The secret behind a peaceful kingdom
So, what is the secret of the Swazis’ peacefulness? “It isn’t that we are necessarily a pacific people, because we do have crime and some conflict within our borders. But, no, Swazis have not gone to war in many generations,” said the former head of Swaziland’s army, the Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force, Brigadier General Fonono Dube.
Dube, who began his career as a school headmaster, is an historian in his retirement from military service, and has collected many unwritten stories from the nation’s past.
“The last battle the Swazi regiments engaged in with their traditional fighting instruments was against the Pedi tribe that was troubling the British. The British asked the Swazis to flush out the Pedi warriors from a mountain redoubt, because the Swazis’ bravery and fighting skills were renown,” said Dube.
The Swazi king agreed to assist the British to secure a European ally in the fluctuating power struggles of the sub-continent, in which the white Afrikaner (Boar) leaders in neighbouring South Africa threatened to take over Swazi lands.
Diplomacy, then, is the secret to Swazis’ success at avoiding war with other, superior, African powers. “When you are the smallest country in Africa, with the fewest number of people, you are vulnerable. You must make alliances with others to survive,” said a retired Swazi diplomat.
The British did remember Swazis’ assistance against the Pedi, in that ultimately successful campaign, and from 1902 to national independence in 1968, governed Swaziland as a Protected Territory. But it was a bitter period, which saw two-thirds of Swazi lands given by the protectors to South Africa, under the assumption that all of Swaziland would one day be absorbed into the powerful country that surrounds landlocked Swaziland on three sides.
Swazi diplomacy blocked that move. When apartheid, or the official separation of races and oppression of black nations, became government policy in South Africa, King Sobhuza noted that the annexation of Swaziland into South Africa would put a formerly free people into bondage under a racist system. The British had to agree.
Swazi men were trained as modern soldiers to fight with the Allied Forces against the British in World Wars I and II, but Swazis never raised weapons against other Africans.
From independence in 1968 through the democratisation of South Africa in 1994, Swaziland was viewed as an island of peace in a tumultuous Southern African subcontinent that saw proxy and civil wars raging in Angola and Mozambique, coups in Lesotho and Madagascar, a war for liberation in Rhodesia, prolonged minority rule in Southwest Africa, bloody oppressive measures executed by dictatorships in other countries and apartheid in South Africa.
Swaziland absorbed refuges from Mozambique and South Africa in huge tent camps dootted around the tiny country. But what of the internal situation? Here, too, Swazis prefer peaceful solutions for political problems. “True, there was a firebombing of Parliament in 1995, and a government building was bombed in 1998, killing a security guard, but these acts in retrospect appear to have been isolated, and not part of a consistent campaign. No one ever claimed ‘credit’ for the bombings,” said political observer Sifiso Dlamini.
Pressure for political reform in Swaziland has led to some street demonstrations by trade unions, but these too have not grown into a popular movement. Banned political parties grumble that they should have a right to exist, but do not mount large-scale demonstrations to show the extent of their followings, if any. “Swazis would rather talk than fight,” said Dlamini.
Even today, the people of the largely rural nation (80 per cent of Swazis reside on communal Swazi Nation Land under chiefs) meet weekly to discuss community affairs with the local band of elders. On a national level, King Mswati calls the people to attend dialogues, and meetings that deal with specific topics at the national cattle byre at Ludzidzini royal village, 20 km east of Mbabane. Next month, Swazis will meet to discuss a proposed national constitution.
“Swaziland is still small enough so that everyone who has something to say can be heard. This may lead to paralysis – a lot of talk, but no action – but it is the Swazi way of doing things, and the people like it,” said Dlamini.
Lately, the nation has tried to export the dialogue approach to other nations on the continent. Swazi diplomats have participated in peace talks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.
Last year, King Mswati hosted an international dialogue session for British Commonwealth heads of state that was attended by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, Botswana President Festus Mogae, the prime minister of Malaysia, and other leaders.
“The Swazi way of sitting down, and talking over differences is nothing different than the founding principal of the United Nations. The African Union and other international bodies function on the same philosophy. Even labour negotiations do. The key is to get people to meet face to face, and be open about speaking and listening,” said the former Swazi diplomat.
In Swaziland’s case, diplomacy may have been the only option. The Swazi warriors never laid down their arms, but evolved into a modern army, albeit it a small one that is no threat to its neighbours’ armies. But war with larger, stronger nations was always out of the question.
“When Shaka Zulu’s impis were on the warpath in the 1820s, the Swazis feared they would overrun our land. The king had the entire nation move to the central part of the country, to be prepared to take refuge in caves if attack should come. It never did, because Shaka’s brothers assassinated him. But it was the reason why the Swazis allied themselves with the British, as protection against another threat from the Zulus to the east,” said historian Dube.
Today, there is no place left to run to escape attack. Diplomacy and dialogue are the foundation for Swaziland’s enduring peace. But with no place, really, for other African nations to run either, the Swazi philosophy may be the only realistic mode for conflict resolution on the continent.