Swaziland: Civil society actors

Extracted from:Deane Stuart 2009 "Chapter 12: Swaziland" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 475-477.

Joubert, Masilela, and Langwenya (2008, 85) summarise the situation in Swaziland in the following way: "Civil society in Swaziland is weak, fragmented and largely unable to access and influence decision making procedures both at national and local levels." This generalisation is particularly true for elections and electoral matters. The main elements of civil society are the trade unions, the churches and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Trade Unions

The trade unions through their umbrella bodies, especially the larger Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) but increasingly also the smaller Swaziland Federation of Labour, have played a key oppositional role in the past, even before independence, and have strong ties with the two main opposition parties Pudemo and the NNCL. They have exercised this political role through border blockades, general strikes, mass demonstrations and, since 1998, calling for the boycott of elections. Several unions were involved in the formation of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO) in 2003. These efforts have not wrung concessions from the government, and they, like other opposition actors, have been the subjects of harsh and sometimes brutal state repression. Members have been harassed and arrested by security forces and demonstrations and marches broken up by riot police using teargas and batons. Like the political parties, they have been increasingly radicalised by the intransigence of the state and its repressive measures since the late 1990s. There is evidence that the politicisation of the unions and particularly their alignment with particular parties and neglect of worker's concerns have alienated some of their membership and weakened the unions. Nonetheless, on 3 and 4 September 2008 in Manzini and Mbabane, respectively, they were able to organise a demonstration in conjunction with other democracy activists that drew more than 10,000 people. SFTU called for a week of mass action from 15 to 19 September 2008, in the run-up to the House of Assembly elections (Kabemba 2004, 29; Mzizi 2005, 21; Joubert et al 2008, 66-70; IRIN 2008). Attempts to blockade border posts on 18 September were unsuccessful, for police roadblocks turned away protesters and leaders were arrested.

Non-governmental organisations

There are a number of NGOs in Swaziland (there were 70 affiliated with the NGO umbrella body, the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (Cango) in 2005 alone) and the regime governing them is loose. As Joubert, Masilela, and Langwenya observe: "Civil society organisations in Swaziland are under the administrative ambit of the Ministry of Home Affairs; however they register with the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs". Registration is governed by Section 21 of the Companies Act of 1912. Of all these bodies less than a handful are of interest from an elections point of view.

Cango formed an NGO Electoral Support Network with 15 organisations for the 2003 election and for the first time national election observers were deployed in Swaziland; some 108 observers were deployed in all the constituencies. EISA partnered with Cango to produce workshop material and to train trainers and evaluate workshop outcomes. Attempts to repeat the exercise in 2008 were hampered by the EBC, which accredited only 10 observers. NGOs played little or no role in educating voters in the past and the Electoral Support Network focused instead on engaging the public on issues around constitutional reform. Some NGOs attempted a civic education programme to encourage voting for women candidates in 2003 and 2008, with limited success (Joubert et al 2008, 63-66; CANGO 2003, 4, 5; Matlosa 2004, 7; Karume 2003, 25).

The Rule of Law crisis of 2003, as well as the growing socio-economic crisis, led to the founding of the SCCCO by a broad range of civil society actors, including trade unions, business organisations, the Council of Churches, Cango and lawyer bodies. In April 2008 SCCCO demanded the resignation of the members of the EBC on the grounds that their conduct "trampled on our constitution and our rights to due legal process, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and good practice in interpreting Statutory Law" and then filed a suit in July asking the High Court to declare the EBC illegally constituted (Kabemba 2004, 18; SCCCO 2008; Mamba 2008b).

In May 2004 civil society bodies such as churches and civic organisations came together, at the instigation of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (Osisa), to form the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), to oppose the implementation of the new constitution without popular consultation, and in June the NCA requested the High Court to rule that the Constitution Drafting Committee be obliged to hold public hearings. However, the Supreme Court ruled against the NCA in May 2008. (In May 2006, while still waiting for judgement on the earlier case, the NCA had launched a second application to the High Court, that the constitution be declared "null and void, of no force or effect". In the alternative they contended that section 25 of the constitution, which provides for freedom of association, means that Swazis have the right to form political parties that are permitted to contest free elections.) In May 2008 the court rejected the application to nullify the constitution, saying that it was the will of the Swazi people, and declined to consider the issue of political parties (Maseko 2007, 6-8, 14, 15; Macmillan & Levin 2007, 1158; Mamba 2008a; Mamba 2008c; Mzizi 2005, 26).

