Inkosi Mswati III of Swaziland. Photograph: Bongiwe Mchunu.

King Mswati III is gambling Customs Union receipts that have kept his government afloat for two decades will again buttress his rule, sparing him having to pledge democratic reform in exchange for loans.

Pre-empting the outcome of any talks with South Africa on the need to open Africa’s last absolute monarchy to political plurality, Mgwagwa Gamedze, appointed by Mswati as a traditional chief as well as the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, has already announced political parties could not participate in next year’s parliamentary elections.

Because of the Treasury’s empty vaults, some essential government services have been cancelled for lack of funding. These range from the trivial (no toilet paper at ministries) to the severe – government tractors grounded during the planting season, which raises a threat to food security and grants to the elderly being suspended. The shutting down of services one after another has become a way of life for Swazis.

Foreign direct investment flatlined years ago. Despite regressive tax measures, that have seriously affected the middle class and the poor, government revenue cannot cover expenditures. Two-thirds of Swazis live in chronic poverty at the best of times, and this year failed crops will again force most of the population to rely on foreign donations for their survival.

A R2.4 billion loan offered by South Africa has been on hold since August. It was sought after Swaziland’s portion of receipts from the Southern Africa Customs Union (Sacu) declined precipitously. Usually more than 60 percent of the government’s budget came from Sacu. In those days, as money rolled in, the loyalty of Africa’s largest civil service per capita was secured and the nation’s security forces expanded.

Prince Mhlaba Dlamini, Mswati’s older brother, made the royal family’s view clear about South Africa’s bland call for little more than the monarchy’s acknowledgement that democratic change must one day come as a condition for receiving the R2.4bn. “This is like selling your wife for R100,” he said.

Mswati blasted the media for “speculating on something you don’t know about”, because reporters were “not in the room” when the loan was negotiated.

Yet, in November, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole suggested to parliament the government was close to signing the loan papers. Then, as happens at the end of every year, the king went into “seclusion” to observe some traditional rites, and all government decision-making froze.

When the king emerged this year, it was to a financial situation seemingly transformed. The prime minister announced R7bn in Sacu receipts would come to Swaziland in April. That seemed to end any concerns in the corridors of power that pro-democracy sentiments need be entertained. Mswati told visiting Equatorial President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo “African problems need African solutions”.

That seemed to be a dig at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its recommendations Swaziland’s civil service, bloated with patronage jobs, should be trimmed, opulent spending restrained and the royal family should share more financial burden. The king had already moaned bitterly about the IMF twice in 2011. But the king’s remark also seemed to be aimed at all “others” – perhaps even South Africa.

That South Africa’s predilection for democracy worries Swazi leadership was illustrated recently by the justice ministry’s efforts, at the cabinet’s behest, to find grounds to arrest Quinton Dlamini, the president of the National Public Service and Allied Workers Union, who enraged Swazi Minister of Public Service Magobetane Mamba by singing South Africa’s national anthem in Mamba’s presence in the labour ministry’s board room. The union leader had previously caused consternation by wearing an ANC T-shirt.

Prime Minister Barnabus Dlamini happily reported on his return from the ANC centennial celebrations last month, South African President Jacob Zuma had praised Swaziland for its role in the struggle against apartheid. But the ANC’s use of confrontation and protest has long made Swazi leadership nervous.

During the 1990s, when the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) held marches featuring toyi-toying, the dance was denounced in the Swazi Senate as a “corrupting foreign influence”. More recently, it was miffed the ANC would not dissuade Cosatu from joining the SFTU in border protests calling for democratisation.

Former SFTU general secretary Jan Sithole recently took aim at press secretary Percy Simelane for repeating the government line the Swazi people disowned political parties. Simelane said this was consistent with the Swaziland constitution.

Sithole reminded the Swazi press that when a long-delayed report on the constitution-making process – a 10-year undertaking that in the end left the king and his heirs in total control of the country – was released, it showed the document was based not on a plebiscite of a population of 1 million, but on the submissions of a mere 1 500 people. Of these, 80 percent of submissions had nothing to do with the constitution, “while 20 percent spoke in favour of multiparty (governance)”.

The current government “was imposed on the Swazi people, and that’s the truth”.

The government has not responded to Sithole, who has just formed a political party in waiting, the Swaziland Democratic Party. Like all political entities that have not yet been banned as “terrorist organisations”, this one exists in name only.

Now that Sacu money is imminent, South Africa has lost any leverage it might have had as an older SADC sibling urging peaceful transition for a more equitable Swaziland.

Without political parties offering voters platforms of policies and visions of governance, the upcoming 2013 parliamentary elections were meaningless, the election-monitoring Commonwealth Expert Team (CET) said. This team remarked after witnessing the 2003 election: “We do not regard the credibility of these national elections as an issue; no elections can be credible when they are for a parliament that does not have power and when political parties are banned.”

CET declined to monitor the last elections as nothing had changed in the country.

Having been able to cobble together enough money from sources unknown to keep civil servants from taking to the streets these past months, the Swazi leadership seemed confident they could hold on until April’s Sacu cheque arrives.

But then again, principal secretary at the Ministry of Finance Khabonina Mabuza has also just told the local press the Sacu windfall would be insufficient and the loan from South Africa was still key.

This was acknowledgement Swaziland had managed these past months only through heavy borrowing. Further, the South African loan is designed as a “debit card”, to be repaid by deducting from Swaziland’s future Sacu earnings.

Sandile Lukhele writes for the Independent Foreign Service