Long-form style article….brace yourself for a long read!!

This article seeks to give an overview of the obtaining balance of political forces for eSwatini as it relates to the country’s Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) and its agenda for democratic change.

It has become common to use words, including acronyms and abbreviations, with the assumption that they are understood by the rest of us. In this article, we endeavour to define some of them. By eSwatini’s Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), we refer to the uncoordinated cooperation and loose alliance of the pro-democracy and civil society players advocating for democratic reform in eSwatini.

This article is structured into three parts. First, we define the political balance of forces in the country, what they mean, and why it is important to continuously assess them in the sphere of politics, in particular for those pursuing democratic reforms.

 Secondly, we deal extensively with the question of the balance of forces for eSwatini as it relates to the international community, national and internal (within the broader Mass Democratic Movement).

We then conclude by looking at the implications of the balance of forces for the strategic direction of the Swazi revolution or democratization agenda, as well as highlighting urgent tasks to be carried out by the Mass Democratic Movement if the cause is to be realized, at least in our lifetime.

Part One: Understanding the meaning of political balance of forces and why it is important to continuously make an assessment

What do we mean by Balance of Forces?

By balance of forces in politics we mean the power dynamics and the shifting of power (internally or externally). This applies internally in organizations or the nation, region, continent, or at a global level. For purposes of this article, we are looking at this in relation to the Swazi political question, but of course, there is no way to look at it in isolation to the moving pieces at a global level.

A continuous assessment of the balance of forces is part of the process that must inform our national discussion as a people looking for a strategic and tactical way out of the current political quagmire in the country.

A plethora of political events have happened within eSwatini’s Mass Democratic Movement, in the country, our region or continent, and the world in the past few years, and these have culminated in drastic changes in the political landscape, hence the need for a thorough assessment of the ever-changing balance of forces.

Any balance of forces is dynamic and evolving, influenced by changing subjective (internal) and objective (external) factors. In a fast-changing world, the balance of forces is analyzed on a daily basis because of the nature of the changes that happen every hour.

It is important to highlight that this assessment is not done for its sake because understanding of the balance of forces enables the organizations of our people within the MDM to make decisive interventions from time to time that propel the struggle forward.

In simpler terms, we assess the balance of power and prevailing conditions to ascertain what they mean for our approach to struggle. In the end, we must determine how shifts and challenges in the balance of forces demand amendments to our methods of prosecuting the struggle for democracy.

Part Two: The Political Balance of Forces for the Swazi People’s struggle for democracy today

Let us look into this in three folds: there is a need to assess the balance of forces in relation to the international landscape, to the Tinkhundla state, and the possibilities for a speedy advance to victory against the oppressor. Thirdly, there is a need to interrogate our own standing as the MDM which in itself is found in a situation of squabbles against each other in terms of who holds or should hold the central and leading role of the struggle.

At the international level, the Swazi struggle is being waged in a post-colonial period, after the struggles led by the first-generation liberation movements in Africa, who had established organizations to fight against colonialism, for national independence.

The implication is that almost all the first-generation liberation movements on the continent are either in power or existing under conditions of democracy without much interest in second-generation liberation movements that still fight for basic political freedom and democracy.

Think of FRELIMO in Mozambique, or even SWAPO in Namibia – in all fairness, do you think they would take interest in Swazi liberation politics, at a time when they are confronted by their different priorities such as good governance and economic development?

In any event, most of them have also failed to deliver on liberation promise to their people and are accused of corruption and maladministration, making it hard for eSwatini’s MDM to even encourage Swazis to fight the oppressive regime for purposes of getting a people-centred government in a democracy because the people have seen that once you get into power the story changes.

Prime Minister Russell Dlamini being sworn in by the Attorney General.

Developments in Africa

The Swazi struggle is also taking place within the context of important developments in South Africa. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is struggling with service delivery and other issues and is gradually losing power to the opposition. Traditionally, some of the pro-democracy organizations on Swazi soil have received tremendous support from the ANC-led alliance; today is a totally different story – the ANC has some serious priorities to focus on and views our struggle as a “by the way” project.

The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has not made things any better because some within the Swazi MDM have been seen to be having open relations with the EFF, something that might not have helped their relations with the ruling ANC.

This might mean the Swazi MDM has to look at how it approaches the question of soliciting solidarity from political organizations in South Africa without jeopardizing historical relations. Furthermore, relations between the Swazi ruling family and some prominent political figures in South Africa have further complicated things, insofar as helping the Swazi state to understand and plan better for MDM, having understood where the ANC-led government stands with regard to the Swazi question.

South Africa is a major player in eSwatini, in terms of imports and exports, after all, eSwatini, just like Lesotho, is South Africa’s peripheral economy – with its banks and retail outlets in eSwatini and a significant number of Swazis working or learning in South Africa, among other things.

However, when it comes to politics, South Africa does not seem to have the same energy it once had in terms of interventions in regional and continental matters, at least not the same political energies it once had under President Mbeki when they were major players on the continent in terms of conflict resolution.

South African elections

Facing high rates of unemployment, the education sector problems, and the energy crisis, the country has decided to focus more on domestic problems than the affairs of other countries. With the ANC gradually losing power and dominance, the emergence of the EFF, and the national elections next year, the focus is on winning the election, as seen in the recent tone by President Ramaphosa, who is more in election mode than anything else.

However, the 2024 elections might present coalitions, and sharing of power with the more radical EFF, which might lead to a decisive intervention in eSwatini, but it remains to be seen if the EFF’s words will translate to action, given the intricacies of government, once they are in power.

At a regional level, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is more of an organ that looks into issues of economic development and security for the region, and that is why its intervention is limited to those matters.

After all, it battles with what is perceived to be more serious regional security threats like the Mozambican case of terrorists, and the never-ending violent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), among others.

The delaying tactics of the Swazi state regarding the commitment to dialogue, its gradual establishing of relations with selected leaders at SADC, such as President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia and President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, as well as a few relations with former leaders like South Africa’s Zuma and David Dabede Mabuza, and Botswana’s Ian Khama cannot be taken lightly as well, given the potential support that can be given to the ruling establishment in eSwatini.

ANC Members at a recent conference

It goes without saying that the Swazi MDM has lots of work to do in terms of carefully studying the processes at SADC and the African Union (AU), including how it can use them in its favour; the terrain has drastically changed and all prospects of a SADC mediated political dialogue in eSwatini have been made impossible by the recent success of the Swazi national elections and Sibaya National Dialogue which have given the Swazi regime a drop of legitimacy. The region now sees the Swazi nation as being stable and the people as loving to their king and the royal family as a whole.

More broadly, other players like the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have always had a vested interest in our country and they are the ones giving financial and other forms of support to the Tinkhundla regime. It would seem that they have been careful in terms of how they deal with the Swazi case.

While for the first time in history, the US, EU, United Kingdom (UK), and Taiwan issued a joint statement condemning state brutality and calling for dialogue in 2021, they have not been as harsh as it would have been expected of them, thereby giving the government some comfort to continue its oppression with impunity.

Death of Thulani Maseko

In recent times, they have taken a posture that seeks to give serious support to the state and ignore the calls for democracy. This is highly likely influenced by their own national interests which have not been threatened by the existence of the current regime in eSwatini. In fact, they see the Swazi ruling family as providing some form of stability and running the country better than what could possibly happen if the MDM were to take over state power.

These important international players do not think of the MDM as an alternative to the obtaining mess. ‘Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t know’, goes the saying.

It is also fair to state that the MDM has not had a strong organizational machinery, among others, so that it can have an International Relations Plan through which it constantly engages the international players in eSwatini for purposes of influencing its views on the way forward for the country.

The assassination of former eSwatini’s Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) Chairperson Thulani Rudolf Maseko has made things worse, given that the international community had become comfortable and trusting with Maseko, who was seen as a Western-trained, reasonable, and statesman-like leader who could be the driver of the change from among the MDM leaders.

It is also an obligation on the part of the Swazi MDM to ascertain the extent of Taiwan's interest in eSwatini for purposes of understanding how to approach the Taiwan question without merely dismissing them as a “friend of the enemy.”

That is definitely not how things work in international relations. You have to dig deeper, get as much information, listen, engage, and lobby for your interest in the context of understanding the interests of the people you need. Petitions can only do so much, the world’s attention needs far more than just the delivery of petitions.

In fact, some petitions only serve to expose your thinking patterns and the nature of the future state you want, which in itself might scare away others from supporting your cause, no matter how ‘noble’ it may look.

The eastern block

Furthermore, the sudden shift from a unipolar to a somewhat bipolar (or even multipolar) world, and the discussion around unilateralism versus multilateralism, as well as de-dollarization also means that the United States is closely monitoring the developments in China and its BRICS plus partners.

What the Swazi MDM needs to consider is how best to position itself in terms of policy directives without compromising on its fundamental principles. We must ask practical questions: what do we gain (or can gain) from China, the US, the EU, and Russia, and what does this mean for the MDM and its relations with these countries?

In recent times, the world has been concerned with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and now the Israel-Palestine conflict, and this may have implications going forward.

The emergence of Russia and China as world powers in their own right means the US will be interested in knowing where eSwatini’s Mass Democratic Movement stands in this regard – the forces advocating for change in eSwatini will soon have to make decisions on this crucial global matters because it is hard to go with everyone in international relations, at least not all the time; there comes a time when tactical relations have to be made and where options must be weighed and decisions taken.

