Women’s right to register property is perhaps a small but important victory in Africa’s last absolute kingdom, which until 2005 defined women as inferior. But it does not solve a growing economic and political crisis, living its own life in the shadow of the crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, the democracy movement is strongly moving, and deserves stronger international attention and solidarity.
Swaziland is considered a lower middle-income country, but has an extremely uneven distribution of resources. Economic growth has been around 2 percent in recent years, which is lower than neighboring countries. The country’s economy is closely linked to South Africa. It also means that although the country is on the periphery of the global economy, Swaziland also felt the impact of the global financial crisis.
The HIV / AIDS epidemic is a serious impediment to Swaziland’s economy, in addition to the human suffering associated with the disease. Swaziland is one of the hardest hit countries in Africa. In addition, the country is experiencing a sustained food crisis, partly due to prolonged drought and failed crops. The food situation improved somewhat in 2009, but the World Food Program estimated that 260,000 people needed food help.
A little outside the city of Manzini is the industrial area of Matsapha, where there are a number of textile factories established after 2000. The construction of the textile industry has provided some new jobs, but wages are low, working conditions difficult and the right to organize in the workplace limited. The authorities have also failed to build housing for workers, who thus settle in informal settlements near the workplace. In addition, the textile industry has proved to be non-competitive and has experienced a sharp decline since 2005. Both jobs and large revenues have been lost.
Fight for Democratic Reforms The
Swaziland Constitution of 2005 has not established a sufficient framework for real democratization. The tension between the traditional Thinkundla system, which means, among other things, that parliamentary elections take place partly through the election of leaders of local chiefdoms and partly by the appointment of the king, on the one hand, and the demand for multi-party democracy on the other, characterize the political situation. Elections were held in 2008, an election that was heavily criticized by the Pan-African Parliament Observation and the Commonwealth Expert Team, among others. SADC, on the other hand, declared the election free and fair, despite the fact that the process violated several of SADC’s own guidelines.
Swaziland has a strong civil society, and many organizations joined in 2008 in the umbrella of the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF, see ABBREVIATIONFINDER). But the conditions for the democracy movement have become more difficult. There are reports of ongoing human rights violations, persecution and arrest of oppositionists, and failure to implement the international labor conventions formally adhered to by the country.
In November 2008, Mario Masuku, leader of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), was arrested, accused of terrorism. This happened shortly after the authorities declared PUDEMO a terrorist organization, based on a new anti-terror law passed after the bombing of a bridge that year. Critics believe the authorities are using the new terrorist law to persecute and arrest oppositionists. Political parties are still not allowed, and in 2009 the authorities threatened to kick government employees who were members of political parties and movements. Masuku was released in September 2009, but in connection with the release new attacks on activists were reported. There have also been several reports of arrests and attacks in the spring of 2010.
The Mail and Guardian newspaper has described Swaziland as a diplomatic Achilles heel for South African President Jacob Zuma. Zuma is said to have a close friendship with King Mswati, and they share the view of the importance of African tradition and culture. At the same time, Zuma is under pressure from the trade union movement Cosatu and the Communist Party SACP, which are critical of the regime and work closely with opposition groups in the country. The trade union movement Cosatu has particularly marked itself as a supporter of the trade union movement in Swaziland.
In Swaziland, about 25 percent currently live in urban areas, and urbanization is increasing. Mbabane is the largest city, closely followed by Manzini, which is the commercial center. The corridor between these two city centers has been central to development plans in recent years, supported by the World Bank, among other things. This means new opportunities for economic development, but also increased marginalization and more or less forced displacement of the poor. In 2006, a number of informal settlements around Manzini were removed by bulldozers. Another informal settlement was threatened immediately to make room for the expansion of the king’s palace in the area.
Traditional ownership structures make planned urban development difficult, partly because traditional leaders distribute land in the outskirts of cities. In the countryside, land distribution is used by chieftains to strengthen their own position by giving more people the opportunity to run self-storage farms. In the urban boundary zone, the areas instead become the basis for informal settlements for those who have or are seeking employment in the cities. Most of these settlements lack basic services such as water and electricity and sewage.
Gender equality: Small steps, major obstacles
In the constitution that was passed in 2005, women’s rights were formally recognized, but it is still a long canvas to bleach. Women make up 67 percent of the very poorest, those living under a dollar a day. They are also hit hardest by the HIV / AIDS epidemic, both by being infected themselves and because the burden of care when other household members fall ill falls on their shoulders.
Swaziland is the source and transit country for trafficking of women and children. Trafficking is linked both to the sex industry and to forced labor as a housekeeper or in agriculture (where young boys are also affected). According to the US Embassy, the authorities have done very little with the phenomenon, but are now preparing new legislation – apparently in response to the country being on the US blacklist for countries with a high degree of trafficking.
But small positive changes are happening. In the spring of 2010, a sentencing ruling stated that women have the right to register property in their own name. However, the court applies only to women who are married in a civil ceremony, and not to those who are married by traditional marriage. This underlines a major challenge for the reform process, where five years after the new constitution, existing legislation with roots in traditional structures as well as in the colonial era has still not been changed. Women activists therefore demand a new marriage law.
Swaziland is a country in deep crisis, with no response from neighboring governments or international donors. However, the struggle for democratic reform has received a little more attention lately. Perhaps there are small steps towards stronger international pressure on Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
Area: 17 364 km2 (48th largest)
Population: 1.2 million
Population density: 67 per km2
Urban population: 25 percent
Largest city: Mbabane – approx. 78 000
GDP per capita: USD 2369
Economic growth: 2.6 percent
HDI Position: 142