So it’s hardly surprising that few outsiders – and not even many insiders apparently – have been paying attention to quite encouraging recent political developments.
Five years ago the country hit rock bottom, sparking international outrage after the arrest and jailing of journalists, lawyers and opposition politicians for criticising the lack of democracy and judicial independence.
In 2016 the United States (US) responded by removing Eswatini – then still called Swaziland – as a beneficiary of its African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows low-tariff or tariff-free entry into the US market for exports from eligible African countries. Since then, however, things have begun moving in the right direction, even if slowly and almost invisibly.
The changes became apparent in January last year when the US reinstated Eswatini’s AGOA benefits after the Swazi government made changes mainly to the far-reaching Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Public Order Act, which had restricted political freedoms. Eswatini also amended the Industrial Relations Act, as demanded by the US, principally to allow for the registration of trade union and employer federations.
The Suppression of Terrorism Act was amended mainly to require proof that a defendant is guilty of all three elements of terrorism – perpetrating a trigger action or actions, intent to instill terror in the public, and intent to coerce a national authority to take some action, or refrain from taking it. Previously the courts could convict someone for just one of these elements.
The most critical reform of the Public Order Act is that organisers of marches and public protests now need only inform the local authority before proceeding. In the past, they had to first seek permission from authorities, which was usually denied. Several marches have been successfully held under the new legislation, proving that it works, diplomats say – although police still occasionally block marches probably because not all understand the new law.
The other significant signs of change in Eswatini are in the attitude of the new government appointed by Mswati after last year’s elections. Both the new Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini, a businessman, and the new acting police commissioner William Dlamini, have proved to be more tolerant and liberal than their hardline predecessors. Diplomats cite the recent example of the police chief phoning a journalist to apologise after police officers threatened to pursue 2012 charges against him.
Telling truth to power is evidently more critical in Eswatini than elsewhere because, despite being an absolute or at least executive monarch, Mswati is apparently quite unaware of much that is happening inside his country and government. Even his closest advisers have reportedly been loath to be the bearer of bad news, such as the extent of the fiscal crisis. But last year Mswati responded to advice to appoint a new government willing to tell him the truth.
There is still much improvement needed to liberate the political space, even in the Suppression of Terrorism and Public Order acts and much more beyond those – and no certainty that it will be done. Diplomats and others say the next target of reform should be the king’s 1973 proclamation that prohibits full multiparty democracy. Political parties may legally exist and five of them do, but politicians may in practice only contest elections as individuals, not as party representatives.
Mswati evidently argues that it is unnecessary to repeal the 1973 proclamation as the 2005 constitution has made it defunct by guaranteeing freedom of expression and assembly. But as the Southern Africa Litigation Centre reports, section 79 of the constitution still implicitly denies multiparty democracy because it stipulates ‘individual merit as a basis for election or appointment to public office’.
And even though several high court and supreme court decisions have confirmed that the 1973 proclamation is defunct in law, SALC points out that several arrests of activists and the use of the terrorism law against political parties have ‘created a default assumption that the prohibition of political parties remains in place’.
So it remains important for the government to confirm explicitly that the 1973 proclamation is gone. Diplomats are trying to persuade Mswati that multiparty democracy need not be at odds with Eswatini’s politics of individual merit. SALC’s report still characterises Eswatini as an ‘absolute’ monarchy. As a result of the changes so far though, some countries represented in Eswatini have started referring to the political system instead as an ‘executive monarchy’ – a significant difference.
Outspoken newspaper editor Bheki Makhubu, however, isn’t impressed by the changes. He thinks Mswati has made them not because he has suddenly fallen in love with his people but because of the dire state of the economy.
Profligate Swazi government spending and a weak regional economy – which has caused a fall in customs revenues from the Southern African Customs Union that Eswatini has relied on for decades – are making it increasingly hard for the government to pay its creditors and even public servants.
‘[Mswati] desperately needs investment and you can’t attract investors when you are beating up your people,’ says Makhubu. Still, he believes it is unlikely that Mswati will reverse course now, although perhaps he won’t proceed further down the path of reform either. Even those more encouraged than Makhubu by the changes fear that something might still happen to frighten Mswati and his government back into their old repressive ways.
But some change is in the air. And at least Swazi watchers have something weightier to ponder than whether Mswati will choose another comely bare-breasted maiden at the annual Reed Dance.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant