With the world’s attention focused on the uprisings across the Gulf and North Africa, another pro-democracy movement has been gathering pace, far away in southern Africa. This one was also put down with violence, but has inspired hope that it may have shifted the basis of politics – at least in part – in this region forever.
This is Swaziland. A mountainous and generally peaceful country, it lies between South Africa and Mozambique and has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. Mswati III is one of the world’s wealthiest monarchs and maintains a royal household of 14 wives in considerable luxury. Meanwhile, two-thirds of his 1.2 million subjects live on less than US$1 a day and are struggling to cope with the effects of the world’s highest HIV infection rate.
The Swazi government suppressed the Facebook-inspired “April 12 uprising” with violence – and, as a result, may now have forced opposition activists in Africa’s last absolute monarchy to revisit their tactics. The much-advertised uprising failed to live up to its billing and was unable, but maybe only for now, to extend North Africa’s Jasmine Revolution into southern Africa.
Swaziland’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Lutfo Dlamini, has branded the brutally crushed peaceful protest a “failure”. King Mswati III’s success may, however, prove short-lived and a Pyrrhic victory.
It is true that the regime has not been toppled, but the whole episode has been a public relations disaster for the Swazi authorities. The excessive use of force by the police against demonstrators has put Swaziland on the global map for all the wrong reasons. Previously known as a quiet tourist destination, the country is now bracketed with Zimbabwe as being a run by a man who will stop at almost nothing to crush opposition to his autocratic rule.
Landlocked, Swaziland is heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in South Africa and on its share of import duties from the Southern African Customs Union. The country has been hard hit by the economic recession and also by a reduction in its share of customs union import duties from US$741 million to US$281 million. In response, the government has implemented an austerity program that has made thousands redundant and cut most government budgets by up to 25 per cent.
The situation has increased the hardship being endured by Swazis and set the scene for the recent protests. Apparently inspired by the North African revolutions, a Facebook group called “April 12 uprising” was set up to provide a forum for pro-democracy activists to organise and share ideas about the prospects for change. The date of 12 April was selected to coincide with the date, 38 years ago, when Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza II, abandoned the country’s British-style constitution and set himself up as an absolute monarch.
While the uprising was marketed as a spontaneous, the truth was that activists had been mobilising against the royal regime for years.
With the banning in 2008 of Swaziland’s main liberation movement, the People’s United Democratic Movement, the opposition cause was taken up by a variety of organisations, including church groups, unions and activist groups inside the country. Meanwhile exiled Swazis mobilised through the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), which has been the main conduit of information to the outside world.
The date of 12 April was advertised widely in advance and considerable expectation built up inside Swaziland. In the capital, Mbabane, Mswati III apparently went into something of a panic and reportedly asked the South African intelligence services to closely monitor those working with the SSN.
Locally the king mobilised his military, set up roadblocks and put known activists under 24-hour surveillance. As the day of the proposed uprising approached, Swazis started to talk about the possibility of change and to express their frustrations openly.
However, the advance notice of the uprising on Facebook proved a “double-edged sword” in that, while it did focus international attention on Swaziland, it also gave the authorities time to prepare. The result was that on Tuesday 12 April, the police were ready with water cannon and tear gas to violently suppress the demonstrations before they achieved any sort of critical mass.
So what lessons can be learned from the Swaziland revolt that wasn’t a revolution?
The first lesson for the pro-democracy forces is that successful revolutions cannot be diarised in advance. Such an approach may maximise publicity, but it minimises the chance of success.
Secondly, while modern communication media such as the internet, Facebook and Twitter are fabulous tools for communication and publicity, they have severe limitations as demonstration-planning tools. Their very characteristics of universal access and broad reach mean they are easily intercepted and so are practically useless as a means of mobilising effective demonstrations.
Finally, progressive Swazis have learned that the world is unlikely to come to help them and that regime change has to be home-grown. Swazis need to learn to stand up and fight for their own right to live in a democratic state.
Another knock-on effect is that Swaziland’s powerful neighbour South Africa has been forced to examine its stance on the country. President Jacob Zuma, with his strong traditional Zulu roots, has a natural affinity for the Swazi royal family and many in the African National Congress (ANC) leadership have close ties with the country.
Prior to 12 April, only the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the ANC Youth League had spoken out against Mswati III. However, the ruling ANC has now officially broken its silence and has started to criticise the Swazi king’s actions.
“We call on the government of Swaziland to work towards the normalisation of the political environment,” said Ebrahim Ebrahim, the deputy South African international relations minister, “by unbanning opposition political parties, releasing political activists and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with opposition political and trade union leaders to find a collective solution to the socio-economic situation faced by that country.
“The use of security forces to quell any form of political dissent and failure to address legitimate concerns of citizens can only lead to the worsening of relations between government and civilians, something that does not augur well for economic stability.”
So Swaziland’s Facebook revolution may not have succeeded in producing a democratic republic, but it has probably changed Swazi politics for ever.
Never again will Mswati III be seen as a quaint and benign royal curiosity. He was now joined the ranks of Robert Mugabe and Muammar al-Gaddafi as a despot ruling in spite of the wishes of most of his people.