File photo - King Mswati III.

The first known public opinion poll ever taken in Swaziland on governance issues puts to rest the myth that King Mswati is universally beloved by the Swazi people.

Yet, far from taking advantage of this weakness now exposed, opposition groups fell into divisive name-calling among themselves last week.

“King Mswati’s people insist he has the following among Swazis of a religious leader like the pope. The Gallup poll disproves that. It shows 43 percent of Swazis disapprove of the way he is leading the country,” said Alison Thwala, a political observer in Manzini.


A Gallup poll taken of 1 000 adult Swazis found that 56 percent of Swazis approve of Mswati’s performance – a stark contrast with the universal support the Swazi royal family claims to enjoy and which it takes as its mandate to run Swaziland as an absolute monarchy.

The government responded by attacking the Gallup organisation and calling it illegitimate and not to be trusted.

The poll did not ask Swazis their opinion on pro-democracy groups. This omission was probably good news for the fragmented “progressive” groups whose public feuding has became unusually rowdy.

The unofficial “opposition party”, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), was banned as a “terrorist group” in 2008 by Mswati.

Pudemo president Mario Masuku has twice been put on trial for treason by Swazi authorities, but lack of evidence led to quick dismissals once the cases went to court. However, Masuku spent months in prison or under house arrest awaiting trial.

More recently, the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) was formed as a political reform organisation, and has used Pudemo’s Johannesburg offices until last week. Months of attacks on Pudemo leadership by the SSN’s president Lucky Lukhele finally led to their eviction.

The SSN, like the oldest but largely inactive Swazi political party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, which was instrumental in Swaziland’s independence process before it, too, was banned in 1973, wants Swaziland run as a communist or socialist state. The SSN wants the monarchy abolished, unlike Pudemo, which seeks a constitutional monarchy and market-driven economy.

The invective between the groups, particularly by Lukhele, went largely unnoticed in Swaziland because it was carried out in cyberspace, on the SSN’s firebrand website and in postings by Pudemo.

As Professor Richard Rooney, a former journalism professor at the University of Swaziland, noted on his blog, “The SSN Google group has 800 members and its Facebook page has 2 800, and it’s a fair bet that many people in the Google Group are also in the Facebook group, so the total number of people the SSN has online is probably no more than 2 100.

“But hardly any of them are in Swaziland, where only about 90 000 people are on the internet and of these 63 720 are on Facebook – and there is no reason to suspect that most of these Facebookers ever read the SSN page. Only a tiny number of people (perhaps no more than a dozen) actually regularly post on the sites. The most prolific of these posters are not in Swaziland, but in South Africa and Canada.

“Hardly anyone in Swaziland reads the SSN and in reality the campaigners are talking to one another,” he said.

“The voice of the political opposition is just that, a voice only. They never take action. They never come to Swaziland and engage the people,” said Andrew Dlamini, a critic of the Swazi government who says he is disillusioned with both the SSN and Pudemo.

“Pudemo is run by timid old men and the SSN are cowards. (The SSN) told us to take to the streets last year during an uprising they said would be like the Arab Spring in Swaziland. They stayed away. They wrote us from Johannesburg asking how things were going in the streets,” said Dlamini.

How things went in the streets were well documented by the world’s press. The security forces detained strike leaders and top unionists, blocked the movement of activists, and used teargas, rubber bullets and beatings to break up protests in the main commercial town Manzini.

This response by the government to all protest activity is now so well entrenched that the independent Times of Swaziland urged political opposition groups to rethink their tactics if they truly want to affect change.

One way would be to visit rural areas where most Swazis live but where residents are kept uninformed of governance issues by area chiefs who forbid their subjects from joining political parties.

“The prohibition against party involvement is not at all necessary because most Swazis have never met a party member. Political reformers act like ivory tower elites who do not wish to actively engage the people, or else like frustrated children hurdling insults at each other over the internet,” said Thwala. - Sunday Argus