2001 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 5.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 6

Trend Arrow ↓

Swaziland received a downward trend arrow because of increased repression of labor activists, students, and others who have been demanding political reform.


Swaziland was wracked by protests at the end of the year by labor groups, teachers, students, and others demanding political reforms in Africa's last remaining absolute monarchy. Authorities dispersed demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets, detained labor leaders, and temporarily closed the University of Swaziland. The government of King Mswati III also imposed a ban on labor union meetings in October after the Swaziland National Association of Teachers had allowed activists to discuss pro-democracy issues during a rally. The ban was lifted in December. Labor unions are at the forefront of Swaziland's democracy movement, which is gaining momentum, in part because of the backing of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions. It supported Swazi pro-democracy demonstrators who carried out a blockade of the country's borders in November. That month the government reintroduced a 60-day-detention-without-trial law. Harassment and muzzling of the press continued during the year.

Swaziland is the only southern African country without an elected government. King Mswati III is the latest monarch of the Dlamini dynasty, under which the Swazi kingdom expanded and contracted in conflicts with neighboring groups. Britain declared the kingdom a protectorate to prevent Boer expansion in the 1880s and assumed administrative power in 1903. In 1968, Swaziland regained its independence, and an elected parliament was added to the traditional kingship and chieftaincies. Sobhuza II, Mswati's predecessor, who died in 1983, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system in 1973.

The demonstrations in 2000 were sparked by a palace order to evict 200 villagers in eastern Swaziland who refused to recognize King Mswati III's brother as their chief. The government backed down on the eviction but refused to lift a 27-year ban on political parties as demanded by labor leaders and other activists. The Constitutional Review Commission, which was formed in 1996 and was to have completed its work in 1998, presented its report to the king in November. Political activists have little faith that it will lead to real reform because a majority of its members are traditional chiefs or members of the royal family. In addition, the media were banned from reporting on submissions to the commission.

Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture. A drop in the world price of gold has hurt the economy, as many Swazi families depend on income from men working in South African mines.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Swazis are barred from exercising their right to elect their representatives or to change their government freely. All of Swaziland's citizens are subjects of an absolute monarch, King Mswati III. Royal decrees carry the full force of law. Voting in October 1998 legislative elections was marked by very low turnout and was neither open nor fair. It was based on the Swazi tinkhundla system of closely controlled nominations and voting that seeks to legitimatize the rule of King Mswati III and his Dlamini clan. Security forces arrested and briefly detained labor and other pro-democracy leaders before the elections and after a series of bomb blasts. The 55 elected members of the national assembly were government-approved and were joined by 10 royal appointees. The king also appoints 20 members of the senate, with the remaining 10 selected by the national assembly.

The dual-system judiciary, which is based on Western and traditional law, is generally independent in most civil cases, although the royal family and the government can influence the courts. In 1998, the king issued an administrative order that strengthened the judicial powers of traditional chiefs appointed by the king. Prison conditions have improved slightly.

There are regular reports of police brutality, including torture and beatings. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Authorities detained trade union leader Jan Sithole in November and barred him from speaking to the media following a pro-democracy strike. Two other labor leaders were also detained. Domestic nongovernmental human rights groups operate openly.

Freedom of expression is seriously restricted, especially regarding political issues or matters regarding the royal family. Legislation bans publication of any criticism of the monarchy. The constitutional commission has broad authority to prosecute people who "belittle" or "insult" it. Self-censorship is widespread. Broadcast and print media from South Africa are received in the country. The government in February closed the state-owned Swazi Observer media group, which includes the daily Swazi Observer, the Weekend Observer, and the weekly Intsatseli following a series of reports that criticized the police activities. Two South African journalists, of the South African daily The Sowetan, were expelled in November after trying to attend the court hearing of Mario Masuku, the leader of the banned People's United Democratic Movement.

Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting the practice. The government restricts freedom of assembly and association. A 1973 decree prohibits meetings of a political nature without police consent. More than 40 university students were charged with misconduct and vandalism in November after disrupting lectures during a nationwide pro-democracy strike.

The Legal Code provides some protection against sexual harassment, but in general Swazi women encounter discrimination in both formal and customary law. Employment regulations requiring equal pay for equal work are obeyed unevenly. Married women are considered minors, requiring spousal permission to enter into almost any form of economic activity, and they are allowed only limited inheritance rights. Violence against women is common, despite traditional strictures against it.

The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, the country's largest labor organization, has been a leader in demands for democratization. Unions are able to operate independently under the Industrial Relations Act, which allows workers in all elements of the economy, including the public sector, to join unions. Wage agreements are often reached by collective bargaining, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. The United States had threatened to impose trade sanctions against Swaziland but backed off in December after the government amended a controversial labor law that made workers liable for losses incurred as a result of industrial action.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.