What informs eSwatini’s foreign policy positions?

A critical perspective on the country’s foreign policy and international relations, with a focus on Taiwan, Western Sahara, Israel and more.

Notwithstanding the country’s size and political system, Swaziland has exercised its prerogative as a member of the international community to engage in diplomatic relations with other states. In recent years, the country’s foreign policy and postures as regards international politics have been on the spotlight, particularly as they relate to Swazi-Taiwanese relations, to the ire of mainland China.

The kingdom’s continued resistance of China, and the incessant appeal to the international community for the recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty has evoked interest from international commentators. Recently, the country expressed support for Morocco in its claim for Western Sahara (formally known as Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic).

The country also attracted international attention when the King was “gifted” an airplane as a birthday gift by an unidentified development partner. These events beg the question: What considerations inform Swaziland’s foreign policy?

A pay-to-play state

eSwatini’s historical postures in international relations has positioned the country as a “pay-to-play” state, and this theme is pronounced in the few prominent relationships the country maintains with other states. Of course, the argument can be made that all states engage in diplomatic relations primarily because there are gains to be realised. However, the eSwatini position is sinister in that relations (international or otherwise) are not concluded primarily for the benefit of the country and her citizens, but to service the personal greed of the king and those closely connected to the throne.

The government maintains relations with quite a number of countries, but warm relations are particularly extended to those that are happy to overlook eSwatini’s dismal human rights record, high levels of corruption and violent suppression of democratic inroads. The country in turn is prepared to engage on matters pertaining to how these states, these partners, can bankroll the monarchy in return for support on any issue without engagement on the principles underscoring those issues.

Which means that eSwatini does not have any real convictions or independent views on matters of regional or international importance. Support is given to any state that caters to the interests of the monarchy. In recent times, this point was demonstrated by the country’s support for the Kingdom of Morocco. This support follows so-called rigorous economic diplomacy by Morocco which has seen eSwatini set up a diplomatic mission in that country and in territory claimed by Western Sahara.

The Morocco position

eSwatini’s support was covered by a Rabat-based media house known as Morocco World News, which reported that “during the meeting, Bourita thanked Eswaitini King Mswati II for the ‘new impetus to the socio-economic development’ of his country”.

It is not surprising that they misspelled “eSwatini” and that they are unaware that King Mswati is actually “III” not “II”. This is the kind of discourteous treatment extended to a puppet partner. Countries such as Zambia and Lesotho have clarified that while they enjoy relations with Morocco, they do recognise Western Sahara in line with the African Union and SADC position on that state’s statehood and AU Membership.

eSwatini does not recognise Western Sahara, and its recent statements are demonstrative of a lack of conviction or understanding of pertinent issues in the Morocco/Western Sahara conflict. This move is connected to the “economic diplomacy” by Morocco. Over and above conviction (or lack thereof), the government of Eswatini does not seem to have any interest in international political issues. This is not surprising given the fact that the king himself has been described by many as apathetic to the subject of politics even at local level.

Having been socialised to believe in superstition, the king is said to be unable to perceive the world and world issues in a political context, but simply sees resistance and acceptance under the lens of a “good friend” or “evil enemy”, as all deeply superstitious people do. His apparent hate for political parties is founded on the irrational fear that all political ideology is evil and designed to attack him personally.

An ‘incoherent policy position’

This has led to a rather incoherent foreign policy, because much to the misfortune of the government, effective international engagement requires a keen understanding and interest in national, sub-regional, regional and international geo-politics. The incoherence is at times clothed in robes of impartiality, where it is causally linked to the Swazi government’s disinterest in meaningful engagement with issues of regional or international concern.

The government has never been on record condemning human rights violations anywhere in the world, and it failed to do so even when eSwatini was the Southern African Development Community’s Troika chairperson. The country could not address security issues in Zimbabwe following Robert Mugabe’s refusal to peacefully transfer power in accordance with that country’s Constitution and regional instruments.

eSwatini’s ostensibly neutral yet sinister stance is also apparent in the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Since the king benefits monetarily from patrons in the Arab world and in Israel, the government is unable to make a clear statement on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is not that Swaziland is neutral on the matter, but it is a result of diplomatic promiscuity underscored by one man’s greed and now the country is damned to a resounding silence which is noted by the fairly large Muslim community in Swaziland.

The Taiwan case

Taiwan has demonstrated a keen understanding of the fluidity of eSwatini’s foreign policy and it has been able to leverage the relationship well. Taiwan’s modus operandi has been to work tirelessly to keep the king in power at all costs. Therefore, it has adopted a strategy that fronts aid and assistance for the eSwatini people, and yet its real mission is to cater to the demands of the king in return for recognition and maintenance of relations with Taiwan.

A professor of International Relations and Diplomacy in South Africa who commented on condition of anonymity said that the relationship between Taiwan and the king of eSwatini is so corrupt that if a new regime assumed power Taiwan would need a complete reorientation on the rules of engagement because its presence is eSwatini is not diplomacy but royal patronage that modern kings can only dream of.

Taiwan does in fact face a damning moral problem in that while it appeals to the international community for support in resisting the People’s Republic of China’s aggression, it is working tirelessly to keep in power a king it knows to be oppressive and against the principles which are foundational to Taiwan’s rejection of Beijing’s undemocratic rule. Therefore, under a new regime, Taiwan’s history in eSwatini is likely to be used as an example of how international relations were used to sustain an oppressive regime.

