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Can Eswatini develop in its current political impasse?

Another election has come and gone in Eswatini. A Prime Minister and a Cabinet appointed without the express will of the people. The election happened despite an express call by the Southern Africa Development Community, SADC, for an inclusive national dialogue after the July 2021 political killings and the recent assassination of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko in January 2023.

Eswatini, also known as Swaziland, is a small country in Southern Africa. On paper, it is a semi-constitutional monarchy, but the monarch has absolute power.

Eswatini’s lack of democratic governance has resulted in stifled economic growth, inadequate infrastructure, a weak education system, and a vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment, low wages, inequality, and instability. Additionally, the lack of accountability and the prevalence of corruption allows for the misallocation of resources and diverts funds away from essential infrastructure and social services.

After the August 2023 elections, the monarch convened, as per section 232 of the Eswatini Constitution, the ‘Swazi National Council’, known as ‘Sibaya’, where ‘the nation’ is supposed to convene and form the ‘highest policy and advisory council of the nation.’  The Eswatini Government spokesperson has declared the national dialogue concluded, noting the recently completed Sibaya.

While Sibaya has a long and rich history in Eswatini, it has also been criticised for its lack of transparency, inclusivity, accountability, and democratic legitimacy, giving the monarch an upper hand. Political activists in the country have constantly emphasised that the said Sibaya is not the same as the national dialogue envisioned by SADC and expected by local political activists and civil society.

One of the main criticisms of Sibaya is that it is not a representative body and lacks fundamental democratic principles, particularly openness and inclusivity. Only adult citizens who support the Tinkhundla system of government are allowed to participate in Sibaya. This excludes a significant portion of the population, particularly those with a dissenting voice or those who might call for political reforms and the democratisation of the kingdom. The recent Sibaya is an example of this, where Sibusiso Dlamini, a political activist, had the microphone violently grabbed from him as he called for democratic reforms. The effects of the Tinkhundla system of governance on democracy in Eswatini are devastating.

The Tinkhundla system of governance is a mockery of modern democracy. It violates several fundamental principles of democracy, such as the principle of popular sovereignty. In a democracy, the people are the supreme authority, and the government is accountable. The Tinkhundla system, on the other hand, gives the monarch absolute power, making him accountable to no one. As a result, the Swazi people have no real say in their governance, and their rights are not protected.

The lack of political freedom also plays a role, as circumstances or the state often exiles political dissidents. The Eswatini government does not tolerate dissent, making it difficult for people to express their views and advocate for change. This extends beyond political dissenters. Minority groups such as the LGBTIQ+ community also have to fight twice as hard for fundamental liberties like the right to freedom of association.

While the government spokesperson has declared the national dialogue concluded, it remains to be seen whether the political turmoil in Eswatini comes to finality paving the way for human development in the country. SADC must revisit the Eswatini question and seek finality to the 50-year-old call for democracy and political plurality by putting the country back on its agenda.

Only by embracing democratic principles and empowering citizens can Eswatini develop and pave the way for a brighter future. For a healthy democracy to thrive, there needs to be a political plurality which expands to the right to criticise and hold accountable those in positions of power. No institution should be above criticism, and a political institution such as a monarchy, whose everyday existence impacts the lives of over 1.3 million citizens, should undoubtedly expect and encourage scrutiny and debate.

By Melusi Simelane, Civic Rights, Consultant Programme Manager