Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Swaziland lies in south-eastern Africa, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique.
The following account is a summary of the history provided by the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs in its country profile of Swaziland (October 2007).
The people of the present Swazi nation migrated south before the 16th century to what is now Mozambique. Driven back by the more powerful Zulu, they gradually moved northwards in the 1800 to establish themselves on the territory of modern Swaziland.
South Africa administered Swaziland from 1894 until 1902, then the British from 1902. In the early years of colonial rule, the British had expected that Swaziland would eventually be incorporated into South Africa. After World War II, however, South Africa’s intensification of racial discrimination induced the United Kingdom to prepare Swaziland for independence. In 1966, the U.K. Government agreed to discuss a new constitution. A constitutional committee agreed on a constitutional monarchy for Swaziland, with self-government to follow parliamentary elections in 1967. Swaziland became independent on September 6, 1968.
But strong challenges from the opposition led King Sobhuza to repeal the 1968 constitution on April 12, 1973 and dissolved parliament. He assumed all powers of government and prohibited all political activities and trade unions from operating. He justified his actions as having removed alien and divisive political practices incompatible with the Swazi way of life. In January 1979, a new parliament was convened, chosen partly through indirect elections and partly through direct appointment by the King.
In 1988 and 1989, an underground political party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) criticized the King and his government, calling for democratic reforms. In response to this political threat and to growing popular calls for greater accountability within government, the King and the Prime Minister initiated an ongoing national debate on the constitutional and political future of Swaziland. This debate produced a handful of political reforms, approved by the King, including direct and indirect voting, in the 1993 national elections.
Main languages: siSwati, English, Tsonga
Main religions: Christianity, traditional beliefs
Minority groups include Zulus, Shangaan, Europeans and Asians.
There are no up-to-date figures for different groups. Ethnologue (1993) states Swazis 650,000, Tsonga 19,000, Zulu 76,000 (1993).
Swaziland is an absolute monarchy. There is a parliament – but the real power lies with the king. In February 2006, the country’s first constitution for 30 years took effect. However many trades unions and civil society groups protested at its provisions, claiming it retained some of the most anti-democratic aspects of the old system, namely, it did not dilute the monarchy’s power. There are sporadic attempts to draw attention to the archaic system of governance in Swaziland – often by blockading the border crossings into neighbouring South Africa. King Mswati III took the throne upon the death of his father in 1986, and has since gained a reputation for lavish living in a country with the lowest life expectancy in the world. Over 21 per cent of the population is HIV positive. The government maintains control over all radio and television broadcasters, with exception of one Christian network.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Swaziland Action Group against Abuse
Tel: + 268 505 75 14
Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions
Tel: + 268 505 65 75
Sources and further reading
Amnesty International, Swaziland: Human Rights at Risk in a Climate of Political and Legal Uncertainty, 2004.