In a world where anyone with an opinion, no matter how ludicrous, has a social media audience, all manner of preposterous and fluffy reasoning is bandied around as some grand truth. In such an environment, conspiracy theories and lies thrive. We live in a world where the more the likes and retweets the truer the statement becomes and the more celebrated the author.

 In a country like eSwatini where we are distressed by a socially and economically degenerative environment, the people–who for years have been yoked in a culturally backward semi-feudal enclave– are suddenly bursting out in frustration looking for answers to why they are poor and miserable. These people are the easiest to manipulate because they grew up railroaded into ‘anti questioning’ state propaganda where might was always right.

For over 50 decades now we have bred an intellectually stunted nation where a healthy battle of ideas was suppressed. All around us we had unquestioned authority; the pastor at church, the chief in the village, the king in the country and the boss at work. It goes without saying the struggle was never going to escape this phenomenon. This explains the dominance of fly by night prophets and the power of ‘muti’ and the fear of witchcraft in both the democratic camp and the royal aristocracy. Idealism is supreme in both camps. Any society where the ‘prophecy’ of pastors and ‘seeing’ of ‘witches’ shape public discourse and is in fact a significant factor in the political culture is doomed to coil back to the dark ages of primitive backwardness defeated by the advent of scientific reasoning centuries ago.

Now add the recent political turmoil and the economic downturn to a nation holding on to backward belief systems and you have fertile ground for the rise of a populist messiah with all manner of political trickery to a gullible and frustrated nation. Naturally, people born in such an environment get enchanted by sweet sounding catchphrases and fiery rhetoric as they look for easy answers to complex problems. Men of substance get pushed to the backline as the populist demagogues take centre stage and pronounce themselves as sole proprietors of the truth. 

Swaziland Democratic News' Mageba

The rise of the populist demagogue 

Demagogues are not a new phenomenon or peculiar to the Swazi struggle. They have been a problem since Cleon persuaded his fellow Athenians to slaughter every man in the city of Mytilene as punishment for a failed revolt. Of that particular demagogue, Aristotle wrote: “He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language, and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner.” Now dear reader travel with me down history, back to the first century B.C. in the Roman Republic and see if we won't have similarities to contemporary eSwatini. The Roman Republic had endured for four centuries and ruled over millions of people around the shores of the Mediterranean. It was far from a perfect democracy, but the citizens of Rome had a real voice in their government in contrast to the kingdoms and autocratic empires elsewhere in the ancient world.

But times were hard. Decades of an economic downslide, threats from the Middle East, and political infighting had left the Roman people weary of the plodding nature of their government. They were ripe for someone to take the reins of power and shake up the business-as-usual attitude of their senate. In the midst of this came Julius Caesar who was a charismatic and unconventional politician who knew what the masses wanted to hear. He used his immense wealth to fight his way to the highest ranks of political power. The old guard politicians of Rome were horrified at his rise and did everything they could to stop him, but nothing worked. The more the establishment spoke against him, the more the common people loved him.

And so the masses cheered when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C. and swept away the career politicians. He promised to shake things up and he did, but it wasn’t long before he proclaimed himself dictator for life. He was killed on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. But by then it was too late. The structures of republican government had been laid waste and the voice of the people was silenced for the rest of the Roman Empire. In the case of eSwatini, we have seen the convergence of demagogues and populists who use revolutionary sounding slogans in what Lenin called a 'leftwing disorder'. The convergence is built around a shared affinity for lies, manipulation of the masses and selling easy answers to complex problems. For example, both the demagogues and populists have an infatuation with an armed struggle where an army sweeps the monarch away and establishes a Republic.

What is never explained is how this can be done in a region where all forms of terrorism are frowned upon and where there is no state backing to support the very expensive call for arms. There is an evident overdose of demagoguery and too much ideologue that blends itself into a force sharing a romanticism with a Republic to a point that they believe they can decree the entire Monarchy system away with a magic wand. They obsess themselves with just the person of King Mswati III (problematic as he may be as well) not the entire institution so woven in the entire fabric of the Swazi society. They do not draw lessons from Mozambique where FRELIMO tried to eliminate traditional leadership and provided a base for RENAMO to recruit leading to a costly civil war. Anyone who brings substance to the debate on what exactly is the future of eSwatini is shouted down as ‘dividing the struggle’ or at worse an apologist without disintegrating what is the substantive meaning of this abstract word called ‘democracy’.

What is now driving the struggle is what we do not want or dislike than the future we envisage. This explains the almost embarrassing phenomenon that the thought leaders in the democratic project who shape public discourse are pastors, internet trolls and, even more tragic, a facebook struggle comedian who goes by the moniker Mageba. It is Mageba who has allowed his facebook platform to be a site for the most comical sketches about the struggle where conspiracies, gossip, slander, lies and mass manipulation are validated and given an aura of authenticity. Because it masquerades as a media house, Mageba's Democratic News page has allowed 'heroes' of the June uprising to be insulted and denigrated in the most despicable of fashion. It has been tragic seeing a genuine and legitimate people’s struggle for democracy being reduced into a comic Facebook show where shady characters are given space to say anything about anyone with Mageba and his puppet masters enjoying the circus from behind. To them driving wedges and dividing the struggle is a sketch for their humour.

Buried deep in the politics of this emerging populism is simple mindedness, the worrying urge to deal with the complexity of Swazi problems through wilfully simplified formulae. A nation frustrated at an authoritarian monarch was always going to be prone to becoming beguiled by a silver-tongued crowd-pleaser they’d have to ignore his or her inherent absurdity — the populist slogans, the arm-waving and the faux sincerity. In moments when people yearn for strongmen and novel kinds of leaders, history thus cannot tell us until it is too late whether an individual is a Hitler, a Franco or a Lenin. Populist demagogues in eSwatini have shown themselves as a species of political hypnotism whose talk of “the people” turns real, breathing and blinking people into a phantasm. We are subjected to monologues of cheap infantile gossip in the name of struggle not substantive debates on how to rescue the university, how to bring jobs, how to revive the economy and how to distribute resources and develop the country. This explains why the Swazi struggle is laughable in the eyes of the world who see us as a ‘democratic’ version of the royal aristocracy beset by the same problem of corruption, lack of visionary leadership and paucity of clearly thought out alternatives to the failed policies of Tinkhundla.

Erica Benner, a fellow at CEU's Institute for Advanced Study and at Yale's Department of Political Science, explains the phenomenon we are seeing in eSwatini even better. She argues that the damage begins, she thinks, with demagogues' misrepresentation of reality that fails to tackle real problems. Their ability to manipulate removes citizens from real debates and they become more passive and easier to control. Political quackery (or charlatanism) allows demagogues to discount real political expertise that can be useful in sorting out differences of opinion. Demagoguery uses scapegoating or pitting citizens against one another and resorts to flattery to gain supporters, convincing people that what pleases them is more important than coming to terms with others who do not share their beliefs.

Swazis must learn the lessons of Victor von Koerber who eventually learned the hard way that the person he had imagined Hitler to be when lending his name to him was a very different man from the one who would rule Germany. He grew disillusioned with Hitler in the mid-1920s after seeing how he presented himself once his trial (in the wake of his failed putsch) had finally transformed him into a public figure. In the late 1920s, Koerber began issuing warnings about the dangers Hitler posed to the world. But by then, it was already too late to stop him. Perhaps of all the lessons learnt from past eras and our contemporary times, the most instructive would be Mikhail Bakunin writing in 1873 who famously said  'When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called the People’s Stick.’ (Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873)