This kind of reasoning is not new. It actually predates the current king.

Apartheid South Africa ties

It is recorded in history that prior to eSwatini gaining independence in 1968, the monarchy under its political party “Imbokodvo” received organisational assistance from apartheid South Africa’s ruling National Party. South Africa had an interest in suppressing political consciousness in the country, and King Sobhuza II had been strongly advocating for authoritarian rule administered by the royal family under a traditional political order.

It is further recorded that in 1973 the South African Defence Force provided technical and administrative assistance to King Sobhuza II in his virtual coup d’ etat which abolished the Constitution of the day and rendered eSwatini a non-party State. This resulted in a questionable foreign policy on South Africa by the country, at a time when African states were boycotting South Africa and black consciousness was on a rapid rise.

The government rationalised its cooperation with Apartheid South Africa by pleading economic dependence, and thereby exposed itself as not having any real appreciation for regional issues and prioritising economic benefits to the monarchy over principle. The result of eSwatini’s apathy to apartheid and engaging politically with the apartheid regime is that South Africa was able to leverage the relationship to further its apartheid agenda with impunity.

In 1982, South Africa announced that it would transfer two Bantustans – KaNgwane and Ingwavuma – to eSwatini. Fortunately, this transfer was unsuccessful because both KaNgwane and KwaZulu (Ingwavuma was a district of Zululand) vehemently resisted the transfer based on the right to self-determination which was guaranteed by the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of 1960.

This proposal by the Apartheid government was obviously an attempt to discard two of what it might have considered tribal ghettos, with a combined population of over 850 000 Black people. Unsurprisingly, the government of eSwatini hailed the transfer as “the most significant political occurrence of the 20th century”, again exposing its obsession with feeding monarchical greed and a lack of insight as regards regional and international political issues.

In effect, the country recognised and endorsed South Africa’s apartheid Bantustan policy by agreeing to a transfer that would lend credence to racial segregation. In 1985, eSwatini set up a trade mission in Johannesburg to formalize and enhance trade with the Apartheid state, despite the rest of the continent shunning South Africa. This is but a very small glimpse into the chequered history of eSwatini’s foreign policy as regards South Africa.

Foreign policy effects on citizens

One may wonder how a State’s foreign policy has an effect on individual citizens.

There are a number of practical matters that have demonstrated this, including eSwatini’s silence as regards neighbouring Mozambique. The volatile situation in that country has the potential to destabilise the region and poses a serious threat to eSwatini’s security. This is not a suggestion that the government should intervene militarily in Mozambique, however. The people of eSwatini deserve to know what the government’s position is on the matter.

The nation needs to be prepared in the event that we see an influx of refugees in the country, and to lend support to the Mozambican community in Swaziland affected by the hostilities in their home country. We have also witnessed an embarrassing failure by the government to resolve issues and lend support to eSwatini drivers who suffered dehumanising treatment at the hands of South African criminals.

If eSwatini had sound foreign policy, measures would have been adopted summarily to address the issues through diplomacy and force the South African government to quickly eradicate the barbarism to which eSwatini citizens have been subjected. Instead, on the national radio station, we heard a government official explain to the nation why the government could not do anything to assist.

The recent spate of police brutality incidents in the country can also be linked to the government’s lack of awareness as regards regional and international conventions on human rights and torture. The police are able to continue with the practice of police brutality because the country is unwilling to have tough conversations about human rights with other countries. This avoidance of accountability has permeated the country’s voting patterns in international fora. And it has also seen the country dissociate itself with international mechanisms to enforce human rights such as the International Criminal Court and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The last example pertains to citizens’ taxpayer money being used to fund the travel of unnecessary individuals to attend international events. Former US Ambassador to Swaziland, her Excellency Lisa Peterson, raised concerns regarding the need for royal kids to attend the General Assembly session in New York when they add no value at all to the proceedings.

We all must remember when a Minister of the eSwatini government appeared on an international news channel (Russia Today) rapping two hip-hop songs during the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. When Africa was debating issues of mutual interest between the continent and Russia, eSwatini had a delegate rapping to an international audience in the venue corridors. This is who eSwatini is in the world of international relations, and that is why when citizens travel privately to international conferences they will be greeted with the question: “How many wives does the king have now?”

Any chance for a sound direction?

There have been attempts to steer Swaziland in a more sound direction by highlighting the importance of “reading the room” as regards international norms and acceptable democratic governance especially in the African context.

It is trite to claim that no country has a perfect record, and that missteps happen in international diplomacy. And it is embarrassing that the eSwatini government insists on operating from a position of ignorance that does not prioritise the interests of the people.

In June 2014, United States president Barack Obama officially removed eSwatini from the list of African countries which benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), citing the slow pace of democratic reforms and poor human rights record. The International Labour Organization (ILO) in June 2015 called on the government to amend the Industrial Relations Act, the Public Order Act, and the Suppression of Terrorism Act, and guarantee labour rights.

On July 10 2014, the Commonwealth initiated political dialogue led by its special envoy to eSwatini, former Malawi President Bakili Muluzi, to move the country towards multi-party elections in 2018. In May 2015, the European Parliament called on the government of eSwatini to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, all political prisoners.

It further urged authorities to take steps to respect and promote freedom of expression, guarantee democracy and plurality, and establish a legislative framework allowing the registration, operation and full participation of political parties.

Much of this has not happened as eSwatini continues to pursue foreign policy geared at meeting the interests of an elite few.