Deliberately, the mentioning of the US is made because of its power and influence and how it views the MDM and the agenda for change in eSwatini might inform whether or not the change occurs or at best the nature of the change.

There are also competing priorities at the global level, such as economic hardships, security, energy, and sustainability and it makes it impossible for the world to pay attention to a poor country with just about 1.2 million people. Why must the world shift its attention to the eSwatini political issue and not focus on ending hunger, achieving food security, and improving nutrition in the world, for instance? No ways. As experts would put it, the world has far bigger issues to look at.

The Swazi state seems to understand this quite well and how the world operates right now because the regime is not bothered by how the world perceives its operations. This means the MDM in eSwatini is competing for the attention of the world with other pressing matters in various parts of the world, with the big question being: why must the world focus on eSwatini in the first place?

This is a question that the Swazi pro-democracy movement must answer with the intention of properly packaging the struggle so that it catches the attention of the world despite the size of our country and its economy. At the same time, anyone who thinks that the change will come outside the influence of the global superpowers is dreaming a weird dream.

At the national level, the MDM and its pool of activists have consistently received the harshest treatment from the security institutions of the state, and its fighting spirit is apparently being dampened. Since June 2021, there has been an increase in the harassment and arrest of political activists who have been subjected to the cruellest and most gruesome persecution.

A section of people engaged in a protest.

SADC and its failure to force a political concession

They have been brutally interrogated, are victims of humiliating night raids, have been dying at the hands of the armed forces and many of them have been brutally forced to go into exile to save their lives. In the current period, the security landscape in eSwatini has changed drastically, and any future attempts to introduce change would have to consider that they are dealing with a state that is now dealing at another level in terms of clamping down on dissent.

After all, the state has seen how useless the world can be when activists and people get killed for political reasons. You can get away with murder, they now know.

While we might have seen intensified activism and defiance in recent times, it did not translate to victory for the MDM; the democratic forces have not amassed enough power to achieve the change they want. Tinkhundla rule is still in place and the oppression continues. The system is still in place and the people are at the receiving end of the oppression.

In recent times, we have seen how the political pendulum has been swinging in their favour – they told SADC to back off, came back and held successful national elections, went to Sibaya National Dialogue, appointed a Prime Minister, now cabinet and things appear to be going smoothly in their favour – that is the reality on the ground and the balance of forces has significantly tilted in favour of the regime.

There is also a national nucleus that is fast developing into an economic power base in the country, using the feudal nature of the system (i.e. land belonging to the king) to amass wealth in strategic sites of the economy (telecommunications, mining, construction, health, transport & logistics, retail, and finance sectors, etc.), partnering with or “bribing the authorities” in order to fast-track their self-enrichment project.

This ‘nucleus’ is doing the entire ‘dirty job’ of accumulation which benefits both itself and the authorities; they are amassing a huge amount of resources and throwing the rest (including SMMEs) out of business. Alongside the comprador bourgeoisie which focuses on sectors like banking and manufacturing, they have since mastered the art of ‘looting’ in eSwatini: give something to the king, use his name to abuse the people, and do whatever you want, without any repercussions.

What this means is that, while concentrating on the ‘political agenda’, the MDM has to accurately define the primary and secondary challenges for the purposes of making a correct intervention. Also, this means whatever direction the country can take in the future, the transition will be a question of tactical manoeuvring in such a way that the MDM will have to either sell their purpose, objectives, and direction to those who currently command the economy so that they buy into the newfound vision in the new order as defined by the government of the day, or get to the extreme and make them account for their actions, and the latter has not worked anywhere in post-colonial Africa.

It's the economy stupid

The MDM has to carefully assess the situation and ask uncomfortable questions, including how it plans to engage the comprador bourgeoisie and the national capital for its own purpose. The other most important question here is: Can the MDM afford to reject both and how practical is that given the situation at the moment?

It is unfortunate that few, if any, players within eSwatini Mass Democratic Movement are preoccupied with the question of the economy and addressing the issue of alternative policy direction. This makes it hard for people to understand what you want and makes it difficult for the world to support your cause.

All these are happening against the backdrop of an ailing economy that is underperforming and Covid has also exacerbated things. There is a high rate of unemployment among the youth, the tax regime of the day seems to be very harsh, and civil servants have not had a salary increment for years now!

The World Bank reports that GDP growth slowed from 7.9% in 2021 to 3.6% in 2022, reflecting constrained demand and supply, partly because of external shocks. The Bank also cites the global turmoil following the start of the war in Ukraine as having had adverse effects on exports, trade, and foreign investment.

