It’s been a while since I last wrote about the protests in Swaziland, and thought I would check in to see what’s going on, and it turns out that new surges of activity have emerged across several towns in the autocratic Southern African kingdom in just the past day:
At the moment, it appears that King Mswati III is allowing the protests to proceed without massive repression, even as union organizers mobilizing the activities challenge him to resign.
While protestors are calling for democratic reforms, there’s not doubt that the protests were set off by a public sector wage freeze, not some particular denial of civil liberties. Also — and this is notable, because mass action around HIV/AIDS in Africa has actually been quite rare — citizens are voicing complaints about shortages of ARV drugs.
It’s still unclear whether there’s sufficient momentum to effect any real change, but this now marks several months of relatively sustained demonstrations. If the demands are ultimately material ones, however, Mswati may opt to follow the Saudi playbook, and buy off support using his reported $100 million+ fortune.
I wanted to update the fallout from the Swazi protests and the strike in Botswana, which I posted earlier. In the case of Swaziland, government repression appears to have quieted things down, with the regime taking advantage of the term “terrorist” to justify brutality to its own citizens. Today, two activists were denied bail for illegal possession of explosives.
In Botswana, the government is imposing a “no work, no pay” policy, effective as of May 1. According to a recent report, state worker unions will strike until this Friday, after which they will carry out a work slow-down. Workers have demanded a 16 percent pay hike, and so far the state has only offered 5 percent.
In no way am I trying to equate these two mass actions or the respective government responses – the former is dictatorial repression, the latter is pretty much regular democratic politics. But in both cases, ordinary people are expressing substantial frustration with leadership at the top.
The Swazi monarchy is doing all it can to close out the political space for protesters seeking to gain momentum in the recent series of challenges. They’ve brought out teargas and rubber bullets, and pre-emptively detained protesters. But unlike in places such as Egypt, where citizens wanted to see the reigning despot completely out of power, out of town, and perhaps in jail, or dead, in Swaziland, there remains widespread attachment to traditional authority. Protesters are thus calling for a constitutional monarchy, which would include an unbanning of political parties, the granting of meaningful elections, etc., but in some type of hybrid with the current regime.
Despite the prevalence of democratic regimes throughout Africa, many foreign observers just don’t realize how important traditional rulers remain in the lives of ordinary citizens. And in many places, including in relatively modern and industrialized South Africa, traditional rulers have been granted a substantial degree of authority and autonomy in local affairs.
Unfortunately, I think this kind of dual authority structure is ultimately very limiting for democratic governance. It is difficult to see how the Swazi nation would be able to navigate its way to some type of true democratic arrangement, while the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful King remains on the scene in an official role. There would be too many temptations to intervene — either to heavy handedly structure the outcome of elections and/or to challenge policy directly.
For a long time, traditional leadership was seen as an old-fashioned and irrelevant subject for serious investigation. But as scholars and other observers have come to recognize the importance of traditional leaders (chiefs, headman, etc.), there will be closer and more thoughtful scrutiny. Kate Baldwin, currently at CSDP at Princeton is doing some interesting research on this question.
I did a quick analysis of Afrobarometer data — a survey that in the recent round covered 20 countries (but not Swaziland — as the survey targeted countries that are… or were… considered democratic in recent years), and looked at responses to the question, “How much influence do traditional leaders currently have in governing your local community?” And below I plot the percent of each country’s population that said “some” or “a great deal” — rather than “none” or “a little.”
Overall, more than 50 percent of respondents said that traditional leaders were playing a substantial role. Given that traditional leaders are very rarely elected, the question remains what kind of democracies are these? It’s not a rhetorical question, but one worth considering — if major decisions, including the resolution of major disputes and the allocation of resources are mediated through traditional leaders. If the Swazi people want free and fair elections, but they also want to maintain the monarchy, is the thing that they are demanding the same thing that we often call “democracy?”
Cosatu plans blockade at Swazi border – News – Mail & Guardian Online. As I posted earlier, South Africa’s major labor confederation (COSATU) is applying increasing pressure on the Swazi King, in solidarity with domestic protesters who have been stepping up their own challenges to the monarchy. Echoing the slogans of the anti-apartheid movement, COSATU representatives say they aim to make the country “ungovernable.” However, they have retreated on plans to go inside the country, and instead will lead a border protest, which aims to have economic impact. Again, Swaziland is the continent’s last absolute monarchy, and it’s not difficult to imagine pressure escalating in the weeks and months to come for some type of major change. If South Africa can help negotiate the end to the Mugabe and Mswati dictatorships, it would certainly put some shine back on what has been a very lackluster foreign policy in recent years.
Is Swaziland ripe for political change? The Royal Kingdom is generally rated one of the most autocratic regimes on Earth, in the company of places like Chad, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. A landlocked country, it borders democratic South Africa, and liberalizing Mozambique. But for almost 40 years, the country has been ruled with only the most modest of political reforms. Meanwhile, it has suffered arguably the world’s worst AIDS pandemic, and life expectancy has halved, all while the king has amassed a nine-figure fortune.
In recent years, a few minor protests have done little to spark mass action. This week, however, two events are worth noting: the state is asking for a $145 million loan to address its budget deficit – no doubt needed because of expenditures on a $1 billion airport that is hardly a necessity item (see M&G 3/17) – and protestors are planning mass action in the capital tomorrow (allafrica 3/17).
Certainly all of the protests in the Middle East and North Africa must be having a demonstration effect on activists in Swaziland, and on sympathizers in South Africa. Citizens have traditionally supported the monarchy, but I wonder if this combination of pressures will lead to action that will have a more profound impact? To be certain, the Swazi government does not have the type of military or other capacity that the Gulf monarchies do to withstand massive political pressure. But we’ll have to wait and see whether or not frustration with poverty, financial mismanagement and some foreign inspiration will spark mobilization.