King Mswati III is one of the few absolute monarchs in the world
An extraordinary event took place in Eswatini last year, when thousands of people joined demonstrations demanding political reform in the kingdom (formerly known as Swaziland), where public self-expression has been prohibited by law since 1973. In September, close to 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Manzini (the country’s second-largest city), wearing red sports shirts. The demonstration was organised under the strict control of the police. This was unprecedented. Political parties and pro-democracy groups have been prohibited by law in the kingdom of Eswatini for almost 50 years. When asked why, Swazis answer with a question: why should there be different ways of thinking when they have a king who thinks for all of us? He knows best.
Eswatini is a landlocked country ruled by King Mswati III, the absolute monarch of more than 1.3 million citizens. Traditionally, the government avoids politics and topics that could become political. At the same time, we know from the protestors that the leaders see the large number of demonstrators as a sign of the actual state of the country and a clear crisis. King Mswati III has been the reigning monarch by birthright since 1986, when he acceded to the throne after the death of his father, Sobhuza II. He is one of the few remaining absolute monarchs in the world. The independence of Eswatini is based on an agreement between 16 clan leaders, according to which the country is ruled by the leader of the Dlamini clan, as king. The current monarch does not seem to want to change his country at all. He is especially reluctant about political changes and reforms. It is known, however, that young Swazis want to live in a country where they can have a say in how their homeland is governed. They do not want to live in a state where everything depends on the whims of one man, the king.
Most of the population has not forgotten the events of 2008, when an anti-terrorist law was adopted, granting the state the legal right to arrest demonstrators. This is also part of the reason Swazis refrain from expressing their views. There is also the constant fear that someone might report them to the authorities or an adviser (clan representative), which might affect whether people receive aid the next time an international organisation sends a consignment. Not having your name on the list of aid recipients can mean starvation for the family. The care packages are essential due to constant food shortages and drought.
The contemporary history of modern Eswatini started just over 51 years ago with full independence from British rule, in place since the Second Boer War (1903). The current king changed the country’s name (“eSwatini” means “land of the Swazis”) to mark 50 years of independence. Due to its small physical size and economy and its location, Eswatini has always had close connections to its neighbours, South Africa and Mozambique. The economy is influenced by these countries. Eswatini is part of the Southern African Customs Union, and the country is especially dependent on the income gained through membership of this organisation. The kingdom’s GDP fell significantly in 2018. Efforts are being made to develop branches of the economy based on natural resources, but the process is very slow. The unemployment rate is high: up to 22.5% according to the most recent data. There are problems with education as well, despite the fact that the government funds primary education. After primary school, the student himself or his family must pay for education. The family also has to buy a school uniform, and every student must bring in enough firewood for preparation of the school lunch. This is one of the reasons why illiteracy and unemployment rates are on the rise in the kingdom.
According to IMF data, Eswatini’s economic growth will be only 0.4% in 2020. Most economic activity is expected to be in the services sector, as Eswatini’s small industry, mostly forestry, will die out as forests are cut down at a very high rate. A crucial part of the country’s labour market is connected to forestry. For example, old-growth forest is processed at high speed, loaded onto trucks and taken across the border to ports from where the wood is exported across the world (mostly to Japan, where this precious wood is used for making well-known and popular items).
The more pressing financial problems in Eswatini are connected with substantial fluctuations in the exchange rate. The Eswatini lilangeni (SZL) depends heavily on the South African rand; in reality, the country uses the two currencies simultaneously. However, the lilangeni is worthless across the border, as only the rand is accepted in South Africa. All locals know this, as they often cross the border into Eswatini to purchase everyday items at significantly lower prices. Many younger people work in South Africa, especially in the mines, where young men are needed. Now that gold mines have been reopened in Eswatini, people hope they will no longer need to travel abroad for work, as wages in the gold mines are good and this allows young men to stay in their homeland.
The country’s economic plan for 2019–22 stresses the need to develop infrastructure and agriculture. The aim is noble, but with the country seriously affected by climate change—mostly drought—this plan might be difficult to execute, as the population is highly dependent on agriculture. During the last drought, many farm animals died, and the people were also badly affected.
Another big issue is the non-existent national social security system. The state does not regularly help people in need, including those who have reached retirement age. Retirement starts at 60, but a person who has reached that age must go to hell and back to prove to the government that he or she has the right to receive a pension. The process may take more than a year. Pensions are paid quarterly, not at regular intervals. A citizen can get in contact with the authorities if they have an ID card, which many do not have. The citizens’ connection to the state is thus rather tenuous. There might be various reasons why a person does not have a card; for example, their parents may not have had one, making it impossible for the state to verify the person’s identity after the parents’ death. The person might live very far from the authorities, and his/her birth might not have been registered, although birth certification is free in the first year of a baby’s life.
It is well known that revenue from progressive income tax, as well as income from customs duties on trade, is very important for the government. The country is in a constant fiscal crisis, which the more courageous critics link to the king and his extravagant lifestyle. In plans and public speeches, the kingdom supports economic development, especially small businesses. But the everyday reality visible to the local population is different. Unfortunately, the economy is backward. That is why the king’s 15 wives are in the spotlight, as well as the fact that he has the right and opportunity to take more. The king’s brides (wives to be) are also often underage. The general public is irritated by the fact that a year ago a new family law was passed that prohibits marrying an underage person, but the king is above the law.
The country has struggled for decades with the high number of HIV-positive people, and efforts to curb the problem have been below par despite the campaigns of international organisations, including Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. Some 16% of the population has a confirmed HIV-positive diagnosis, and 86% of these must take regular medication to extend their life expectancy. However, there is no obligation to go to the local clinic for help; most people believe in local gods and seek help from animist witches, although, according to official statistics, the vast majority of the population is Christian. That is why the ill mostly rely on folk medicine and do not bother with the clinic.
Poverty is everywhere in Eswatini. According to evaluations by international organisations, 39.7% of the population survives on less than one US dollar per day. Most households are sustained by women or underage children. By World Bank and ILO parameters, this economic condition is appalling.
How does the country move on from here? The king has started to make slow but encouraging small changes. One clear sign of this is the government, which was formed in late 2018 and includes white people with a business background in addition to natives, as it was exclusively before. A shining example is the finance minister, who has business experience and a reputation for telling it like it is. He has informed the general public about the real state of the country and options for moving forward. For most of the population, this still means increasing poverty.
On the other hand, another tax increase is in the works, and it was notified that the government is unable to provide financial aid. There is still hope that the minister’s plans could be popular in the royal circle, as this would mean a better understanding of the country’s problems. The pleasant weather conditions could create good opportunities in the future for tourism and other economic sectors. It remains to be seen which will prevail—industrialisation or an ethnic culture that dates back thousands of years.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.