by Shaun Arendse
Over the last several months protests have rocked eSwatini. The masses have taken to the streets to end the dictatorship of King Mswati III with greater militancy than ever before. In two waves of protests this year the youth have been in the frontline. More than 80 protesters have been killed and hundreds have been arrested. But this has not stopped the movement growing. In October, transport workers, nurses and other public sector workers took strike action. Schools were closed as school students began joining the protests. We salute the heroism of the emaSwati workers and youth.
Swazi society is deeply polarised. The current movement has been simmering since 1990. Then the impulse was provided by the trade-union led mass movement in South Africa that compelled the white-minority regime to enter negotiations to end apartheid. With trade unions to the fore, that movement culminated in 1996 with a stay away that shut down the country for a week. Mswati eventually made concessions on trade union rights and collective bargaining but rejected demands for multiparty democracy. Since then Mswati has taunted the masses offering various impotent ‘democratic’ reforms but banned trade unions again in 2014.
Now the outlines of a potential revolutionary situation are clearly visible. The intensified hardships imposed on the masses by the Covid-19 pandemic have pushed class tensions past breaking-point. They are moving, refusing to live in the old way. A deep political crisis now grips the ruling class. Three MPs from Mswati’s sham tinkhundla ‘traditional’ parliament have defied the regime and called for democratic reform. One, Mduduzi Simelane, has defied the ban on political parties and formed the Swaziland Liberation Movement, albeit from exile in Johannesburg. Sections of the ruling class increasingly recognise that they cannot rule in the old way. The tiny capitalist clique gathered around the royal family is struggling to maintain the autocratic form of its rule.
Capitalism & Democracy
Ending Mswati’s absolute monarchy is the central demand of the movement. Its fall is expected to sweep away the daily nightmares of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and murder at the hands of the police and army. The ban on political parties and trade unions, and other despotic limitations on the freedoms of speech and assembly, are also expected to fall with the king. What the masses are against is clear. However, what form a new ‘democratic’ government should take is less clear. Ideas range from the establishment of a constitutional monarchy to the creation of a democratic republic.
But one thing is certain. The masses see ‘democracy’ as a means to an end. They are fighting for ‘democracy’ because they believe it will allow them to end poverty, unemployment and transform their living standards. More than 60% of emaSwati live below the poverty line. They scrape an existence on less than R30 per day. More than a quarter of all children under five years-old are chronically malnourished. Unemployment is 23% but over 50% for the youth. Covid-19 has been piled on top of the worst HIV pandemic in the world which has orphaned half of all children. These desperate living conditions and the abuses of the dictatorship are tied together in the minds of the masses – they are experienced as two sides of the same coin.
Mswati’s cold indifference to the suffering of “his subjects” is not hidden. In 2019 he bought each one of his fifteen wives, as well as the Queen Mother, a Rolls Royce car. The cost of his uncompleted vanity project – a five-star hotel and convention centre – has ballooned from R350 million to R6 billion. These callous displays of wealth act like a lightning rod for the anger of the masses.
Without question the fall of the Mswati dictatorship will lift a huge burden from the backs of the emaSwati people. But, we have a duty to point out, that the end of the dictatorship, in and of itself, offers no guarantees about the transformation of living standards for the majority. Unfortunately, the entire experience of the Southern Africa region over the last half century, and indeed the entire African continent, points in the opposite direction.
The brutal colonial route by which Africa was incorporated into world capitalism, and its neo-colonial position in the world economy today, gives capitalist democracy a weak and sporadic character on the continent. Severe economic under-development has produced massive inequality giving rise to extremely sharp class contradictions. Small and weak capitalist elites square-off against the impoverished mass of the population with virtually nothing standing in between. The crumbs of world capitalism cannot be spread widely enough to maintain the African capitalist classes in power ‘democratically’ for any great length of time. They must constantly manoeuvre to ensure that any democratic concessions the masses force upon them are not used to challenge the capitalist economic foundations of their rule.
