It’s September 1982 and King Sobhuza II is dead. He has ruled Swaziland from his birth in July 1899 and after 83 years he has outlived friends and foes alike and carved an economic, political and social legacy that is widely acknowledged and revered. Now departed, how would Swazis, who had known no other government, proceed? They could retain the executive monarchy, choose constitutional monarchy as in Lesotho, or go the way of Botswana to become a republic. Shortly after independence in 1972, parliament had approved a motion calling on the king to dissolve the house and assume executive power. This ended a brief honeymoon with an accountable parliamentary system and set the stage for King Sobhuza to issue his infamous 1973 Decree, dissolving parliament, banning political parties, suspending human rights and sending his political rivals to prison. As executive monarch, he ruled with a prime minister and a council of ministers.
In 1978, the king introduced a new experiment in political representation that forbade political parties, so that candidates were elected on individual merit. This set the tone for a future parliament that would be a tame appendage of the government. However, King Sobhuza died in the last year of this experiment, leaving his royal Dlamini house to sort out myriad constitutional dilemmas. A mourning period ensued during which all key national activities, including parliament, were suspended.
Top of the sensitive urgent issues was finding a successor. King Sobhuza was reputed to have over 70 wives and hundreds of eligible sons. No less important was to manage the transition process that included formulating surrogate mechanisms for managing a modern government and at the same time re-enacting ancient succession rituals that had not been performed for almost a century. Under the circumstances, parliament was a problem that could not be solved by simply ignoring it. What to do with parliament was debated within the traditional royal circles, although it was considered an irritant at a time when the nation was dealing with pressing issues. The stakes were high. Some careers, like that of Prime Minister Prince Mabandla, depended on parliament. Mabandla was a reformist who believed in strong parliamentary governance. He had made powerful enemies among the royalty by appointing South African judge Ismail Mahomed to chair a commission of inquiry to investigate corruption. The investigation had implicated several powerful royal courtiers, who were saved from arrest only by King Sobhuza’s intervention. Now their knives were out for Mabandla. The prime minister also calculated that his political survival depended on a standing parliament to clarify the separation of powers. For that he needed a royal pronouncement through the Queen Regent’s speech from the throne. But even he could not take the risk of suggesting an opening of parliament.
Similarly, among the members of parliament were politicians who saw the opportunity to revive their political ambitions. They needed parliament’s suspension lifted. Civil society was quite pleased with the prime minister for his stance on corruption. They also supported a modernist outlook of governance that would not tightly be controlled within the reed barriers of the Lobamba Royal Kraal. The fate of parliament was a smouldering coal within the confines of the royal family. No one could dare publicly speak about the issue. In the days after King Sobhuza’s death, James Dhlamini, a maverick journalist of the Times of Swaziland, elected to spend his days digging around Lobamba where he had struck a rich seam of gold that he mined for stories. He interviewed several unnamed sources, among them senior leaders of the House of Parliament, suspected to include the Speaker himself.
On 24 February 1983, he broke the story of the date of the opening of parliament in a four-paragraph front page story, which gave only the facts and little indication of the significance of this leak. Preparations for the opening of parliament normally take months. Yet here was an article suggesting an opening of parliament in the next few hours that no one had mentioned. The royal authorities exploded in fury. The reporter received a surprise summons for an urgent royal audience with the Queen Regent. After a brief interview, he was taken straight to the nearby Lobamba Police Station and locked up under the infamous 1973 Decree that allowed the minister of justice to order anyone arrested and jailed for renewable terms of 60 days without trial.
Nonetheless, he had forced the elders to act. They scrambled. The prime minister quickly penned a speech for the throne to be read at the opening of parliament. It reaffirmed the separation of powers and the sanctity of the institution of parliament as a key accountability framework and outlined the responsibility of the prime minister and cabinet to parliament and the head of state. He took the precaution of pre-recording the speech so that it was read over radio at the same time as it was being delivered in parliament. Except that it was never read.
His detractors among the royal counsellors did not sit back. Unbeknown to the prime minister, they too penned their own speech for the throne, and were waiting at the steps of parliament. The Queen Regent, being a woman in mourning, was not allowed to address the public and sent an emissary. After the ceremonial welcome by a guard of honour, the emissary was taking his seat when powerful princes accosted him. They switched his speech and ordered him to read a different version, which subordinated the prime minister to the royal advisors. Incensed, the prime minister ordered the culprits arrested and thrown in jail for sedition. They were there a few days before their comrades pressured the Queen Regent to release them and to focus her rage at the prime minister. The tide had turned. The prime minister learnt they were considering charging him with treason, and hopped over the border to become a refugee in neighbouring South Africa.
Dlamini’s story had an enormous impact. The power play between royal factions and the government spilled into the public space. Students took to the streets, a groundswell that fermented the formation of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), a political party that the government has since proscribed as a terrorist organisation. The Queen Regent also did not last long. A few weeks later, she was replaced by the mother of the teenager, Prince Makhosetive, who had been selected to be king. Parliament resumed work and has not been disturbed to date. Civil society continued to pressure government and finally won the restoration of constitutional rule.
Parliament set to resume tomorrow
James Dhlamini, Swaziland Times, 24 February 1983
The Queen Regent will officially open the first session of parliament tomorrow. She will address a joint sitting of both Houses and then declare the session open. After her departure, both houses will adjourn until Monday. On Monday, the Prime Minister, Prince Mabandla, is scheduled to present a Bill with a certificate of urgency to be debated, but its title was not immediately available. On Tuesday, the Minister of Finance, Mr James Simelane, will present his budget speech.