New name but much of the same in eSwatini elections
iplomatic tongues wagged at the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York last week about Phindile Nkambule, the young, beautiful wife by King Mswati III’s side. In contrast, there was little excitement about the absolute monarchy’s five-yearly general elections on 21 September. The 50-year-old king has been on the throne since 1986 and retains an absolute grip through a mix of traditional beliefs, patronage, and actual political power.
The country tag in the UN’s assembly hall read “eSwatini”, Swaziland's new name announced by the king in April to mark its 50 years of independence from British rule. A court is currently deciding whether he was constitutionally allowed to change the name.
Elections in eSwatini are run according to the Tinkhundla system, which allows individuals to campaign for elections, and leaves no room for political parties. The primary elections take place in the chiefdoms and the secondary elections in the tinkhundlas (constituencies). Pro-democracy activists have criticised the Tinkhundla system for being "backward, oppressive and conservative", and offering virtually unlimited authority to the king while undermining basic democratic principles. The system also does not conform to the Southern Africa Development Community's and the African Union's guidelines governing democratic elections.
Despite declaring eSwatini’s August 18 and September 21 primary and secondary elections days peaceful, the African Union (AU) Elections Observer Mission in its preliminary report recommended that King Sobhuza II’s 1973 decree, which dissolved and outlawed political parties, be reviewed. The country should “allow parties to freely participate in the electoral process in accordance with provisions of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance”, the AU mission urged. It made the same appeal five years ago, but recommendations like these continue to be ignored.
Opposition parties have been left in the lurch about their right to campaign, although those that try to don regalia have suffered clampdowns. Protests are also restricted, and the police responded violently to strike action by nurses and teachers just before the elections.
In a recent court case, the Swazi Democratic Party (Swadepa) leader, Jan Sithole, wanted to force clarity on the issue after the court held in an earlier case he brought that “there is nothing in the Constitution that debars a member of a political party from seeking election as an independent individual and, once elected, joining up with others who think similarly to operate as a unit”.
This judgment, however, did not relate specifically to the nature and extent of political party participation in electoral politics, or the extent of the rights of freedom of expression and association of candidates for the election.
Fearing arrest, candidates still erred on the side of caution.
“Real power vests in the king and his word counts and overrules parliament. Being an MP in my country is just having a sexy job with a bit of power."
Sithole’s case in both the High Court and the Supreme Court was dismissed on procedural grounds without an opportunity to air the merits of the case. “This runs contrary to jurisprudence in constitutional matters where courts are normally enjoined to hear matters where rights violations are alleged, even if the procedural grounds for bringing such a matter might be flawed in some respect,” the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), which was involved in the case, remarked in its report.
Sithole formed Swadepa in 2011 and in 2013 was elected MP in the Manzini North inkhundla (constituency). He became the sole House of Assembly representative to openly associating himself with a political party.
Swadepa secretary general Sibongiseni Shabangu said the party has been pushing boundaries. “Ever since 2011 we’ve held meetings, and nobody has ever come to disturb or stop it. We have an office in Manzini,” he told the Africa Portal. “When we launched the party we were bold. We raised the Constitution, saying there is a bill of rights that allows us to exist.”
He also claimed that, unlike many other candidates who openly proffer gifts ranging from cabbages to scholarships to win votes, Sithole only offers a manifesto.
Swadepa’s plans to challenge the tinkhundla system from inside were cut short, however, when Sithole, who refrained from campaigning openly in party colours, lost his seat in the September elections to former environment and tourism minister, Macford Sibandze, who was sacked in 2012 for embezzling money from a hotel sale.
Shabangu believed the popular Sibandze was fielded by the king’s sympathisers to frustrate Sithole, and a court case to bar him from running after he moved from the inkhundla,was dismissed.
Swadepa is so far the only party to operate within the system. Mario Masuku, former leader of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), said his party preferred to stay outside altogether because “there isn’t anything like elections in Swaziland”. Candidates “must have the backup of the traditional structures and the security forces.” Primary elections started from the chiefdom. “If the chief is not happy about you, you will not go far,” he said.
Pudemo was declared a terrorist organisation by government in 2008 and banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. In 2016, the country's High Court ruled that the Act was unconstitutional, and the ban was overturned. A court was supposed to hear government’s appeal in September, but judges for the case could not be found.
The current electoral system and the concomitant opportunities for corruption were amongst the hindrances to women’s political participation, said gender consultant Sizakele Hlatshwayo in a pre-election report titled 'Breaking Barriers: Enhancing Swazi Women’s Participation and Representation in Decision-making' for the NGO Women and the Law in Southern Africa. Few women ran in the elections, and only one was elected.
Those interviewed for the report “agreed that the stringent laws and policies around this issue [of openly campaigning for a party] does open the space for corruption as kind of illegal practices are used by those interested in standing for elections to then ‘buy’ votes”. Women are often limited because they have less money.
eSwatini's patriarchal system and sexist cultural practices were amongst the other barriers Hlatshwayo obseved.
The AU mission noted that the Constitution stipulated quotas for “women and marginalised groups” in parliament. The Election of Women Act of 2018 was meant to address issues of women’s representation, and eSwatini has also committed to a number of regional and international instruments in this regard, but these were not adhered to.
Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation magazine in eSwatini, said although the law required the new parliament to elect four women from each region in the country, this wasn’t done in the 2013 elections and is unlikely to happen now. “They will do so if they receive a royal command to do so. Why they wouldn’t do it on their own is because they won’t know if doing so will offend the authorities.”
eSwatini's elections were about “legitimising the issue of people’s representation to the international community, particularly because people elect from grassroots directly to parliament on individual merit,” Makhubu said.
“Real power vests in the king and his word counts and overrules parliament. Being an MP in my country is just having a sexy job with a bit of power," he added.
Sibongile Mazibuko from the pan-Africanist Ngwane National Liberatory Congress’s women’s wing said patronage and fear kept people loyal to the king. “People have to choose between poverty and adhering to his demands, for example during the reed dance, it’s not just the giving out of ‘incentives’ like meat and sneakers,” she said. “They say if you’re not bringing your girl, you must pay a fine, for example a cow.”
For pro-democracy activists, there was one ray of hope around the elections. SALC’s Kajaal Ramjathan-Keogh said the outspokenness during the strikes by teachers, nurses and civil servants in the days ahead of the poll, was a first. “Anti-monarchy views came through strongly. It’s new for Swazis to protest and voice their opinion publicly,” she said. “It could mark a turning point in Swazi politics.”
(Main image: A Swazi woman looks at candidates pictures during eSwatini parliamentary elections on 21 September 2018 outside a polling station in Lobamba. Voters in the African kingdom of eSwatini, previously known as Swaziland, cast ballots on 21 September in an election where political parties are banned and winning candidates are sidelined by a monarch who wields absolute power. – Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)