The result is the fostering of tribalism, ethnic conflict and the manipulation of linguistic and religious differences by elites that they periodically detonate in bouts of terrorism, insurgency and civil war. Periods of civilian rule alternate with periods of military rule. In 2021 alone there have been coups in Sudan, Guinea and Mali. The norm for the African continent is not regimes of capitalist democracy, or bourgeois democracy, but regimes of bourgeois bonapartism. Under such regimes, the state, often in the hands of the military, directly or indirectly, pose as the saviours of society, standing above the infighting, corruption and dysfunction of governments unable to meet even the most basic demands of the masses.
In the final analysis, however, whatever the precise form of bonapartist regimes, they use varying degrees of force to defend the private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. ‘Democracy’ is stage-managed. The intervention of the police, army and judiciary in political life becomes routine. The media is controlled, critical journalists and editors removed. Trade unions and political parties are restricted, or banned outright. Political rivals to the ruling clique, especially those threatening to harness the discontent of the masses, are persecuted or eliminated. The last roll of the dice to defend capitalism is imperialist intervention to prop-up tottering regimes or replace them. But despite their ‘strong man’ appearance these are regimes of crisis.
In tiny eSwatini the anti-democratic pressures exerted by capitalism are felt all the more strongly. The country has already travelled ‘backwards’ since the 1960s – from a constitutional monarchy at independence to today’s absolute monarchy. Against the background of the pandemic-deepened crisis of world capitalism the overthrow of Mswati will allow, at best, only a temporary ‘democratic’ honeymoon before sharpening class contradictions force any new regime down the road of bonapartism.
The eSwatini economy is completely dependent economically on South Africa. It imports nearly all its goods form SA and if dependent on the funding it receives through the SADC Customs Union. SA’s relationship with eSwatini is a neo-colonial one. SA and its SADC partners reacted to the economic stagnation that followed the 2008 world financial crisis by imposing crippling cuts to eSwatini’s share of the Custom Union’s revenue. The capitalist ANC government not only has a strangle-hold in eSwatini economically, it also props-up the monarchy politically, including with relations cemented through inter-marriage between the royal family and the Zuma clan. It is thus no accident that SADC has failed to support the masses against the Mswati dictatorship, just as it has failed the masses in other crises in the region. It was correct for the Multi-Stakeholder Forum – bringing together pro-democracy organisations in eSwatini – to reject Ramaphosa’s proposal for a “national dialogue” on Mswati’s terms.
The only way out of this quagmire, is to beak with capitalism and build a workers and small farmers democracy based on the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Such a government, linking-up with the working class of the region, could begin to lay the foundations for a democratic socialist economy. It will at the same time be necessary to link with the potentially powerful trade unions in South Africa and the SADC region to undercut the SADC elite’s support for Mswati. Only on the basis of the unity of the working class across the region will it be possible to satisfy the democratic aspirations of the emaSwati masses and simultaneously transform their living standards.
eSwatini’s Political Opposition
Unfortunately, none of the political organisations that make up eSwatini’s pro-democracy movement have a programme that links the struggle for democracy to genuine democratic control of the economy and the struggle for socialism. Nor do any of them have a regional, continental, and world perspective, for working class solidarity and cooperation.
The banned People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and its youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco), are the most consistent organised opponents of the dictatorship. But they call for the creation of a “constitutional multi-party democracy” based on a “mixed market economy”. In other words they stand for a regime of bourgeois democracy atop a capitalist economy.
The older and more conservative Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), and its Youth League, despite rejecting the tinkhundla system, seek to “promote national unity and consciousness in the whole nation by bringing about harmony between the people and the traditional leaders” – in practise a constitutional monarchy. Like Pudemo, the NNLC also supports a “market [i.e. capitalist] economy”.
The Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) claims to be committed to the “struggle for socialism” and the “revolutionary transformation of society”. But they state on their website that “We join Swaziland’s mass democratic movement for change and pledge our full support to building that movement, led by PUDEMO and SWYOCO, to bring about a National Democratic Revolution in Swaziland.”
