic Front, an initiative of the struggling people of Swaziland collectively. It is their united voice against the tinkhundla system, in their quest to establish a truly united and democratic Swaziland.

Workers protest in the Swazi capital, Mbabane.

Indeed the history of the struggle for democracy all over the world provides one key lesson, and that is it matters not how deep the oppression may be or whether the captain of the oppressive rule is a military junta or a traditional despot, foreign or local. That lesson is that unity is a fundamental precondition for democratic victory!

It has always been the collective and individual desire of the struggling forces of Swaziland to act in unity against a divisive system that always plays one against the other, sometimes infiltrating forces of progress to drive even deeper wedges between the people and their organisations and between organisations themselves. In our address to the workers in May 2005, PUDEMO clearly and articulately called for the forces of change to unite and speak in one cohesive voice, and we are, therefore, proud that this call has been achieved.

It has been our constant call for the unification of the labour movement in the country under the call for “One country, one federation'' and ``One industry, one union”. This year, the workers commemorated their day [May Day] together as one, and not as a fragmented movement. This is a positive step towards a united mass democratic movement.

We are proud to be among those who have refused to be bullied by the system into the sham elections or any of its fraudulent constitutional schemes, despite massive pressures, patronage and corrupt material temptations. We have refused to be second-class citizens in our own country, but continue to demand our rightful place as full citizens and not objects of royal pity and subjugation. We stand tall, in the midst of a cold world that conveniently pretends not to see what our people are going through daily, with all the indicators of a terrifying political and socioeconomic crisis.

Tasks of the Swazi revolution in the current phase

We are called upon to act with renewed urgency, to arrest a deepening feeling of hopelessness, in which both local and international organisations are beginning to feel that nothing can be done to change things in Swaziland. It is a country ``cursed by the gods'', with a monarchy that is determined to go to any lengths to destroy every element of democracy and decency in our society.

The following tasks are central to what must be done:

  • Strengthening of the mass democratic forces to root themselves among the masses of our people, which is the core anchor of any claim to being progressive and democratic.
  • Deepening of strategic thinking and deeper ideas backed by solid and scientific facts around all the issues affecting our people in order to develop popular, workable and viable alternatives to the crisis of the system. In our ``Road Map'' wocument, PUDEMO was beginning to do just that.
  • Restructuring and broadening of the international solidarity movement, as well as strengthening all solidarity efforts in order to enhance, deepen and unite all attempts to expose the tinkhundla system, raise the profile of the Swazi people's struggle and mobilise resources for the struggle of the people. In this case, we must ensure that structures of this nature are led by our international friends as we Swazis are actively involved in the frontline trenches of our struggle, which they are acting in solidarity with.
  • We need to deepen political education for all-round ideological and political development of the forces of struggle, in which case, clarity around core perspectives of the struggle and its evolving line of march shall be better enhanced. In this case, we know that our South African comrades are very much advanced here, and their expertise would be useful for us.
  • Uniting all the forces under the banner of the SUDF around the issue of multiparty constitutional elections, which should be able to offer a decisive way forward, though this does not mean undermining the individual programs of different organisations within the front, but as a means to build cohesion and unity in action.

Finally, we would not have done justice if we do not also add our voice, once again, to the call for speedy democratisation, stability and success in the negotiations process in Zimbabwe, which is a factor the region has felt so heavily these past days. We are encouraged by the democratic breeze seemingly emerging from the negotiation table lately, and it is proof that Africa is indeed capable of resolving her own challenges amicably, for we are our ``brother’s keeper''.

Our call for democracy in Swaziland is a call for democracy all over the region and continent. We believe that without a firm and revolutionary movement for the deepening of democracy all over Africa, there will be no democracy or at least, sustainable democracy in Swaziland.

``Let all who love our country join the march to a new and democratic Swaziland! All life has no meaning outside the life-affirming struggle for human dignity” -- from ``The Road Map to A New and Democratic Swaziland''.

I thank you.

[Abridged from a paper presented at the Zimbabwe-Swaziland Solidarity Conference, organised by COSATU, at the St. George Hotel, South Africa, August 10–11, 2008.]

Intensify the march to a new and democratic Southern Africa through a new and democratic Swaziland and Zimbabwe!

By Bongani Masuku

August 15, 2008 -- Swaziland is a neo-colonial and semi-feudal enclave ruled by an absolute monarchy together with his family. It is a country that is naturally endowed with abundant resources, but is suffering from the crisis of a royal kwashiorkor, called the tinkhundla system.

This system by definition is about the entrenchment of royal hegemony in all spheres of Swazi society, thus turning the people into objects of royal pity and plunder. You go to security, you find: Royal Swaziland Police (RSP); finance, you find: Swaziland Royal Insurance Corporation (SRIC) and Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC); sports, you find: Sihlangu Semnikati (the shield of the owner, literally translated and the owner is the king) and Sitsebe Samhlekazi (Mhlekazi being the Queen Mother), etc.

This is the essence of royal rule, through imposed hegemony, where the king is everything. He is the chancellor of the University, he is the commander-in-chief of the army, he is the patron of thousands of NGOs that front for his hegemony in the name of serving the poor, he is a head of state and more than anything else, a very key businessman, with huge economic interests in every sector of Swazi society. His hands are full of activity that reinforces his greed and entrenches his monopoly over every sphere of our society, not least the economy.

This basic truth, which you know by now, is important to always remember and recite in order to capture the real essence and structure of Swaziland, and why it is not performing. It is obviously suffering from the heavy weight of royal plunder, lack of innovation and creativity, and more than anything else, greed and cancerous corruption, which has permeated every sector of our society and has destroyed the moral fibre of our society.

It is in this sense that we must also locate the critical debate about what has become known as Swazi culture and tradition. The little of what remains from the rich heritage and tapestry of Swazi being, has been eroded in favour of royal interests, which is the core of what remains in the idea of Swazi culture and tradition today.

Certainly, the decent Swazi culture that our forebears cherished so much would never tolerate legalised rape or even abuse of children and women, it would never promote slavery, where the poor people are forced to work in the private farms of the chief and the king, it would never tolerate that an individual could amass so much wealth while our people languish in desperate poverty, as it would never allow decision making and participation in matters of public interest to be a monopoly of the royal family and their friends. We must expose evil practices disguised as our culture and call them what they really are, we must call things by their name.

The Swaziland that always changes in order to remain the same

The country has undergone so many changes, but fundamentally, all the changes are about how best to preserve royal rule, at all costs. These artificial and cosmetic changes create a false illusion and gives an impression that something dramatic is happening in the country, yet daily we are drifting further and further away from where we should be going, towards a new and democratic Swaziland, free from royal plunder and oppression.

The more the changes happen, the more things remain the same and the more royal oppression becomes deeply institutionalised in our society. Our people have even begun to lose some hope that things will ever really change.

When comrades Mandla Hlatshwako and Mario Masuku of the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO -- Swaziland's liberation movement) were seduced by the system to flirt with it and join the royal bandwagon, the monarchy thought it had landed a huge deal and would decisively weaken the forces of struggle. Alas, to the monarchy's dismay, the opposite was to happen. Principled as they are, these comrades, products of a principled movement and disciplined cadre that they are, openly refused and chose to remain on the side of the poor and oppressed. This happened, even against some elements beginning to think we must allow the comrades to ``infiltrate'' the system, without realising that the system would, in fact have infiltrated us, instead.

We stand tall and proud that we belong to an organisation that has refused to be associated, in any way, with an evil system, tinkhundla. That organisation is called PUDEMO, the proven and trusted movement of the oppressed and struggling masses of Swaziland, which has, over the years, proven that whatever, ranged against you, the odds may be, principles remains high. We also applaud that we work together with our allies in the labour movement and other social forces, who now together constitute what is the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF).

We are proud to have been part of the forebears of the SUDF initiative, the commitment to work together and bring under one umbrella all progressive forces in order to isolate the enemy. The enemy is one and that is the tinkhundla royal system that has subjected our people to years of suffering and oppression.

Where are we today

The regime remains stubborn that only tinkhundla non-party elections shall take place and that the tight hold of the royal state on the levers of power is not about to be eased. This means we must prepare ourselves for a deep, protracted and painful struggle. Any illusion that we are about to be freed or that we are on the horizon of the promised land is too romantic to be true.

On the September 19, the system shall be conducting daylight fraud called elections, legally fooling the world that things are happening, or about to happen, in Swaziland.

In a world of double standards, who cares! We live in a world where the interests of the powerful countries determine where cameras should focus, no matter what the issues and their depth.

Who can dare explain to me the logic of a country that has never seen anything close to democratic elections multiparty elections since 1973, yet no one, including civil society, has raised this issue. All of us prefer to remain quiet or, at best, passively lament this situation.

While we welcome Botswana's stand on Zimbabwe, we would have more reason to believe it is honest and principled, if it had done the same with Swaziland all these years, or at least once. For now, all we can see is hypocrisy and selective morality or double standards in the application and defence of democratic principles and traditions.

