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Tiny mountain kingdom is a land of contrasts between royalty and the poor.
Political parties are effectively banned under the constitution introduced in 2005, which concentrates power in the hands of the king, his inner circle of advisors, handpicked ministers and traditional chiefs. Government supporters say this system, known as "tinkhundla," combines western-style democracy with African traditions and is needed to preserve national unity and the distinct Swazi culture.
The opposition, which includes labor unions, human rights campaigners and church leaders, as well as the banned political parties, reject those arguments. They say the system amounts to a royal dictatorship, stifling dissent and allowing corruption and cronyism to flourish while the country languishes in poverty and AIDS spreads unabated.
Despite the discontent, respect for Swaziland’s royal customs run deep in this tiny mountainous nation squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique (see map below). The landlocked country covers just 6,700 square miles, making it about the size of New Jersey. The ancestors of the current monarch carved out an independent kingdom in the 18th century. Even among the government’s most outspoken critics, it’s hard to find people calling for the overthrow of the monarchy.
“Political parties can coexist with the monarchy as long as the monarchy is a constitutional monarch that is not above the law,” says Jan Sithole, general secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions. “The king should reign but not rule, and the party which has the majority should set up government.”
In the face of protests against the birthday celebrations, the royal authorities have tightened their grip. The king reappointed hard-line Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini in October. The following month, Dlamini implemented a new anti-terrorism act granting sweeping powers to the police in response to an alleged bomb attack on a road bridge near the royal palace.
The leader of the opposition People’s United Democratic Movement, Mario Masuko, was arrested under the new law and remains in jail. Strikes and student demos have been violently broken up by police. Union leaders are routinely hauled in for police questioning. Opposition figures say they are denied passports and their children refused scholarships.
In early March, the prime minister announced that civil servants belonging to political parties would be rooted out by the Special Branch and forced to renounce their party allegiance or lose their jobs. Days later, police banned a rally organized by church leaders to demand the government keep a pledge to introduce free primary school education.
Many Swazis complain their country gets little attention from abroad. With international pressure, they say, the government would be forced to reform.
“This is a very small and vulnerable economy,” says Bishop Meshack Mabuza, the country’s top Anglican clergyman. “I don’t see it lasting even for a month with pressure from outside economically, so let us rejoice and pray that this pressure will increase.”
Paul Ames traveled to Swaziland to report for the International Trade Union Confederations publication, "Union View."
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