The CPS still conceives of the struggle for socialism in terms of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR) which divides the revolution into “stages” – a first “democratic” stage, and then, at an unspecified point in the future, a second “socialist” stage. During the so-called “democratic” stage the working class, instead of using its majority in society to raise its living standards, is required to support ‘democratic’ capitalists who will develop the economy on a capitalist basis. Presumably, in eSwatini, the CPS believes Pudemo represents the ‘democratic’ capitalists.
In eSwatini, pursuing the NDR would become an even bigger farce than elsewhere. Mswati is not just a dictator, but the country’s biggest capitalist too. The confiscation of the royal family’s vast economic interests in the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane investment fund would see a huge swathe of the economy, possibly even a majority, taken out of private capitalist ownership at one stroke. The task facing a new workers’ and small farmers’ government would be to use this as a foundation to extend democratic public ownership across the entire economy. This would make available the wealth needed to raise living standards and end unemployment. But the NDR implies that the wealth of the royal family be handed to the ‘democratic’ capitalist class instead!
In truth the NDR completely contradicts the ideas of Marx and Lenin as well as the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Leon Trotsky gave the clearest presentation of a genuine Marxist approach to the socialist revolution in the neo-colonial world in his theory of Permanent Revolution. In this Trotsky explained that only the working class, leading the rural and peasant masses, is capable of developing society in the neo-colonial world. The neo-colonial bourgeoisie has come onto the scene of history too late. The globalisation of capitalism means they have to collaborate with, and become the puppets of, rival imperialist powers and follow the economic dictates of the institutions of global capitalism like the IMF. The character and position of the neo-colonial capitalist classes within world capitalism makes them incapable of playing a progressive role.
Trotsky understood how mass movements and revolutions unfold. Contrary to the teachings of the NDR, he knew that it would be impossible to separate the democratic demands of the masses from their social ones. What is unfolding in eSwatini today confirms this. In one breath the masses demand an end to the monarchy in order to raise their living standards. Overthrowing Mswati is seen as just the first step in resolving the burning issues of poverty and unemployment. But, as Trotsky understood, this will bring the masses into collision with the capitalist class. As soon as the monarchy is gone, the ‘democratic’ eSwatini capitalists will want to stop the mass movement from developing further. They will say to the masses, “Thank you for your assistance, but we will take it from here!” But the masses will want to continue the struggle until they have solved their social issues, impossible as long as the economy remains capitalist.
At this point the NDR would prepare the CPS to betray the working class and poor. Their theory would direct them to collaborate with the capitalist class to demobilise the mass movement in order to defend capitalism – doing so in the name of the socialist revolution! This was the role played by supporters of the NDR in both Zimbabwe and South Africa after the defeat of white-minority rule. The experience of both countries under majority-rule has been a complete refutation of the NDR.
Rather than laying deeper foundations for socialism through capitalist economic development as the NDR promises, the Zimbabwean economy has virtually collapsed. The South African economy has stagnated. Poverty and inequality in both countries has worsened and unemployment exploded. The so-called “democratic” stage of the revolution in Zimbabwe looks no different to the anti-democratic bourgeois bonapartism in other parts of the continent. There has been only one change in Zimbabwe’s head of state in forty years – and that was through a military coup!
Even in South Africa there is a bonapartist tendency within the ruling class. Restrictions on the right to strike and picket have been introduced. Political assassinations are becoming more frequent. In 2012 the police were used to gun-down striking mineworkers in the Marikana Massacre. The judiciary plays an increasingly partisan role in favour of the bosses and the government in labour disputes. The State Security Agency has been placed under the control of the Presidency. The SACP, from whom the CPS unfortunately appears to take its guidance, as part of the ANC-led government, has supported all of this.
