September 5, 2011

The Kingdom Of Swaziland - Deeply Rooted In Africa's Past Yet In Need Of Space For Its New Democratic Roots

Why Protests Will Not Unseat Swaziland's King Mswati, BBC, September 5, 2011
Swaziland:  A Kingdom In Crisis, BBC, July 12, 2011

From 1980-1983 I served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher in the Kingdom of Swaziland, Southern Africa, a land-locked country about the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey.  It was my first time living and working Africa.  The Ministry of Education posted me to a rural government high school in the geographic transition zone between the high and middle veld regions.  The school, comprised of half boarders and half day scholars totaling six hundred students, was located on a steep hillside facing east, overlooking the Usutfu River flood plain.  Sunrises were spectacular and thunderstorms literally hair-raising.  I loved my job and got to know my community by visiting the homesteads of my students and meeting their parents.  This also facilitated my learning the Swazi language, Siswati, and the subtleties of Swazi culture.

Some of the Swazi friends I made, including some of the teachers at the school, would occasionally comment on the lack of democracy and corruption among the royal family and its government, but did so only with great discretion and never in the company of each other.

The difficulties Swaziland faces today - 25% HIV infection rate, two-thirds living in abject poverty - are much worse than they were when I lived there.  Also, my view of the country at that time was that of an outsider who was not confronted with the everyday social and economic challenges of my Swazi teacher colleagues.  I was very much enthralled by the richness of Swazi culture, past and present.  I therefore found it difficult to understand that, to many Swazis, democracy and civil liberties such as free speech, public assembly, and unions were so important.  That, in fact, the seriousness of their plight would one day lead them to speak out against the monarchy, the very institution that embodied the beliefs, values and spirit of what it means to be Swazi, an institution they had been willing for centuries to support and abide by despite the price they had to pay in terms of their freedoms.

The time has come when many Swazis, though their love of and devotion to their culture and history remains unwavering, have determined that the efforts of King Mswati III, son of King Sobhuza II who ruled from 1921-1981, to be the standard bearer of their culture and way of life and lead them into the 21st century have failed.  The lack of civil liberties and need for effective action to address the country's many problems have come to outweigh their willingness to put up with the excesses of Swazi royalty and its sycophants in government for the sake of showing respect for and loyalty to their history and culture.

The message of the burgeoning Swazi middle class is clear - we love our country and our culture, but if we are to sustain the monarchy and the governmental system currently in place, we must begin seeing social and economic improvements, now.  King Sobhuza, though greatly beloved by the vast majority and a charismatic and fatherly figure to most Swazis, was not averse to dealing with his people with force.  This and the stigmatization of anyone thought to be disloyal, unpatriotic, or disrespectful of Swazi culture were enough to keep the lid on the occasional rumblings among students and teachers for more freedoms and democracy.

Times are much more arduous now.  Swaziland, now with a population of 1.2 million, up from 700,000 when I was there, is very different from what it was in the early 1980s.  The middle class has grown in terms of numbers, education and relative income, something I observed on a return visit in the mid-1990s.  This happened concurrent with the beginning of a decrease in the health of the population, a decrease in buying power, and an increase in the availability of cellular phones, the Internet and social media.

King Mswati cannot help but begin to see that the methods of his father - repression and stigmatization - may not work much longer.  For the sake of this beautiful country, its wonderful people, and their ancient and time-tested culture let us hope His Majesty makes changes soon.  A titular and ceremonial monarchy as the repository for Swazi culture, customs and traditions alongside a separate parliamentary democracy seat of power, along the lines of the British system, is probably the most likely formula for Swaziland's future.  It would allow for a continuance of the monarchy, the opening up of the society, and the imbuing of the government with the power necessary to address the nation's social and economic problems.

The future direction of Swaziland lies in the mind and heart of King Mswati III in Lobamba, his royal village in the Ezulweni Valley.  The future itself, however, belongs to the people.  His majesty can make a decision that makes the transition easier and less disruptive, or he can continue on the course he is on and risk having the people make the decision for him, likely the most destructive choice of the two.

See also my earlier post:  "Swaziland Dissent - What Would King Sobhuza II Do?"

1 comment:

Immy Rose said...

Great overview of this great country which has been referred to as "the little Switzerland of Africa" in the past. The glory of its past should be protected.