Freedom in the World 2013 - Swaziland


Antiregime protests in April and a teachers’ union strike in June were violently dispersed by security forces. Press freedom in the kingdom took a further hit after senior editors at the Swazi Observer were suspended for political reasons in July and not reinstated by year’s end.

Swaziland regained its independence from Britain in 1968, and an elected Parliament was added to the traditional monarchy. In 1973, King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, ended the multiparty system in favor of a tinkhundla (local council) system, and declared himself an absolute monarch. After Sobhuza’s death in 1982, a protracted power struggle ended with the coronation of King Mswati III in 1986.

A new constitution implemented in 2006 removed the king’s ability to rule by decree, but reaffirmed his absolute authority over the cabinet, Parliament, and judiciary. It also maintained the tinkhundla system—in which local chiefs control elections for 55 of the 65 seats in the lower house—and did not overturn the ban on political parties. The charter provided for limited freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, as well as limited rights for women, but the king could suspend these at his discretion.

The country remains mired in a deep financial crisis, which was brought on by a sharp drop in revenue from a regional customs union, maladministration of public funds, and lavish spending by the royal family. The crisis has led to massive cuts in public services, including pensions, education, and health care since 2010. In 2011, South Africa agreed to extend a $355 million loan if Swaziland met fiscal reforms approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and “confidence-building measures” on democracy and human rights; the kingdom rejected these conditions. In May 2012, the IMF withdrew its advisory team from Swaziland, citing government intransigence.

The crisis has helped drive an uptick in antigovernment protests and strikes, most of which have been banned or violently dispersed by security forces. Despite court-ordered prohibitions and a strong police presence, April 2012 protests by trade unionists and prodemocracy groups in Mbabane went forward. Hundreds were reportedly detained and interrogated, and scores of cell phones and cameras were confiscated. A six-week strike beginning in June by teachers demanding salary increases saw instances of violence by both strikers and police. Thirty people were arrested, and the government fired more than 100 teachers, though King Mswati reinstated them in August.

Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection: 26 percent of Swazis between 15 and 49 are living with the disease. The financial crisis has led to shortages in antiretroviral drugs, as well as HIV testing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Swaziland is not an electoral democracy. King Mswati III is an absolute monarch with ultimate authority over the cabinet, legislature, and judiciary. Of the House of Assembly’s 65 members, 55 are elected by popular vote within the tinkhundla system, in which local chiefs vet all candidates; the king appoints the other 10 members. The king also appoints 20 members of the 30-seat Senate, with the remainder selected by the House of Assembly. Members of the bicameral Parliament, all of whom serve five-year terms, are not allowed to initiate legislation. Traditional chiefs govern designated localities and typically report directly to the king.

Political parties are illegal, but there are political associations, the two largest being the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress.

Corruption is a major problem, and government corruption was widely blamed for contributing to Swaziland’s financial crisis. In March 2012, legislators voted to revoke their own 10 percent pay cuts implemented in the face of financial crisis. Swaziland was ranked 88 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Constitutional rights to free expression are severely restricted in practice and can be suspended by the king. Publishing criticism of the ruling family is banned. Self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are routinely threatened and attacked by the authorities. However, South African media are available, and both the Swazi Observer and the independent Times of Swaziland occasionally criticize the government. In April 2012, two South African reporters from eTV were temporarily detained outside a roadblock in Mbabane for lacking accreditation to cover the demonstrations that month. In July, two senior editors at the private, royal-owned Swazi Observer were suspended for one month for reporting too negatively on the king; the editors remained suspended at year’s end. The government does not restrict access to the internet, but few Swazis can afford access.

Freedom of religion is not explicitly protected under the constitution, but is mostly respected in practice, although security forces have been accused of intimidating church leaders deemed sympathetic to the prodemocracy movement. Academic freedom is limited by prohibitions against criticizing the monarchy.

The government restricts freedoms of assembly and association, and permission to hold political gatherings is frequently denied. Demonstrators routinely face violence and arrests by police. The government has sweeping powers under the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act to declare any organization a “terrorist group,” a practice that has been abused by authorities. In April 2012, the government secured an Industrial Court order prohibiting antigovernment marches planned for the middle of the month. In July, PUDEMO leader Mario Masuku was placed under house arrest to prevent him from attending a rally in support of striking teachers. Police harassment and surveillance of civil society organizations has increased in recent years, as have forced searches of homes and offices, torture in interrogations, and the use of roadblocks to prevent demonstrations.

Swaziland has active labor unions, with the largest, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), leading demands for democratization. The government is the country’s largest employer, and recent retrenchments in the public sector have spurred increased activism by government employees. Workers in all areas of the economy can join unions, and 80 percent of the private workforce is unionized. However, government pressure and crackdowns on strikes have limited union operations. After approving the registration of the new Trade Union Congress of Swaziland—a merger between SFTU, the Swaziland Federation of Labour, and the Swaziland National Association of Teachers—in January 2012, the government deregistered the union before the April marches.

The dual judicial system includes courts based on Roman-Dutch law and traditional courts using customary law. The judiciary is independent in most civil cases, though the king has ultimate judicial powers, and the royal family and government often refuse to respect rulings with which they disagree. However, the Swazi High Court has made a number of notable antigovernment rulings in recent years. In 2011, Judge Thomas Masuku—head of the Judicial Services Commission—was suspended for allegedly insulting the king in a ruling, and remained so in 2012.

Incidents of police torture, beatings, and suspicious deaths in custody continued in 2012, particularly of leaders and participants in antigovernment protests. Security forces generally operate with impunity. Prisons are overcrowded, and inmates are subject to rape, beatings, and torture.

The constitution grants women equal rights and legal status as adults, but these rights remain restricted in practice. While both the legal code and customary law provide some protection against gender-based violence, it is common and often tolerated with impunity. Discrimination against members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community is widespread.

2013 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating


Civil Liberties


Political Rights