Institute for Security Studies
3 May 2011
Is there a revolution in Swaziland?
The Swazi monarchy is being opposed by a sizeable number of its citizens and is starting to feel the pinch of an economic decline as well as a growing opposition to its rule. Current events are being critically illuminated by local and global actors, and there is clearly a widening gap between the ideology of royalty and the rest of the population, but not to the extent that some in the media or elsewhere have reported.
This fairly unprecedented interest in the nature and behaviour of the Swazi polity (many studies of Swaziland have emphasised its regional and global marginality) is occurring in a global context of increasing popular protests, specifically in Northern Africa. Many have predicted that Swaziland would be the first sub-Saharan country to experience protests approaching the scale of those seen in Egypt and Tunisia, particularly because it shares many contextual similarities such as authoritarianism, financial insecurity for the majority of people and a corrupt and aloof elite that enjoy a lavish lifestyle. In spite of these similarities, there are some differences in context that must be defined in order to assess the potential for revolution in Swaziland.
Numerous review commissions have been appointed over the years (in 1992, 1996 and 2005), but these were all chaired by Royal family members, and this conflict of interest resulted in only minor surface reforms that often enhanced Royal privilege. All reviews so far have therefore been characterised by a great deal of activity without any achievement in terms of reforms.
Many of the Royal children are afforded expensive overseas educations and lifestyles and many people have underestimated the overall size of the Royal family. There are no possibilities of increasing the levels of revenue in Swaziland to afford this expenditure, indeed all sources of wealth are being tightened through reductions in income from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), unstable global markets, a reduction in foreign remittances and the lavish and corrupt domestic expenditure of the Royal family. The upkeep of 14 wives and +/- 23 children, plus suspected mistresses, is a significant strain on the public purse, but reform is out of the question as the King has power over all executive, legislative and judicial decisions as well, and appointments are made on the basis of fealty. The Tibiyo Takangwane, a business network controlled by the Royal family with investments in all profitable activities in Swaziland and which was ostensibly set up as part of a project to contribute to the development of Swaziland, has been used as an additional source of income for the monarchy. Tibiyo Takangwane can be translated as meaning 'wealth of the nation', and it is responsible for a great deal of the economic activity in Swaziland, but its primary purpose has been to provide the means for the Royal family to live in the manner to which it is accustomed or that it deems necessary.
The narrative of events in Swaziland, as well as the future of the state, is now being contested - though the discourse generated so far has remained relatively bereft of the thoughts and ideas of the majority who have not joined protests. Based on these facts and analysis, it is unlikely that a revolution will occur with any immediacy or indeed at all. If there is no substantial and thorough reform of the state the factors that have contributed to this outpouring of opposition and its repression will however continue to linger and fester. Swaziland risks destabilisation as its current projected future is unsustainable. Clearly any tacit consent to this system is taken as a sign of broad and permanent consensus to dissuade reform and consolidate the status quo.
Critical attention needs to be focused on those actors and groups from which the majority of reform-minded citizens are likely to emerge, namely the civil service. If the prosperity of this group is truly undermined it is likely that widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo will result in reform and possibly revolution, although the future is far from certain. It is unclear if cabinet members, who have become one of the focal points for hostility so far, are content to be 'scapegoated' and if any would consider opposing such a move if it meant that the position in the state of the Royal family remains immutable.
There is a definite need to ascertain how people regard the monarchy at this moment, as people have always been aware of the associated shortcomings of the system. This knowledge cannot be gained by assessing media reports, but must be acquired through research. In lieu of the on-going repression of protesters it is possible that opinions could change quickly.
It appears that many Swazis are unwilling to countenance a constitutional monarchy similar to Lesotho or the United Kingdom, as they fear that it would be too easy to abolish the monarchy itself. A palpable mistrust of multiparty democracy also springs from observations of other African countries and a reading of history in which defeated parties have often initiated a civil war to wrest power away from the victor in an election (which may or may not have been fraudulent).
Swazis also invest in and draw upon the monarchy itself in terms of identity, as it remains a key contributor to the sense of self-identity and community. Many people are also related in some way to a member of the Royal family, which furthers the sense of shared identity. The thought of toppling the institution of the monarchy therefore does not appeal to the majority. Nevertheless there is widespread dismay and anger at the manner in which the state has responded to protests.
Swaziland is also the only African state to have never recognised the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is therefore important to be mindful of Swaziland's international relations, as Taiwan could mount a diplomatic initiative similar to its past policies, that academics such as Ian Taylor have characterised as 'dollar diplomacy', in order to ensure that another African state does not decide to recognize the PRC instead. China surely has some interest in the matter; after all, a large part of its policy in Africa is guided by the objective of marginalising Taiwan in addition to maintaining its own share of recognition amongst African states.
Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria Office http://www.iss.co.za/