The churches

Christians are in an overwhelming majority in Swaziland (86.9 per cent of the population), but the churches generally shy away from direct political involvement. The largest single group is the League of African Churches, the umbrella body of the Zionist churches which was formed under the patronage of King Sobhuza II in 1937. Under the regency of Queen Labotsibeni the Zionists formed close ties with the royal family and supplemented their commitment to traditional culture with an unswerving devotion to the monarchy, which they regarded as divinely instituted. The Zionists actively mobilised people to support the INM during the last multiparty elections in 1972. The Swaziland Conference of Churches (SCC) was formed in 1929 as the Swaziland Missionary Conference; dominated by evangelicals, it has remained staunchly apolitical. In 1976 the more liberal mainline churches left the SCC to form the Council of Swaziland Churches (CSC). The CSC has become increasingly aligned with the pro-democracy forces and was a founding member of the SCCCO and of the NCA (Cummergen 2000, 372, 373, 375, 376, 382; Kabemba 2004, 32). In 2008 the CSC informed the EISA Technical Assessment Team that it had managed to obtain accreditation for only 20 national observers, although it applied for the accreditation of 53 observers.


CUMMERGEN, P 2000, "Zionism and politics in Swaziland", Journal of Religion in Africa, 30(3), August, [www] http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581497 [opens new window] (accessed 28 Mar 2010).

COORDINATING ASSEMBLY OF NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (CANGO) 2003 Report on NGO Electoral Support Network Observer Mission on primary and secondary elections in Swaziland: 19 - 20th September and 18th and 19th October 2003, 4, 5.

IRIN 2008 "Pro-democracy gains momentum." 9 September, [www] http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=80226 [opens new window] (accessed 28 Mar 2010).

JOUBERT, P, MASILELA, Z & LANGWENYA, M 2008 Consolidating Democratic Governance in the SADC Region: Swaziland [PDF document], Johannesburg, EISA Research Report 38.

KABEMBA, C (ed) 2004 Swaziland's Struggle with Political Liberalisation, EISA Research Report No 3.

KARUME, S. 2003 "Review of previous elections in Swaziland." IN EISA Election Update: Swaziland 2003 No 2 [PDF document], Johannesburg, EISA.

MACMILLAN, H AND LEVIN, R 2007 "Swaziland: Recent History", IN Frame, I (ed) Africa South of the Sahara 2008 London, Routledge.

MAMBA, S 2008a "Justice minister accused of interfering with EBC." Swazi Observer 24 July [www] http://www.observer.org.sz/main.php?id=45591&Section=main&articledate=Thursday,%20January%201,%201970 (offline 28 Mar 2010).

MAMBA, S 2008b "No parties during elections, says AG." Swazi Observer 25 July [www] http://www.observer.org.sz/main.php?id=45619&Section=main&articledate=Thursday,%20January%201,%201970 (offline 28 Mar 2010).

MAMBA, S 2008c "Constitution challenge over", Weekend Observer, 23 May, [www] http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/SAK-Swazinewsletter/message/115 [opens new window] (accessed 28 Mar 2010).

MASEKO, T 2007 "Constitution-making in Swaziland: The cattle-byre Constitution Act 001 of 2005" Draft paper presented at African Network of Constitutional Law Conference on Fostering Constitutionalism in Africa, Nairobi, April, [www] http://www.publiclaw.uct.ac.za/usr/public_law/Nairobi/Maseko_ConstitutionMakingInSwaziland.doc [MS Word document} (accessed 28 Mar 2010).

MATLOSA, K 2004 "The Legal and Institutional Architecture for the Swaziland Election 2003" IN EISA Election Update: Swaziland 2003 No 2 [PDF document], Johannesburg, EISA.

MZIZI, JB 2005 Political Movements and the Challenges for Democracy in Swaziland, Johannesburg, EISA Research Report No. 18.

SCCCO 2008 "Swaziland coalition calls for Elections and Boundaries Commission to resign", 27 April, Swaziland@Newsletter, 63, [www] http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/SAK-Swazinewsletter/message/111 [opens new window] (accessed 28 Mar 2010).