Draconian Decree

King Mswati III of Swaziland smiles at the South African Development Community summit, Aug. 14, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

King Mswati III of Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarch, blew out one more candle on the kingdom’s flickering democracy when on June 22 he imposed what amounted to a state of emergency in the wake of growing calls for democratic reforms.

With restless opposition parties, an agitated labor movement, and an investigative press, the king, true to his style of leadership, took the easy way out with Decree No. 2 of 2001. It allowed the government to ban any publication at will and to overturn court rulings. It also created a category of detention without bail for certain offenses, including holding unlawful public protests. Swazis who ridiculed or impersonated the king or the queen mother faced jail terms and fines.

Pro-democracy groups, labor unions, and a sprinkling of the opposition demonstrated against the decree, and U.S. officials in Swaziland and Washington openly condemned it. Swaziland has long been under international scrutiny for its disregard of human rights, press freedom, and the rule of law. Under the reign of Mswati’s father, King Sobuza II, political parties were banned and the constitution was suspended.

On July 24, the king bowed to international pressure and repealed Decree No. 2. He left in place, however, the provision that Swazi citizens can be held without bail in cases of violent crime. The Swazi press said the king’s about-face was prompted by a U.S. threat to withdraw preferential trade benefits under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.

“It takes a wise, foresighted, and democratically minded person to open his doors to views of other people, consult, and finally emerge with a soothing remedy to injurious blunders,” said the pro-government Times of Swaziland in Mbabane (July 26). But others were more critical. “The decree was disturbing,” labor union leader Jan Sithole told the Times of Swaziland (July 25). “We support its removal and hope that people will be free to talk of issues affecting their lives without fear.”

“First Swaziland proclaimed a Draconian royal decree....Then the Swazi prime minister insisted that nothing unusual had happened. Now the government is energetically backpedaling after an international and local outcry,” commented Johannesburg’s financial Business Day (July 24). “It all goes to show that even the most blinkered autocrats have become sensitive to the growing world consensus on human rights.”

Zimbabwe’s privately owned Daily News in Harare (June 27) saw the decree, repealed or not, as “a giant step backwards, not just for his country...but also for the entire region.” “Absolutism is an intolerable anachronism in Southern Africa,” said Johannesburg’s weekly Financial Mail (June 29). “[Mswati] should be reminded that kings who resist democracy often lose their thrones, if not their heads.”