Swazi Identity Is at the Heart of the Debate on Democratic Reform

King Mswati III - Swaziland

What can we expect from Swaziland’s version of elections being held in August and September this year? Local and international actors have long argued that the Swazi electoral system does not meet international standards, as the process is too vulnerable to manipulation by actors close to and reliant upon the monarchy. The tinkhundla constituency system is based on traditional governance structures in both the determination of candidacy and the voting process.

As the majority of the African continent moves steadily towards democracy and the values that form the essence of this system, Swaziland is the last absolute monarchy in Africa. Where many African countries have sought to accommodate, incorporate, or adapt traditional governance structures to modern democratic practice, in Swaziland the traditional governance system remains the dominant decision-making paradigm. Efforts to change this have met with stiff resistance, as the role and place of the monarchy in Swazi society goes to the heart of the Swazi identity.

The tension between traditional governance and modern constitutional democracy is not unique to Swaziland. Many countries in Africa have incorporated traditional governance within the broader political system, particularly in the area of land or, as in Ghana, local quasi-legal dispute resolution mechanisms as a means of bringing the justice system closer to the people. Within the political construct of post-apartheid South Africa, traditional leaders were corralled within their own institutional assembly, and their role is limited under the new democratic dispensation. But recent times have seen a resurgent interest in traditional values and culture, in both rhetoric and legislative initiatives such as the proposed Traditional Courts Bill. For constitutionalists, the Bill presents a stark example of how traditional governance practices can potentially undermine some of the basic rights enshrined in a constitution.

Reviving traditional governance institutions would, for many, be viewed as a step backwards, a step towards the pre-colonial ‘good old days’ that were not, in fact, all that good. Swaziland is a case in point, as the system continues to fail in meeting basic human and socio-economic rights, while providing lavish benefits to the ruling elite.

In the debate on traditional governance, the importance of culture and history is often conflated with the associated governance system, as though recognising the one also means accepting the other. A slightly cynical viewpoint would suggest that this relationship has been maintained and exploited by members of the ruling elite, who have become adept at expounding the merits of traditional culture and values when it suits their purpose. Tradition and culture are vital components of, and inextricably linked to, identity, and the preservation of these is a noble ideal. But when notions of culture are exploited or used in support or defence of practices that are in conflict with constitutionally defined governance and human rights standards, their essence and integrity are fundamentally undermined. In Swaziland, for instance, the monarchy has positioned itself above, and not subject to, the constitution, but relies upon this document to legitimise itself and accord the regime some measure of credibility.

The Swazi movement towards re-establishing a multi-party democratic system – the ‘progressive movement’ – has been continually rebuffed, and its proponents persecuted. Clever manipulation of language has successfully labelled any discourse on the re-introduction of multi-party politics as being an attack on the king, and, by default, Swazi culture. Because the king in Swaziland is also viewed as the locus of traditional culture, in which the strong Swazi identity is rooted, any attack on the status and position of the king is reframed by the political elite as an attempt to undermine traditional Swazi culture and identity. Ironically, despite the fact that the debate is distorted and manipulated in such a way as to marginalise the progressive movement, there is some truth to this.

Democracy is, inherently, a threat to the traditional absolutist monarchical system, and hence by default can be interpreted as a threat to the powers of the king and his position as guardian of Swazi culture and identity. However, as can be seen across the continent, the democracy versus traditional governance debate does not need to be a categorical either/or debate. The one does not automatically exclude the other, and accommodations can be found within a constitutional framework.

In their inability to provide a clear position with regards to what, if any, role the king would play in a new democratic dispensation, the opposition groups have failed to provide a cogent alternative to the current system. Within the progressive movement itself there is a diverse range of views and loyalties, which has resulted in much infighting and the absence of any coherent, clearly articulated message that could attract the masses. By severely limiting the public space available to it, the current regime has also restricted the ability of the progressive movement to gain traction in the predominantly rural population, which remains largely supportive of the monarchical institution (if not the monarchy itself).

Thus far, Swazis seem reluctant to let go of a governance system that is inextricably linked to their identity; one which is steeped in familiarity, with rich customs and traditions. The monarchists have framed democratic change as a process that would fundamentally undermine one of the foundation pillars of Swazi culture and society. There is some truth to this, but it is also true that democracy can deliver rights and benefits that the current system has proven itself reluctant or unable to do.

The change that is required, both structurally and within the social fabric, if a democratically accountable and representative governance system is to be realised, is a conceptual leap that many countries have conquered. It is not unique to Swaziland, and can therefore not be understood as being particularly onerous or insurmountable. Without a common and shared vision, however, and strong leadership, the democratic ship is unlikely to make land. At the core of the dilemma for those seeking to promote democratic change is the failure of the progressive movement to formulate and disseminate a coherent and convincing argument for multi-party democracy. With the progressives bitterly divided, often feuding publically among themselves, one can forgive the people of Swaziland their reluctance to place faith in these groups as harbingers of better times.

Thus, the problem statement for Swaziland can be summarised as a situation whereby the cultural and political identity of Swazis is the battleground upon which opposing political ideologies confront one another, with the tenor of the argument implying mutually exclusive positions. The cost of this conflict and the bunker mentality of both sides, as is always the case, is borne by the ordinary people, whose living, health, education and human development ratings are among the worst in the world. This may be the catalyst for change, however, as the extravagant lifestyle of the royal family comes into sharper contrast with worsening economic conditions.

But whether the frustrations of the Swazi people will be aimed at the institution or the person remains to be seen. What seems certain, however, is that the elections that will take place in the next few months will fail to meet international election standards or deliver any meaningful benefits to the people, doing little more than entrench the status quo.


By Stefan Gilbert. Stefan Gilvert is Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, at the Institute for Security Studies ISS Pretoria.

Originally published on ISSAfrica.com.

Photo by whl.travel.

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