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Swazis debate system of government

Controversy rages as to whether the country should adopt a parliamentary democracy and discard the monarchy with its attendant traditions.
James Hall

Swazis have always taken pride in their nation’s preservation of traditional life, from the small matters of daily living to national governance by sub-Saharan Africa’s only king to rule a country. There is good reason for such pride. Other African people may lament that their traditions, languages and way of life face extinction in the face of modernity, but Swazis have always taken comfort in a cultural conservation that makes them almost unique on a changing continent.

This is the flip side to news stories of political controversy that appear with increasing frequency out of this small nation, where less than one million people live. The landlocked kingdom has a long memory, and leadership is pursuing a land-return programme to obtain areas given by 19th century colonial British authorities to South Africa. If successful, the monarchy would extend to the Indian Ocean, over what is now Kwa Zulu Natal.

"That will never happen, because those people of South Africa would never go back to become subjects of the monarch after living a decade as citizens of a democracy," political activist Obed Dlamini told Africanews.

Dlamini, a former prime minister who shocked the royal family of which he is a member by becoming the president of a banned political party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, feels the days of traditional leadership are finished.

Many Swazis fear that if the traditional leadership, headed by King Mswati III goes, then the traditional way of life they know is doomed. "We don’t want to be like South Africans, who are fighting all the time in political parties," Balolonja Ngwenya, a headman of a royal warrior regiment said. "That is why Swazi kings worked for so long to keep us from being incorporated into South Africa. We are one people because of our kings."

Indeed, some South Africans who would become Mswati’s subjects if the unlikely happens and their lands are returned to Swaziland feel a nostalgic longing for African traditional life as exemplified by Swazi culture. "That is a peaceful country. You can feel it when you drive across the border," says Donald Kunene, a resident of the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

But when the prospect of incorporation into Swaziland was the subject of serious talks between both nations 20 years ago, South Africans who would be affected let it be known that an actual return to the Swazi state would be a step back from their lives of modernity.

In Swaziland today, progressive groups feel traditional life is keeping them from obtaining the political maturity enjoyed by South Africans and other African nations that have achieved democracy during the past decade.

"We love our king, but we wish to see him as a cultural symbol within a democratic political system, like the crowned heads of Europe," says Phineas Magagula, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.

To royal loyalists, the word "symbol" means nothing more than a powerless figurehead. "If the king is reduced to a doll, who will look after Swazi culture?", Prince Mfanisibili Dlamini put it rhetorically. 80 per cent of the Swazi people live as their ancestors lived, within chieftaincies headed by chiefs appointed by the king. To anthropologists, they are "landless peasants."

Swazis, however, think of themselves as part of a communal system. "Every Swazi has the right to petition a chief for a place to raise his family. He is given a field to plough, land to build a home, and pasture land for his cattle," Mfanisibili explained.

The system faces challenges from two key fronts: environmental and political. Because of the nation’s population growth - at 2.9 per cent annually Swaziland has one of the highest birthrates in the world - the chiefs have run out of land to distribute. Secondly, Swazis who show disrespect, which includes joining political organisations in opposition to royal rule, face eviction from ancestral lands.

This occurred when King Mswati awarded his older brother, Prince Maguga Dlamini, with the prize of two chieftaincies. The two chiefs already installed, who were summarily fired by the palace, were popular with their communities, and their loyal subjects refused to recognise the prince’s authority. In a midnight raid that still has human rights groups up in arms, police and army personnel rounded up the people, and transported them 100 km to an open field, where after two years some still stay without proper shelter or means of livelihood. Their children do not go to school, and international aid agencies see to their needs.

"The brutality faced by those folk came out of a people’s natural desire to have a say in how they are governed. This is what is known as democracy," said teachers union head Magagula. But a palace source explained the need for firmness. "If people do not respect the king’s choice of chief, they are defying his authority. How can this be allowed to happen? Swazi life is based on respect for the king’s decisions."

Swaziland’s culture is intertwined with its political system. A survey by the Council of Swaziland Churches estimated that most Swazis hold to traditional beliefs like ancestral worship. The monarchy’s power is also believed to be rooted in the ancestors. The month-long kingship pageant called the "Incwala", which occurs each year around Christmas, finds the royal family and thousands of commoners assembled at Ludzidzini royal village for a national prayer. A growing middle class of educated professionals seeks the conveniences and status symbols of modern life. The middle class was the result of a push for education that has characterised government’s post-Independence policies. Ironically, educated and affluent Swazis are more likely to embrace ideas of democracy, and reject a royal system of national governance. "We want to vote the leadership of our choice into office, and change them if they let us down," said Miriam Dube, a Manzini housewife.

But Supporters of royalty shake their heads at what they consider foolish notions influenced by foreign ideologies. "The ‘Incwala’ is performed for the king, not for every politician. The ancestors have shown how they want us to live," said a palace source. To which unionist Magagula replied, "Let the dead bury their dead. It is the living who must decide how they are to be governed."

Swazis have retained their traditional life for centuries, and as a result such cultural spectacles as the maidens’ annual reed dance is a tourism magnet for Europeans thrilled to see "the real Africa." How flexible these traditions can be will determine whether they will survive much longer.

Modernity is about individualism, while Swazi traditional life is about collective beliefs shared by all, who agree to abide by a king’s wisdom and would not dare question his authority. This clash of philosophies has been played out all over the world. Now it is Swaziland’s turn.

"I am sure the Swazi king will remain, because Swazi kings have always been loved by the people," said a labour leader. "The problem is that in a monarchy a king depends on advisors, and King Mswati’s government appointees are letting him down."

The answer is reform, supporters of democracy argue, but not the wholesale rejection of traditional beliefs. "The ancestors will still look down upon us, and guide us, but it is time we became responsible for ourselves," Magagula said

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