The section of the black capitalist class that gathered around the Radical Economic Transformation faction have been prepared to go even further. During Zuma’s presidency a shadow state was being constructed that would use all the dirty tricks from the playbook of African bonapartism – the undermining of political rivals, media manipulation, infiltration of student protests and the workers’ movements. Elements of this shadow state were activated to sow violence and destruction in July in an orchestrated campaign of sabotage and looting. But Zuma’s presidency was not an aberration. The same anti-democratic pressures of world capitalism exert their influence on ‘democratic’ South Africa as relentlessly as elsewhere.
If this is what decades of the “democratic” stage of the revolution looks like in Zimbabwe and South Africa, with their greater size and economic resources, only horrors to rival Mswati’s dictatorship can await the emaSwati in eSwatini’s “democratic” stage.
The key task facing revolutionaries in eSwatini is to place the working class in the leadership of the democracy movement armed with a programme for the creation of a workers’ and small farmers’ government and socialism. This will require a party that can unite the working class with the youth and give leadership to the rural masses. Such a party could rapidly win the support of the population by adopting slogans that make conscious the masses’ instinctive merging of the democratic and social struggles, for example “Abolish Autocracy and Capitalism! End Unemployment and Poverty – Nationalise Royal Property and the Commanding Heights of the Economy Under Democratic Control!” We want to engage worker and youth activists in eSwatini on how they see such a party being created.
Worker activists need to win their trade unions to play a central role in the creation of a new party. At this stage, the youth – more than half the population – appear to be moving through the Swaziland National Union of Students, Swayco, the NNLC Youth League and even the Communist Party. In a media interview, Mandla Hlatshwayo, one of the founders of Pudemo, said that the older generation is being replaced by a “new breed of youth who are impatient and less tolerant … to the abuse of power and domination by the king and his family of all spheres of life and the economy”. In their search for any weapon to use against the hated dictatorship the youth are breathing fresh life into decades-old organisations. However, in doing so, the youth must not take these organisations as they find them. They must examine their programmes, the class aspirations of their leaders and their links with the regional capitalist elites and governments. If it is not possible for the socialist revolution to move through the existing parties then the task of creating a new party cannot be postponed.
Only the emergence of the working class as an independent political force can help the crisis in eSwatini mature into a revolution. The regional elites organised in SADC are already intervening to “mediate”, promoting a “national dialogue” between the regime and the political leaders of the democracy movement. There is a danger of betrayal. With no alternative to capitalism, elements within the leadership of the democracy movement will want to find a compromise as quickly as possible, fearful that the situation, and the mass protests in particular, can escape their control. The organisation of the working class as an independent political force, married with the energy of the youth, is the only defence against this. Allied to this must be an internationalist linking-up with the working class in the region. Just as the capitalist elites act in concert with each other to defend themselves and their interest at the top, so too the working class and rural masses must unite with their class brothers and sisters from below. But it will also be crucial for worker and youth activists to discover the genuine ideas of Marxism. Only these can help clarify the methods and programme necessary for victory in the struggle for democracy and socialism across the region, the continent and the world.
The Marxist Workers Party is an affiliate of the Committee for a Workers International. We are active on every continent building the forces of Marxism, organising and training a cadre to spread the ideas of revolutionary socialism among the working class and youth to help prepare the way for the world socialist revolution.
For more on bourgeois bonapartism see “The Colonial Revolution” in South Africa’s Impending Socialist Revolution.
For more on the theory of Permanent Revolution and the errors of the National Democratic Revolution and mistakes of the Communist Parties, see The Legacy of Leon Trotsky and “The Counter-Revolutionary Role of the SACP”.
For more on the character and degeneration of the South African regime see our entire website, but especially “SSA | Zuma’s Parallel State & ‘Dirty Tricks’ Campaign Against the Workers’ Movement”, “CONCOURT RULINGS | Judiciary Clears the Path for Ramaphosa as Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens”, “RIOTS AND LOOTING A DEAD END! | Build Working Class Unity to Win Jobs and Services for ALL” and for background on the negotiated settlement “From Slavery to the Smashing of Apartheid”.