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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Swazis seek government and culture link

Donor nations are putting tremendous pressure on Swazis to renounce their king and adopt a Western model of democracy. However, if the industrialized world’s proclaimed respect for indigenous cultural beliefs is sincere, Swazis should be allowed to decide or adapt for themselves, picking and choosing what cultural traits they wish to retain or discard in their own good time.
James Hall

If this were an episode of “Star Trek” [an American science fiction television series in which the crew of a spaceship explores new planets and civilizations, but is prohibited from changing them in any way], the impulse of developed nations to meddle in the government of sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy would be prohibited by the “Prime Directive,” which forbids economically and technologically advanced peoples from imposing their will on less developed societies.

As of late, Western donor nations have linked further development aid to the implementation of democratic institutions in Swaziland on the grounds that democracy is good for Swazis whether Swazis like it or not much like a balking child must be spoon-fed a medicine that is good for him/her.

“Africans were colonized and our cultures destroyed by foreign powers who said they had the moral ‘right,’ under the guise of bringing religion to the ‘heathens,’ to run our lives for us,” says Thembi Simelane, a schoolteacher in Mbabane, when commenting on this trend being followed by Western donor nations. “You must excuse Swazis for not forsaking our king because democracy is fashionable.”

Modern Africa is both mystified that this small nation of less than one million people should retain a monarchical government in the 21st century, and admiring that Swazis’ devotion to their traditions has allowed them to retain their culture through the eras of colonialism and now market-oriented consumerism.

The current debate over the preservation of indigenous cultures is usually framed in terms of environmental threats or economic developments that may undermine a marginal people’s way of life. But a paradox exists in the cultural preservation agenda: What if aspects of a culture violate generally accepted notions of human rights, and are fundamentally at odds with Western values and morals?

Left on their own, endangered cultures would feel no need to address such concerns. But cultures from Papua New Guinea to the Amazon rain forests are endangered simply because they have no power to ensure their own preservation; they will remain coherent societies only through the dispensation of the developed world. As it is clearly demonstrated in Swaziland, the developed world can take a “smorgasbord” approach to cultural preservation, choosing what it wishes to retain, while seeking to end practices the industrialized world considers objectionable.

In Swaziland, visitors are enamoured by the elaborate kingship pageants: the month-long petitioning of the national ancestral spirits (Incwala); the Reed Dance where thousands of picturesquely half-naked maidens pay homage to the Queen Mother (Umhlanga); and the warriors’ ritualistic royal hunt (Butimba). While the pageants are being carried out, the international community pressures Swazis to replace their monarchy, heedless that without an authoritative king, the cultural pageants would be meaningless.

“The Incwala is not staged so tourists can take snapshots,” says Mduduzi Maseko, a 26-year-old member of King Mswati’s warrior regiments. “It is what keeps our country together. It is a way Swazis affirm we are Swazis.”

Swazis such as Maseko fear that talk of democracy is really an attempt by industrialised countries to create a uniformed world citizenry that are docile consumers of goods, and that gives no greater value to Swazis’ culture-affirming customs than the service they provide to the global tourism industry.

The Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA) consisting of labour unions and banned political opposition parties (outlawed by royal decree since 1973) seeks a constitutional monarchy within a democratic framework, as is the case in Great Britain, the colonial power that administered Swaziland until independence in 1968.

This sounds reasonable to developed countries and donor organisations of the industrialised world, which have tacitly supported the SDA’s agenda by placing political strings on assistance and trade agreements. Swaziland’s position in the U.S. Generalised System of Preference, on which the kingdom’s export industries largely depend, is conditioned on a “commitment to democracy.”

“By all definitions, democracy means government by the people, with elections to choose national leadership,” says Jan Sithole, secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions.

But traditionalists in and out of royal government are aghast at the idea that the Swazi king must yield power to his subjects. “Who will dance the Incwala?” asked Prince Vovo, King Mswati’s older brother, when quizzed about the return of political parties to govern. “Who will the ancestors endow with wisdom to lead the Swazi nation?”

Swazi kings are not considered divine by their subjects, unlike the Pharaohs or Caesars of old, but they are respected as conduits for the nation’s ancestral spirits that guide and bring good fortune to the nation. Petitioning the ancestors is the object of the Incwala pageant. Tied to this belief is Swazis’ view that their kings are indispensable to national preservation.

History tends to agree. Of all the Bantu people of Southern Africa, only the Swazis passed through the era of colonial domination with their culture intact, including the unrivalled power of the Swazi king over his subjects.

“The Xhosa, Zulus and others were oppressed under apartheid in South Africa, and lost their way,” says Member of Parliament Clement Dlamini. “The Shangaans lost their culture to communism in Mozambique, and the Basotho lost their king, so there was civil war in Lesotho. Only the Swazis have kept to their path, through the wisdom of their kingdom.

United Nations Charter on Human Rights (to which Swaziland is a signatory), including freedom of assembly and speech. But if Swazis are upset by these restrictions, they do not show it. Swazis remain loyal to the monarchy, and suspicious of political reformers. At the heart of their suspicion is a fear that democratisation will undermine the quasi-religious authority of the king.

“Swazi royalists have lost some credibility by manipulating a new constitution so they can retain palace power, when a legitimate polling of Swazis if it had been undertaken would have found support for this anyway, and by refusing opposition parties the right to assemble and propagate, which would should how little following the banned parties really have,” says one Swazi political commentator who writes for the independent Times of Swaziland.

Few knowledgeable Swaziland observers would contradict his view that if a referendum were to be held, Swazis would overwhelming endorse the monarchical system.

The international community has the power to impose its ideas of democracy on Swazis, regardless of their own cultural beliefs, under the pretext that Swazis are too oppressed to freely confirm the developed world’s opinion about monarchies, or, as the foreign media tends to opine when reporting about the country, are too immature to know what is good for them.

But if the industrialized world’s proclaimed respect for indigenous cultural beliefs is sincere, Swazis should be allowed to decide or adapt for themselves, picking and choosing what cultural traits they wish to retain or discard in their own good time.

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