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Small Initiatives = Big Change: Civil Society Building Democracy in Swaziland.

September 4, 2012

Fully landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique lies the Kingdom of Swaziland. Swaziland received its independence from Great Britain in 1968 but by 1973 the King had positioned himself for power, abolished the constitution and dissolved the parliament. Ever since then it has been an absolute monarchy and is now one of the last of its kind.

Swaziland is characterized as a middle-income country by OECD. However, if you take a closer look at the social economic statistics there is nothing middle-class about it. Swaziland ranks number one in percentage of population with HIV-infection, ranks in the bottom five in life expectancy at birth, and 69% of its population lives below the poverty line.

Many blame part of the country’s economic problems on the extravagant lifestyle of Swazi King Mswati III. He is currently supporting up to 13 wives, each with her own palace, frequent high-flying international shopping trips which are paid for by state funds. Stories of massive luxury car fleets and exuberant celebrations have also been reported.

Mswati took over power from his father in 1986 and has been running the country since. He has the power to appoint the Prime Minister, and other top officials. Even though Swaziland passed a new constitution in 2006, few democratic rights were secured for the population. For example, forming political parties is still illegal. Furthermore, the election for parliament in September 2008 was deemed “a window-dressing exercise” in the words of leading opposition figure Mario Masuko.

Mr. Masuko is the leader The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Swaziland’s largest opposition party that is being constantly harassed by the King. Mr. Masuko has been imprisoned numerous times most recently in  last in 2008  on charges from new anti-terror laws imposed by the regime.

When democracy building is a development sector often run by government initiatives, many third sector and private entities have been launched in an effort to push for democratic reform and to save the nation from self-destruction. Involvement ranges from larger organizations such as Amnesty International to micro-organizations like the student-driven foundation Swaziland Democracy Watch (SWADEWA).

SWADEWA is founded to help democratic movements in Swaziland through solidarity work. In 2010 the organization awarded Mario Masuko the first SWADEWA democracy prize along with a grant of $1,000. While this may seem like a small sum, for a man constantly under pressure from the regime this sum of money goes a long way. Also, the recognition that people from across the world (in this case Denmark) are supporting one’s cause can help to keep up the spirit to go on. The democracy prize ceremony was widely reported in different news outlets and union papers.

SWADEWA is joined in their efforts by numerous other groups, such as The Foundation for Socio-economic Justice, a group working to educate and push for more democratic awareness in the otherwise poor and uneducated Swazi population. The Foundation preaches that democracy is more than just elections, and that planting seeds of democratic thought in the population is a crucial step on the way to a real, functioning democracy.

The foundation has a goal to strengthen five Community Based Organizations, targeting 27 local communities to improve their knowledge of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and other socio-economic . It also encourages citizens to participate in democratic processes, and makes sure that the CBOs develop and implement Most Significant Change Methods and M&E methods to help steer the development in the right direction. Both organizations are examples of what can be achieved with a few dedicated people and a very small budget.

As these organizations are well aware that a direct transfer to western democracy is often not possible or does not lead to desirable results. Many African elections in 2011 ended in conflict, and even poster-boy cases such as Mali turned out to be more of a façade than public decision making.               

This fact has also been highlighted by UNESCO specialist Dr. Abdul Lamin. He points to that even in some of the more functioning democracies in Africa there are plenty of rural areas that the government has no control over. Here the traditional authorities and local institutions still rule.

Still private organizations such as SWADEWA will keep fighting: “it is crucial for us to say that it might not be for the best, but we will fight for people of Swaziland´s right to choose.” 

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