It was 49 years ago on 6 September 1968 that Swaziland gained independence from Great Britain at a time of great optimism for the kingdom.
But that optimism was misplaced. What exactly does Swaziland have to celebrate today? The kingdom has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, seven out of ten people are so abjectly poor they earn less than US$2 a day, six out of ten people need food aid from overseas and four in ten are so hungry they face starvation. Add to this the news from Forbes that that King Mswati III has a net wealth at one time estimated at US$ 200 million and you can see my point.
The King rules by decree (despite the introduction in 2006 of a new constitution), political parties are banned, the parliament has no real powers, the Prime Minister is selected by the King and not elected by the people.
Any legitimate protest against these conditions by the people is met by state force. Police routinely teargas protesters or fire water canon or rubber bullets at them.
Back in 1968, people hoped for so much more (no, expected so much more from independence). The New York Times reported (6 September 1968), ‘Swaziland achieves independence today with much brighter immediate prospects than the other two former British High Commission territories in south Africa. It is smaller (area 6,705 sq miles: population 400,000) than Botswana or Lesotho, but commands far greater natural resources and a robust foreign trade and payments surplus.
‘This is not to suggest that the Swazis lack problems. Their position as almost an island within South Africa would by itself insure long-range headaches. They currently enjoy political stability under the shrewd if traditional leadership of King Sobhuza II and the royalist Imbokodvo party of Prime Minister Mahkosini Dlamini.’
Swaziland was seen as a stable, peaceful country. Much of the credit for this was put at the feet of the then king, Sobhuza II.
The New York Times reported. ‘The 69-year-old King has been on the throne since 1921. He personifies his country: one foot in the past and the other in the future.
‘The king of the Swazis, once one of Africa’s great warring tribes, is equally at home in formal Western clothes or Mahia, the colourful national costume. He is reported to have about 170 wives and platoons of children. Statistics are sketchy, but the records do show that the king took his 50th bride in 1933.’
The Financial Times, London, UK, reported, ‘If, then, today  the King reigns supreme in this tiny country ... it is very largely because it was he, and not some populist movement, that provided the impetus, back in 1960, which set his country on the road to independence.
‘This is important, for it meant that the King and his men were able to a large extent to call the tune in their negotiations with the British Government – the one attempt to impose a Whitehall-inspired constitution in 1964 was very short lived. Furthermore, by being identified from the start with the ‘struggle’ for independence in the minds of the people, the Imbokodvo has been able to stay one jump ahead of any local opposition – notably the Pan-Africanist Ngwane National Liberatory Congress – and in the end to annihilate it.’
It was the control exerted over Swaziland by King Sobhuza that for many was the key to the stability in Swaziland.
The Financial Times pointed out that it is arguable that the Whites in Swaziland would not have been willing to abandon their demand for an entrenched representation in parliament without the influence of Sobhuza.
‘There can be little doubt that Swaziland’s Whites draw great comfort from the knowledge that a conservative monarch who makes little secret of his appreciation for the White’s continuing economic contribution to the country is in charge.’
It was generally recognised internationally that ‘democracy’ in Swaziland in 1968 had shortcomings. The Financial Times put it like this, ‘In theory, he [King Sobhuza II] is only a constitutional monarch, and as Head of State he will have to live with a Parliament consisting of a 12 man Senate and a 30-man House of Assembly. But, in practice, it is very difficult to see the legislature going against the king’s wishes; for in practically every sense it is the King’s Parliament. To start with, all 24 elected members in the Assembly belong to the Royalist Imbokodvo National Movement, founded in early 1964, and headed by Prince Makhosini Dlamini, a member of the Royal family and now Swaziland’s first Prime Minister.
‘Secondly, the King has the power to appoint six Senate members with the remainder being elected by the House of Assembly.
‘Thirdly, there is his influence in the Swazi National Council, the body of chiefs and elders through which kings have traditionally governed the Swazi nation. And as long as Swaziland retains its unitary tribal structure, the SNC is likely to remain an important body for it is here that the vast majority of the people will make their grievances immediately felt, which will then be transmitted via the king to parliament, rather than the other way round...’
History tells us that this confidence in Sobhuza was misplaced. In 1973, after the people of Swaziland freely elected members of parliament of whom he disapproved, the King abandoned the parliament, tore up the constitution and ruled by decree. Swaziland is still (technically, at least) ruled by this decree.
The total lack of democracy in Swaziland, the banning of political parties and the stripping of power from Parliament dates from 1973. Most of the kingdom’s present day shortcomings can be directly attributed to the crushing lack of democracy that stifled debate and penalised those who dare to have a view contrary to those of the ruling elite.
The lack of political sophistication in Swaziland was noted by the Financial Times, ‘the very lack of political sophistication in the country – no small reason for the King’s strong hold over its affairs – is likely to bolster this stability in the short term.’
Even in 1968 there were concerns about whether the people of Swaziland were being truly represented in Parliament. Elections in 1967 had seen the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) get 20 percent of the vote, but no seats.
The Financial Times reported with more foresight than it probably realised at the time, ‘Votes came mainly from the tiny, but growing, white-collar urban working class.
‘Moreover, with hindsight it is now apparent that the vote was not so much for the NNLC but against the Establishment, so that even if Dr Zwane [the NNLC leader] disappears from the scene, the forces which had been channelled through his party, will remain.’