Dear comrades, the struggle for the affirmation of human dignity will not be televised, but it will unfold in the humble surroundings of our communities and places.

The revolutionary tempo has and must change!

Unless we resort to new and more effectively decisive methods of struggle, tinkhundla will continue to laugh at us as a bunch of desperate fellows, without any firm resort. In all our sites of struggle, we must and have resolved that things in Swaziland must change. You may have seen in the past few days that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has engaged a new gear on the issues of democracy in Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Things are about to happen, wait and see.

The new resolve of the democratic forces inside Swaziland is inspiring and encouraging, it allows the solidarity momentum generated elsewhere to be nurtured by the fertility of the political moisture on the ground. The formation of the SUDF is the apex and climax of that resolve. Added to this is the fact that, for the first time, trade unions in Swaziland held a joint May Day event this year. All these pointers make one clear statement, which is that the time of disunity and divisiveness are over and we should not allow the enemy to weaken and divide us any further.

We must force the world to realise that unless they act and act decisively on Swaziland, there shall be no peace in the whole region and beyond. We have heard enough excuses about not knowing what is happening and pretending not to be affected by what is happening. The geopolitical size and strategic significance of Swaziland is no reason for the people to continue suffering for so long, while new terrains of struggle are making decisive headway towards some form of political resolution.

We have a march tomorrow in which we are glad that you shall be part, true to the traditions of militant struggle and activism that this movement is known for. We are glad to welcome you and to work with you in consolidating the forward momentum of this new tide. We are also glad to indicate that on top of the 20 Swazis already in this conference, there are about three or more buses coming for tomorrow's march, indeed an indication that things have and must change. We are building a solid force starting from inside the country and firmly reaching out to all genuine patriots the world over, as part of this renewed momentum, and you are definitely a key part of it.

All this should be critical, but wait until we finalise the coming thunderstorm, involving the non-handling of goods and services to both Zimbabwe and Swaziland, to be launched soon and see if things will not change in Swaziland. We must be ready for the release of a new CD by Mswati sometime soon, singing an entirely new and different song and not a different tune of the same song, but an entirely new song. New times require new methods and this is the time!

Once again, dear comrade chairperson, please accept my gratitude for your sterling work and your invitation for me to share ideas on these issues, as we intensify the march to a new and democratic Southern Africa through a new and democratic Swaziland and Zimbabwe!


[Bongani Masuku is a PUDEMO member based in South Africa, a former secretary general of the Swaziland Solidarity Network. He is also COSATU's international secretary of COSATU. This is an abridged version of Masuku's address to the fourth Conference of the Southern African Peoples Solidarity Network, held in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, on August 15, 2008.]

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Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 09/01/2008 - 18:52



African Union (AU)

Southern African Development Community (SADC)

Commonwealth of Nations

European Union

Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF)

International press and media


August 31, 2008


Internationally, the royal disregard for fundamental democratic rights has been ignored. The election of King Mswati as the Chairperson of the SADC Organ on politics, defence and security, which is responsible for the defence of democracy in the region, is absolutely unacceptable.

Royal governance has been no less than a catastrophe for its people.

The Swazi regime is spending an extreme level of resources on the coming 40/40 celebrations, the royal birthday and so-called

independence day. Royal independence has created a state of

oppression and inequality that is unacceptable, a state of hunger and a mortality of the people that is deeply tragic.

Women have marched to government offices in Mbabane, angered by the abuse and corruption of the royal regime. Again and again, theSwaziland rulers have harassed the democratic movement, trade unions leaders and representatives of the democratic movement.

There is no other way than to demand:

- Lifting of the royal ban on multiparty politics and the right to

participate in public institutions. A ban created by royal

proclamation to the nation in 1973 and continuing in the constitution introduced in 2005.

- The right to return of all political fugitives. There are many who

remain in exile for fear of persecution by the state.

- A representative national convention creating a democratic

constitution which will be a true representation of the people of

Swaziland, of their needs and their future.

- An end to the corruption and greed of a royal family and a ruling minority that is a deep threat to the future of Swazi society.

There is no other way. Africa Contact (Denmark) has for years

supported the democratic movement in Swaziland. Also with the hope that it could achieve its goal through peaceful means, but such a hopeseems deeply threatened now in a time of permanent crisis.

Executive Committee

Africa Contact

Copenhagen / Denmark

Submitted by Dlamini Dlamini (not verified) on Mon, 10/20/2008 - 03:34