Colonial rule: AD
In their small landlocked upland kingdom, under a British high
commissioner from 1906, the Swazi preserve their tribal traditions more
effectively than most other African nations. Part of the explanation is
that little development occurs during the colonial period, because the
status of the region is so uncertain.
The South Africa Act of 1909, creating the Union of South Africa,
envisages that Swaziland will eventually be incorporated within its
large and powerful neighbour. One result is that the frontiers with the
Transvaal and Natal remain open, almost as if the merger has already
taken place. Another is that neither Britain nor South Africa has a
clear incentive to develop the region.
In this situation the hereditary king of the Swazi people is easily able
to retain his powerful role in the community. Sobhuza II, enthroned in
1921, has a passionate commitment to preserving Swazi traditions. A very
long reign, till his death in 1982, gives him every chance of achieving
The South African government makes frequent approaches to Britain to put
into effect the annexation anticipated in 1909, but the British
government resists doing so - particularly after the 1948 election
brings in a South African government with a rigid programme of
By the 1960s the economy of Swaziland is making considerable progress,
with the export of wood from the densely forested mountainous area in
the west and of sugar from plantations in the more low-lying eastern
By then the dismantling of the British empire is in full swing. A
constitution for limited self-government is introduced in 1963. In 1967
a revised constitution transforms the Swazi territory into a protected
state as the Kingdom of Swaziland. Full independence follows a year
Independence: from AD 1968
Having shepherded his kingdom back to independence, Sobhuza sets about
establishing a latter-day version of an 18th-century enlightened
despotism. In 1973 he scraps the constitution devised under British
guidance and reverts to a traditional system of government with all
effective power in royal hands. He retains the outward form of
government by prime minister and cabinet, but as with his 18th-century
predecessors all these officials are appointed by the king.
The result, since in this case benevolence does go hand in hand with
despotism, is a period of stability and progress for Swaziland - with a
new emphasis, as far as the economy will allow, on improvements in
education and health.
But such anachronisms cannot easily survive in the late 20th century.
Sobhuza himself introduces in 1978 an experimental form of democracy, in
which traditional local groups (the tinkhundla) elect the members of an
assembly on the basis of universal suffrage over the age of eighteen.
But the assembly has little legislative power.
The death of Sobhuza in 1982 is followed by a power struggle within the
royal family, resulting from the fact that Sobhuza's designated heir,
the prince Makhosetive, is still in his teens. The period of regency of
his mother, Queen Ntombi, is turbulent. But in 1986, when the prince
comes of age, he is safely enthroned as Mswati III.
Problems begin to accumulate for Swaziland during the 1990s, including a
terrible drought in 1992. Half the nation's cattle die during the year,
and more than half the population of 800,000 rely on international food
Political unrest also becomes a feature of national life. Disaffected
students of the Swaziland Youth Congress set fire to the national
assembly in 1995. Strikes become common. From 1996 the central issue is
a growing clamour to end the nation's system of absolute monarchy and
the ban on political parties. The king, in response, promises to review
the system. But little progress is made. At the end of the decade the
situation is still unresolved.