Monthly Archives: October 2013

Swaziland: liberal democracy and its discontents

I have written a commentary on elections, democracy and the land question in Swaziland published by Al Jazeera. Click here to read it.

See below for a few extracts:

“September 20 marked Swaziland’s last round of parliamentary elections. For the occasion, international media have brought Swaziland’s “forgotten crisis” back into the spotlight. Locked between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland is a small country with a population of 1.2 million and is one of the last surviving absolute monarchies in the planet. The kingdom is at the crossroads:

  • 31 percent of Swazis are HIV-positive;
  • a sovereign debt crisis is looming due to the public budget’s excessive reliance on fluctuating revenues from customs duties in the Southern African Customs Union;
  • the formal economy is stagnating and is heavily dependent on sugar production for export;
  • rural areas, where the bulk of the population resides, suffer from overcrowding and declining subsistence production and are ever more dependent on migrant workers’ remittances.

The political system remains firmly in the hands of the king and the royal family. The royal elites enrich themselves by exploiting the vast wealth of the royal investment fund Tibiyo Taka Ngwane. Nominally a national development fund held by the king “in trust for the nation”, Tibiyo is in fact a cash cow outside parliamentary scrutiny for the benefit of a handful of individuals. It brokers partnerships with foreign capital, mostly from South Africa. Few others gain from this arrangement: the local white elites and the tiny minority of black Swazi businessmen and top managers benefit from this shady fund.

Meanwhile nearly 90 percent of the population lives with $5 a day or less. The unemployment rate is 41 percent. Workers in the formal sector receive appallingly low wages and little social protection. The rest get by with precarious informal economic activities or subsistence farming.”


“[M]ost people have serious concerns about the current situation. They  complain, for instance, about mass unemployment, low wages, the dismal state of hospitals, and the lack of services in the rural areas. They condemn government corruption and the conspicuous consumption of the royal family.

Yet, there is no sign of a mass movement calling for multi-party democracy. Not all protesters are committed to the pro-democracy slogans pushed by the organisers. Most join the protests because they are concerned about specific issues, like wage disputes and poor service delivery. Many of them openly criticise the king and his politics, but remain sceptical of multi-party democracy.

The diversity of viewpoints is seldom argued along ideological lines and there is rarely full agreement on any single point. Some are keen to stress that this is the essence of “Swazi democracy”. Others argue that multi-party democracy has not brought benefits to their neighbours. A few confidently claim that in the absence of parties conflict is low and political violence rare. They claim that the people can have a say on issues of local and national development through the Tinkhundla system – political organisations are not needed.”


“Today, every Swazi has the right to a piece of land in the customary system. They obtain it for a modest one-off payment to a local chief – but they do not hold individual title deeds. Land can be passed on to their children and relatives but cannot be sold in the private market. Swazi Nation Land occupies about 60 percent of the country and is subdivided among nearly 400 chiefdoms.

Most Swazis do not have the capital to buy a house in the private market – Swazi Nation Land is their “welfare state”. They have little access to cash and get by with land and labour mobilised through their kinship and neighbourly networks in the customary economy. People use the land to build their homes and plan for retirement. They cultivate maize and keep livestock, supplementing their meagre wages and saving small amounts towards medical expenses and children’s school fees. With all its pitfalls, the rule of the monarchy gives a prominence to customary land rights that is unique in southern Africa.”


“After all, Swazis’ pragmatic conservatism might not bring the desired effects. Despite the king’s propaganda, the monarchy has shown no interest in reforming itself.

A frontal attack against the regime is also unlikely to succeed in the short term. Trade unions and progressive parties channel the wide discontent among the workers, whose livelihoods are constantly undermined by exploitative capitalism. At the same time, workers are not fully urbanised and are not fully rural. They move back and forth between the two economies. The protective function of the customary system cannot be easily dismissed as a ‘backward’ attachment to a static and meaningless tradition.

The pro-democracy movement needs to come up with a concrete plan for transition: what would happen to customary tenure and the chiefs who oversee it? How would the challenges of the dual economy be addressed in the new dispensation? So far activists have not provided satisfactory answers to these questions.

Furthermore, proposals for a different form of democracy that does not blindly follow the Western model should be taken seriously. ‘Democracies’ in the plural exist in a variety of forms around the world; liberal democracy is not the only way forward.”