Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Not Free
Population: 1,200,000
GNI/Capita: $1,300
Life Expectancy: 45
Religious Groups: Zionist [a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship] (40 percent), Roman Catholic (20 percent), Muslim (10 percent), other (30 percent)
Ethnic Groups: African (97 percent), European (3 percent)
Capital: Mbabane

Ratings Change
Swaziland's political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to the adoption of a constitution designed to entrench more deeply the institution of rule by royal decree.


Swaziland's long-awaited new constitution was unveiled in May 2003 and was swiftly denounced by pro-democracy activists, trade union members, and civil society representatives. International observers concluded that parliamentary elections held in October were neither free nor fair.

Swaziland's 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. Swaziland regained its independence in 1968, and an elected parliament was added to the traditional kingship and chieftaincies. In 1973, Mswati's predecessor, Sobhuza II (who died in 1983) repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of the tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself absolute monarch.

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 approved by the government and were joined by 10 royal appointees.

The country's new constitution, a product of five years of work by the country's Constitutional Review Commission, was unveiled in May 2003. The document maintains a ban on political opposition to royal rule and reaffirms the palace's absolute control over the cabinet, parliament, and the courts. Although it provides for limited freedom of speech, of assembly and of association, and limited equality for women, King Mswati III may waive these rights at his discretion. The Swaziland Democratic Alliance, an umbrella group of banned political parties and human rights, civil, and labor groups, said in September that it planned to draft an alternative constitution that envisions a multiparty system.

A Commonwealth monitoring team reported that the October parliamentary 2003 elections were not credible, citing a lack of free expression in the country, police repression of pro-democracy activists, and the ban on political parties. The Swaziland Democratic Alliance had called on voters to boycott the elections. The number of women legislators increased to an impressive 30 percent, or a total of 16 of 55 seats.

Most Swazis remain engaged in subsistence agriculture. Many families depend on income from men working in South African mines. The country has been hit hard by the AIDS pandemic. According to a UNAIDS report released in November 2003, an estimated 39 percent of the adult population is infected with HIV.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Swazis are barred from exercising their right to elect their representatives or to change their government freely. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch, and royal decrees carry the full force of law. Of the 65 members of the National Assembly, 55 are elected and 10 are appointed by the king. The king also appoints 20 members of the Senate, with the remaining 10 selected by the National Assembly.

Freedom of expression is severely restricted, especially regarding political issues or matters concerning the royal family. Legislation bans publication of any criticism of the monarchy and self-censorship is widespread. However, broadcast and print media from South Africa are received in the country. There is one independent radio station, which broadcasts religious programming. In April, the new information minister, Abednego Ntshangase, announced that the state media would not be permitted to cover anything that has a "negative bearing" on the government. The ban affects the country's only television station and news-carrying radio channels. The government does not restrict access to the Internet.

Freedom of religion is respected, although there are no formal constitutional provisions protecting the practice. Academic freedom is limited by self-censorship.

The government restricts freedom of assembly and association. The trade union movement remains a target of repression, and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) petitioned the U.S. Trade Representative in September 2003 to remove Swaziland's trade privileges. At the same time, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, the country's largest labor organization, has been a leader in demands for democratization. Workers in all elements of the economy, including the public sector, can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. Wage agreements are often reached by collective bargaining.

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. Swaziland's judicial system suffered a setback in December 2002, when six South African judges on the country's court of appeals resigned after the prime minister said that the government would ignore court judgments that curbed the king's power.

There are regular reports of police brutality, including torture and beatings. Security forces generally operate with impunity. In November, the Swaziland Red Cross met with prisoners, who complained of beatings with metal chains, of overcrowding, and of neglect of inmates suffering from HIV and AIDS.

The Legal Code provides some protection against sexual harassment, but 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.

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