Southern Africa's peaceful and policeful state

By Richard Lee | November 19th, 2013

When in doubt, send in the police. That seems to be the motto in Swaziland – which is odd given the claims of King Mswati (and his government and glossy tourist brochures) about how peaceful the country is and how happy and contented his people are.

In the latest only-in-Swaziland example, armed cops were sent to protect – or perhaps enforce is a better word – the start of examinations at the University of Swaziland, which most students were boycotting. Not university staff or officials from the ministry of education. But armed police officers. Now exams are scary enough without a busload of be-weaponed policemen loitering around the examination hall so I wonder how well those sitting the exam actually did.

But it’s just another example of the regime’s default option. Whenever there is any trouble anywhere – or even the whiff of potential trouble – the authorities send in the guys with guns and teargas. You’d expect that there would be more ways to resolve conflict in such a 'peaceful democracy'.

But then Swaziland is a ‘monarchical democracy’, which loosely translates as - Africa’s last absolute monarchy, where the king’s control over all levers of state and government is maintained by the routine use of (the police) force.

A perfect example of this occurred last Friday night in a small theatre in Manzini, where people had gathered to watch the latest must-see film – The King and The People. As its name suggests, it is a documentary about King Mswati’s relationship with the people of Swaziland. And it is far from flattering - for the king, the people come out of it pretty well.

In fact, it gives an accurate picture of the reality behind his traditional headdresses and ever-swelling harem. It paints a picture of a country facing social, economic and political crises because of a fundamental governance crisis.

Needless to say the authorities don’t want anyone to see it. So guess what? Yup – they sent in the police to prevent the screening, confiscate the DVD and, apparently, withdraw the theatre’s licence.

Which is gloriously ironic because that is what the film is all about.

It is about how ordinary people’s lives are rigorously controlled, about the lack of basic human rights – like the freedom to vote for a political party of your choice or the freedom to say what you want or the freedom to watch whatever film you want on a Friday night (ok – that’s not a basic human right but you know what I mean).

And it is about how one man’s pleasures and paranoia have left his entire country at the mercy of the police.

 

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