Freedom in the World
In September 2010, prodemocracy demonstrations in Manzini were preceded and followed by a state-sponsored crackdown on oppositionist activists, including trade unionists and members of banned political parties.
Swaziland regained its independence from Britain in 1968, and an elected Parliament was added to the traditional monarchy. In 1973, King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of a tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself an absolute monarch. After Sobhuza’s death in 1982, a protracted power struggle ended with the coronation of King Mswati III in 1986.
A new constitution implemented in 2006 removed the king’s ability to rule by decree, but reaffirmed his absolute authority over the cabinet, Parliament, and judiciary. It also maintained the tinkhundla system—in which local chiefs control elections for 55 of the 65 seats in the House of Assembly, the lower house of Parliament—and did not overturn the ban on political parties. The charter provided for limited freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited rights for women, but the king could suspend those rights at his discretion.
Also in 2006, 16 members of the prodemocracy People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) were arrested and charged in connection to bomb attacks in 2005, but all were later freed on bail. In 2008, there were over 10 bomb attacks on government targets, and while there were no official or civilian casualties, the September blast killed one of the bombers, a member of PUDEMO. The government subsequently banned PUDEMO, along with four other groups, under the newly enacted Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA). PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku was also arrested on charges of terrorism and sedition, but was acquitted in 2009 for lack of evidence.
In September 2010, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU)and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign—a coalition of pro-democracy groups—organized two days of protests in Manzini against the monarchy, calling for political, civil, and economic reforms. Security personnel forcibly dispersed the demonstrations and detained some 50 activists, though most were released shortly thereafter. According to Amnesty International, two trade union officials, a number of PUDEMO leaders, and members of the Open Society Institute for Southern Africa were among those arrested. In the months preceding the demonstrations, several activists were harassed, threatened, or detained by security forces under the STA, and were reportedly subject to torture and ill treatment under interrogation. Activists were also reportedly under intense surveillance, had their homes and offices searched (sometimes without warrants), and were subject to searches at roadblocks.
Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection, with estimates ranging between 26 and 33 percent of the sexually active population. In 2010, about 30,000 Swazis were receiving antiretroviral drug treatment, out of an estimated 60,000 who require it. Swaziland also has the highest rate of tuberculosis infection, which aggravated by HIV/AIDS, remains the country’s leading cause of death.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Swaziland is not an electoral democracy. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch with ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary. Of the House of Assembly’s 65 members, 55 are elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, in which local chiefs vet all candidates. The king appoints the other 10 members. The king also appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. Parliament members, all of whom serve five-year terms, are not allowed to initiate legislation. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities and typically report directly to the king.
Political parties are illegal, but there are political associations, the two largest being the banned PUDEMO and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC). Prodemocracy groups and PUDEMO boycotted the 2008 House of Assembly elections.
Corruption is a major problem. The monarchy spends lavishly despite the largely impoverished population, and members of Parliament engage in fraud and graft. According to the Coordinating Assembly for Nongovernmental Organizations, an estimated $6 million in potential government revenue is lost each month due to corruption. A 2010 Elections and Boundaries Commission report cited the wide use of vote buying and “treating”—whereby voters were entertained in exchange for their votes—in the 2008 elections. Swaziland was ranked 91 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The king can suspend constitutional rights to free expression at his discretion, and these rights are severely restricted in practice, especially with respect to the discussion of political issues. Publishing criticism of the ruling family is also banned. Self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are routinely subject to threats and attacks by the authorities. In January 2010, the government banned the Times of Swaziland from running a column by PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku. In July, a prince closely aligned to King Mswati stated that journalists who criticize the country should “die,” and palace officials accused critical journalists of being paid by foreign forces. The attorney general and other officials have also threatened journalists with arrest under the STA. South African media are available, and both the Swazi Observer and the independent Times of Swaziland occasionally criticize the government. The country’s only independent radio station broadcasts religious programming; four radio stations that had received operating licenses in 2008 had them revoked in 2009. The government does not restrict access to the internet, but few Swazis can afford access. However, authorities in December 2010 reportedly blocked access to PUDEMO’s website, which had been hosting a poll on whether the country should hold multi-party elections.
Freedom of religion is not explicitly protected under the constitution, but is respected in practice. While Swazis criticize the government in private discussions, they are less free to criticize the monarchy itself, which has effectively limited academic freedom.
The government has restricted freedoms of assembly and association, and permission to hold political gatherings has often been denied. Prodemocracy protesters are routinely dispersed and arrested by police. The government has sweeping powers under the STA to declare any organization a “terrorist group,” a practice that has reportedly been widely abused by authorities. Police harassment and surveillance of civil society organizations has also increased in recent years.
Swaziland has active labor unions, and the largest labor organization, the SFTU, has continued to lead demands for democratization. However, government pressure and crackdowns on strikes have greatly limited union operations. In addition, the government is the country’s largest employer, and recent retrenchments in the public sector have spurred increased activism on the part of government employees. Workers in all areas of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized.
The dual judicial system includes courts based on Roman-Dutch law and traditional courts using customary law. The judiciary is independent in most civil cases, although the king has ultimate judicial powers, and the royal family and government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. However, the Swazi High Court has made a number of notable antigovernment rulings in recent years.
According to the U.S. State Department, there were numerous incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody in 2010. In May, prodemocracy activist and PUDEMO member Sipho Jele died under suspicious circumstances following his arrest by police under the STA. Security forces generally operate with impunity. During the September crackdown, police raided the rural home of PUDEMO deputy president Sikhumbuzo Phakathi ahead of his arrest. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to torture, beatings, rape, and a lack of sanitation. The spread of HIV/AIDS also remains a major problem in Swazi prisons. While the constitution prohibits torture, the ban is not enforceable in court.
The constitution grants women equal rights and legal status as adults, but these rights remain restricted in practice. While both the legal code and customary law provide some protection against gender-based violence, it is common and often tolerated with impunity.The Central Statistics Office reported in 2008 that 60 percent of men believed it acceptable to beat their wives, while 18 percent of females between 13 and 44 years old had contemplated suicide, primarily as a result of domestic violence. A 2007 survey found that one-third of Swazi women had been subjected to sexual violence and two-thirds had been beaten or abused.
Swaziland received a downward trend arrow due to a major crackdown on oppositionist and prodemocracy groups before and during organized demonstrations in September 2010.