Domestic and international calls for a national dialogue in eSwatini are growing as the leadership in Africa’s only absolute monarchy, under King Mswati III, grapples with the sociopolitical crisis that continues to fester following last year’s intense pro-democracy protests.
The death of a law student – who many allege was killed by the police – sparked widespread protests last summer and led three members of parliament to petition for a democratically elected prime minister. The message was clear: the demonstrators wanted democratic reforms and an end to the absolute monarchy.
With no comprehensive strategy to address these longstanding demands for democracy, the government continues to deflect and fall back on a hardline approach of intimidation: stifling voices of dissent, arresting protest leaders and deploying security forces to crack down on demonstrators and perceived troublemakers.
The protests and the security-centred response have led to violence, death, destruction of property – and even cross-border tensions, with attempts to blockade the South African border due to sympathetic support from some in the neighbouring country.
All of which makes critical the introduction of democratic reforms in eSwatini (known as Swaziland until 2018). These reforms will, in the short-term, defuse the current sociopolitical tensions and over time build more resilient and accountable institutions.
Other popular monarchies that have moved to democracies with accountable governance show it is possible. From the mid 20th century in Bhutan, a succession of kings played a proactive role in introducing democratic reforms that led to a constitutional monarchy: executive power was invested in a cabinet of elected officials and the monarch acted as the head of state.
By relinquishing some power, then, King Mswati would enlarge the institutional circle of power, responsibility and accountability. In this way, proactively leading democratic reforms will not only probably preserve the monarchy but will protect its long-term viability and popularity among the population.
Last year’s tensions were initially defused by a ministerial delegation from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), urgently dispatched to Mbabane in early July 2021. The political and diplomatic role SADC has taken shows just how important sociopolitical cohesion and stability are for the region.
Following the visit to eSwatini by SADC delegates, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in November 2021, and King Mswati agreed to an inclusive national dialogue to address the political upheaval.
A key lingering issue, however, has been the form that the dialogue should take, as pro-democracy groups have rejected the Sibaya – a traditional platform through which citizens’ views are brought before a national gathering at the King’s kraal. This scepticism stems from concerns that the Sibaya has been compromised over the years – exposing it to potential manipulation by the establishment to further entrench the monarchy’s power and authority – and is no longer a legitimate instrument for open dialogue.
SADC’s continued mediation faces several challenges. There is little evidence of political will on the part of eSwatini’s leadership. No regional precedent or blueprint for a process involving an executive monarchy or other constitutional neotraditional structures exists. Complicating matters further are allegations of foreign meddling and a regime change agenda behind what is now being referred to as eSwatini’s ‘winter revolution’.
Towards a national dialogue
A golden rule for constructive national dialogue is that it is nationally led and owned. However, in eSwatini a few key challenges constrain the process. The country’s political leadership lacks the trust of the people. Independent political institutions are at best weak, at worst not designed to perform their democratic accountability and oversight roles.
The power balance between the king and the pro-democracy groups is asymmetrical. The king lacks strong incentives to loosen his grip on power and authority. And, importantly, a strong, organic grassroots movement for reforms doesn’t appear to extend beyond the country’s main capital cities.
Although pro-democracy groups represented by civil society and political groups are leading the call for governance reforms, it is important to expand the pool of consultations to involve other key national stakeholders, including traditionalists, women and young people.
Cultural, historical and financial links with the South African economic and governing elite are practical aspects that should be considered. Given the deep ties between the countries, South Africa and its governing ANC should invest in long-term peace and stability in eSwatini.
The international community can be an important guarantor of a genuine process, support more effective local participation, and bolster national ownership. The approach must be coordinated, integrated, and sensitive enough to mitigate the risks of the process being manipulated for other purposes.
It is only within a constitutional order that the institution of the monarchy can be safeguarded and sustainably protected. As father of the nation, it is incumbent upon King Mswati to show honest and proactive leadership – and be ready to shed some of his absolute power in the long-term interest of his people and future monarchs.