Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Despot's Time Will Come

King Mswati the Third of Swaziland has a fleet of luxury cars, a dozen mansions and 15 wives. Mswati is the last absolute monarchy on the continent and has ruled since he was 18; his father had banned all political parties a decade earlier. Many Swazis are too poor to agitate, and those that do are quashed. There are no trade unions. Members of the main opposition group, the “People’s United Democratic Movement,” are regularly arrested, peaceful demonstrators beaten up and journalists sent to jail. Many of his subjects live grim lives: Swaziland is the seventh-hungriest country in the world, 63 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line and more than 1 in 4 adults (aged 15–49) have HIV/AIDS. GDP growth is negative and unemployment is at nearly 23 percent.

He buys luxury cars worth 61 years of Swazi wages, takes trips to Las Vegas on private jets and picks a new virgin wife every couple of years. Most Swazis are too busy trying to feed their families to start a revolution. “The majority aren’t screaming for democracy because they are not educated,” says Nhlanhla Msibi, the Swazi author of The Delayed Revolution: Swaziland in the Twenty-First Century. HIV has wiped out “muscle,” too, he says: “There’s only young orphans or old people.”

But in the cities, a democratic movement is challenging Mswati’s rule. “It’s a rotten, pathetic, undemocratic and corrupt system,” says Philani Ndebele of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, a coalition of organizations demanding multiparty democracy in the country. There are elections. It’s just that Mswati decides the outcome

For Western nations that promote democracy abroad, Swaziland lacks geopolitical significance. While there are some exceptions — South Africa rescinded $207 million after Mswati refused to make basic political reforms, and the United States booted Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunity Act over human rights concerns — few countries care much about that small patch of green next to South Africa.
 “The problem is that Swaziland is not Zimbabwe. There is no extreme humanitarian crisis and it has no oil or interesting natural resources,” says says Chris Vandome of the Africa program at U.K.-based Chatham House. It does have is sugar — the country’s main export — but it can’t compete much with producers like Brazil.

Mswati hasn’t done much to diversify the agricultural industry.  Budget cuts have become so severe that teachers are not getting paid and schools can’t open their doors, yet Swaziland spent about $478 million over the past four years on defense, and the king’s annual household budget is $61 million.

“If things continue like this, the country will soon be depending on humanitarian aid and eventually collapse into a failed state,” warns Msibi.

Nevertheless, public disaffection is on the rise. Several mass protests have taken place since 2011. “Transformation is inevitable,” says Ndebele, citing the Arab Spring. “No matter how despotic, brutal and indifferent a regime is, it can be toppled.”

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