“Inflationary pressures persisted in 2023, with annual inflation rising from 5.3% in January to 6.0% in May—reaching the upper threshold. Annual inflation breached the upper band threshold in September 2022 for the first time in five years. Inflation has been driven by higher food and transport prices, stemming largely from the war in Ukraine. Food inflation also breached the Central Bank’s threshold for the first time in five years in June 2022; it has grown at double-digit levels since August 2022 and continued to increase to 15.7% in May 2023 with significant effect on poor households,” reports The World Bank.

To the credit of the Swazi democratic forces though, there has been some slight shift in the balance of forces within the ruling family itself as seen in recent times when some from their ranks were speaking out and openly calling for change. There is also some disgruntlement within the army, as seen in recent media reports, although this cannot be credited to the MDM’s effort.

The political future of the country will be determined by how well it manages the process of inevitable change. The worsening material conditions of the people, current health crisis, lack of drugs in hospitals, education challenges, high unemployment among the youth, and increasing levels of poverty, might lead to another revolt or uprising in the medium to long term.

The economic conditions are absolutely unbearable and the people are suffering, to an extent that even the king acknowledged this in his closing speech during the Sibaya National Dialogue.

The unprecedented violence that has engulfed Swazi townships and rural communities between 2021 and 2022, the creation of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) and the Political Party Assembly (PPA), and the emergence of rebellion inspired by students under the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) and some Members of Parliament had focused attention on the prospects for change. Speculation was rife that the quantitative increase in popular protests could lead to change.

An examination of the situation created by the 2021 outbreak of protests in eSwatini is necessary in order to understand what went wrong or right, both subjectively and objectively. However, the MDM has to be frank with itself: the recent protests did not pose a threat to the continued existence of the political system-------there is a need to scientifically look into developments that would indicate that a truly revolutionary situation is developing in eSwatini.

Change does not come as a result of wishful thinking or because of a street protest somewhere; rather it is a consequence of revolutionary leadership that sits down to craft a popular programme and execute it from a solid base (revolutionary organization).

Without these three elements: revolutionary leadership, strong organization, and programme there will never be a successful change anywhere in the world, even when some popular uprisings or protests take place from time to time. In fact, what the 2021 situation might have taught the MDM in the country is that there emerge opportunists that begin to confuse the ground and get the civil society organizations to squabble among themselves.

While the working class and the poor are losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the Tinkhundla system which has oppressed them for too long, they have not reached a point where they point to any of the leaders within the MDM as being an alternative – if anything, the narrative pushed by both the state and others have made some people look at the MDM with disappointment.

YALI Mandela Fellowship returning from training in the USA.

The disappointment is justified though and we shall deal with this when we look into the subjective factors. To be quite frank, most people had faith in the country’s MDM and thought it had the capacity to use the political capital presented by the June 2021 civil unrest to create a more revolutionary situation and advance the struggle.

They were disappointed. It might take time to win them back into believing that there is something – and the most important thing is to really put together something to advance the struggle should a revolutionary situation like that happen – the lesson has been that not every revolutionary situation leads to a revolution!

The nature of the recent protests has been more of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of conscious struggle, hence the demands advanced have been found wanting. The reason is that these unrests were simply the resistance of the oppressed, not systematic activities representing class struggle as articulated by the MDM.

The most important thing, though, is that the shift in the balance of forces at the time had given the democratic forces great possibilities to use the new situation to fundamentally transform the Swazi society. Not anymore. How quickly things change, hey!

The MDM simply failed to enhance the ideological arena of struggle and win the battle of ideas, tilt the balance of power in its favour in the medium to long term, and redirect the narrative. Any transition to democracy and efforts to change people’s material conditions take place in a national context where the opposing political formations seek to assert their ideas and win society over to their points of view.

Both sides try to do this using the various instruments of the ideological contest at their disposal as a society – including social media, culture and the arts, education and knowledge production/research, and other socializing institutions such as the church. The Swazi MDM has to seriously look into using tools such as social media (a running programme), arts, and culture to win over the people on their side.

Parliament: boycott or not to boycott?

It does not happen overnight, and they might have to brace themselves for complexities, especially with the emergence of ultra-clownish characters that have undermined the integrity of the struggle through undisciplined behaviour on social media. Indisputably, political lumpenism has been rife on social media, only serving to make the struggle a laughing stock and its dignity severely harmed in the process. The people are watching each time their cause is undermined.

Another interesting aspect of contemporary Swazi politics is the question of parliament as a site of struggle and the involvement of some former Members of Parliament (MPs) in the call for change. The Swazi people embraced and celebrated the MPs who had called for a change in 2021, to an extent that many began to see parliament more as a site of struggle with the potential to contribute to the change agenda.

It is now history that the forces for change found themselves in a protracted battle and permanent squabbles on tactical issues of whether or not to join the elections, much to their weakening and this worked well for the state. Here are they today, defeated and frustrated, against a regime that has consolidated its power without any meaningful resistance.