Search This Blog

Wednesday, 7 November 2007


‘Democracy won the day’, the Times of Swaziland told us on Monday (5 November 2007) when commenting on the weekend’s local government elections.

It went on to applaud voters for exercising their constitutional right to freedom of choice.

On the face of it things might be looking up in Swaziland, an undemocratic kingdom ruled by an autonomous king.

But, even the Times acknowledged that not many people actually went out to vote.

Both the Times and the Swazi Observer had pages of coverage on the elections in their editions on Monday, but apart from a passing reference to voter apathy in the Times' editorial neither newspaper made any reference to the low turnout.

And the figures weren’t so much low as minute. All over the kingdom candidates were being elected by so few people you could fit them all into a bus. Running my eye down a list of winning candidates I can see a candidate who won with a total of 31 votes, while other winners had 56, 49, and 36 votes.

Looking at these pitiful figures, I think we can safely say that ‘democracy did not win the day’. Nobody won, but the fact that the newspapers missed the big electoral story (the low turnout) speaks volumes about the Swaziland media.

One of the definitions of ‘democracy’ is ‘a system of government by the whole people’. On that definition what happened at the weekend does not constitute a ‘democracy’ and these elections were a sham.

Political parties are banned in Swaziland and there is nowhere safe for people to meet and discuss politics. It is no wonder that when ‘election’ time comes people ignore them, through fear or apathy.

Next year Swaziland has its national elections. Again, political parties will be banned and people will be asked to vote for candidates on the basis of their individual abilities.

It is difficult to organise politics in Swaziland, even at election time. In the last national elections in 2003, political meetings in Swaziland were allowed, but only with the permission of the Election Office. Once permission was obtained campaigns were then held in the tinkhundla centres, (local state-controlled offices) the only venue where such meetings can be held. The Electoral Office and representatives of the local chiefs ran the meetings. This effectively meant that the state was able to control all public political discussion.

A Commonwealth election monitoring team criticized Swaziland’s lack of press freedom during the elections and expressed disappointment at government-owned Radio Swaziland’s reporting on the campaign, saying that restricted coverage reduced voters’ knowledge of the candidates and harmed their ability to hold candidates accountable.

In its editorial on Monday the Times said that by the 2008 elections ‘people should have made some intelligent choices in candidates’. But it is not clear how they can make these choices unless the Swazi media help them.

I don’t blame the journalists. They suffer in the same way as the Swazi people. They don’t really understand what ‘democracy’ is since few of them have lived in a democratic country. A state of emergency was in force in Swaziland for the past 34 years imposed by Royal proclamation in 1973. The new Swazi Constitution does little to encourage democracy since although it allows freedom of association it effectively bans political parties.

There may be some hope. The Times editorial at least identifies the problem, ‘We need men and women of high integrity, who are willing to put people first, refuse to be corrupted by greed or the system and be willing to step down as a matter of principle without fear if they do not subscribe to the self serving interests of certain individuals in this country. That is how important your vote is’.

No comments: