“The true and real enemies of Swaziland, and its people, are those who are opposed to democracy . . . those who undermine the rule of law . . . and [those who] abuse the fundamental human rights, basic freedoms, and civil liberties of . . . our people.” –From the prison letter of Swazi Human Rights Lawyer Thulani Rudolf Maseko.
In March 2014, the government of Swaziland charged Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu with contempt of court after they published two articles in The Nation magazine criticizing Swaziland’s Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for judicial misconduct and financial corruption. On May 1, 2014, police arrested Maxwell Dlamini of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) and Mario Masuku, President of the pro-democracy People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), after allegedly attempting to instigate an unlawful protest at a Labor Day rally in Manzini, Swaziland. In another controversial incident on August 6, 2014, Swaziland’s Prime Minister, Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, lobbed threats at human rights defenders Sipho Gumedze, a member of Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland), and Vincent Ncongwane, the Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), for their role in highlighting obstacles to freedom of expression in Swaziland during a human rights rally in Washington, DC.
While Swaziland celebrated its 47th independence anniversary on September 6, 2015, stories like those detailed above seem to demonstrate the country’s ongoing struggle to ensure basic human rights and protect the freedoms of its citizens. Rights groups argue that repressive laws such as the 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act allow the Swazi Government to continue to stifle any opposition or criticism of King Mswati III and his regime. Critics contend that the two acts are not only unconstitutional, but they also infringe on the right to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The British colonial government, which ruled the country from 1903 through 1963, passed the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act in 1938. The act criminalized any criticism of the monarchy by making it illegal to “excite disaffection,” therefore silencing any political opposition who advocate for multi-party democracy. King Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza, banned public protests and political parties in 1973 after declaring a “state of emergency,” which remains in effect today. “It is ironic that as Swaziland celebrates 47 years of independence from Britain . . . it continues to use legislation to shut down dissenting voices used by the colonial regime for the same purpose” said Amnesty International’s Director for Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena.
Amnesty International argues that King Mswati III, who took power at the age of 18, has further rooted the country in oppressive rule. In 2008, Mswati passed the Suppression of Terrorism Act, drawing inspiration from the United States Patriot Act, which critics say “suppress[es] freedom of expression . . . often violently and with absolute impunity.” Critics argue the definitions of “sedition” and “terrorism” in the Act are vague and overbroad.
Nevertheless, Jeffrey Smith of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, who played a large part in advocating for the release of Maseko and Makhubu, says the majority of Swazis support and revere the institution of the monarchy, and it is only a small segment of the country that calls for its removal. Still, he clarifies that Swazis are yearning for democratic rights like that of nearby Lesotho, which is a constitutional monarchy that guarantees the freedom to assemble in public and freedom of expression. According to Smith, the rights enshrined in Swaziland’s constitution exist on paper only. He describes two systems of power that prevail in the kingdom: one that looks like a democracy with elections and a seemingly functional legal system, and the other he calls the “true system of power,” in which the king issues unilateral orders that keep himself and his advisers rich and powerful through fear and intimidation. “Despite Swaziland’s outward veneer as a peaceful enclave of traditional African values,” Smith writes, “the kingdom is home to widespread culture of fear that pervades every conceivable facet of society.”
While the Swaziland’s High Court was set to hear challenges to the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act in early September, the Court adjourned the case to October 8th—a date that came and went resulting in yet another adjournment. According to The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a group of 60 judges and lawyers from around the world, any meaningful change within Swaziland’s judiciary can only take place through reexamining the procedure of appointing members of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), since it is ultimately the judiciary who will decide whether the two acts are constitutional. Either way, Swaziland faces pressure from the international community. It is one of only three countries to have its African Growth and Opportunity Act eligibility withdrawn because of ongoing human rights concerns.
Ultimately, Smith remains skeptical that any positive legal changes will take place, and he believes that only through pressure from the international community will Swaziland find a way to both respect the country’s rich traditions, as well as the inherent human rights of the people. According to Smith, the King “banks on the presumption that the world will not notice, or make a fuss about, the widespread human rights abuses taking place under his direction.” Smith seeks to shine a brighter spotlight on the country, hoping to ultimately compel King Mswati to uphold and duly respect the basic human rights of all his people, regardless of political affiliation or the views they may hold.