Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, has a rich history that spans centuries. This landlocked nation in Southern Africa has undergone significant transformations, from early migrations to claiming territory and diplomatic relations with Great Britain.
The Swazi people, a Bantu-speaking ethnic group, are known for their vibrant culture and rich heritage. They inhabit the tree-studded grasslands of Swaziland, the neighbouring Mpumalanga province of South Africa, and Mozambique. With a population of approximately 1,810,000 in the late 20th century, the Swazi are primarily agriculturists and pastoralists.
Early migrations: A journey south
According to tradition, the people of present-day Eswatini migrated south before the 16th century, eventually settling in what is now Mozambique. However, conflicts with neighbouring communities led the Swazis to seek refuge in northern Zululand around 1750. Over time, they moved gradually northward, establishing themselves in the area that is now modern Eswatini in the early 1800s. This migration was driven by the Swazis’ desire to find a safe and stable homeland where they could thrive.
Claiming territory: The rise of Mswati II
Under the leadership of Mswati II, the Swazis consolidated their hold on the land and expanded their territory in the 1840s. Mswati II was pivotal in stabilising the southern frontier with the Zulus and establishing the Swazis’ presence in the northwest. His leadership and strategic decisions laid the foundation for the Swazi nation to flourish and assert its identity.
Diplomacy with Great Britain: Seeking assistance and recognition
Contact with the British began during Mswati II’s reign when he sought assistance from British authorities in South Africa to protect Eswatini from Zulu raids. This early interaction with the British began a long and complex relationship. Following Mswati II’s death, the Swazis negotiated with British and South African authorities, addressing issues such as independence, European resource claims, administrative authority, and security.
In 1921, Sobhuza II ascended to the throne, becoming the Ngwenyama, or head of the Swazi nation. During his reign, Swaziland established its first legislative body, an advisory council consisting of elected European representatives. However, it was not until 1944 that the council gained official recognition as a native authority capable of issuing legally enforceable orders to the Swazi people.
Worries about apartheid South Africa: Striving for independence
In the early years of colonial rule, there were concerns that Swaziland would eventually be incorporated into South Africa. However, South Africa’s intensification of racial discrimination, known as apartheid, changed the trajectory of Swaziland’s future. The United Kingdom, the colonial power at the time, recognised the need to prepare Swaziland for independence in light of South Africa’s discriminatory policies.
During the 1960s, political activity in Swaziland surged as several parties emerged, advocating for independence and economic development. The Imbokodvo National Movement (INM), led by traditional Swazi leaders, gained prominence by aligning itself closely with the Swazi way of life. In 1964, the colonial government scheduled the first legislative council election in which Swazis could participate, and the INM emerged victorious, winning all 24 elective seats.
Preparing for independence in Swaziland: Negotiations and political reforms
With a solid political base established, the INM incorporated the demands of more radical parties, including immediate independence. In 1966, Britain agreed to discuss a new constitution and a constitutional committee was formed. The committee proposed a constitutional monarchy for Swaziland, with self-government to follow parliamentary elections in 1967. Finally, on 6 September 1968, Swaziland gained full independence, marking a significant milestone in its history.
Post-independence, Swaziland held its first elections in May 1972, with the INM receiving a majority of the votes. The Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) emerged as another significant political force, receiving a substantial portion of the votes. However, political stability did not come without challenges.
Sobhuza declares absolute Monarchy: Power struggles and consolidation
In response to the NNLC’s growing influence, King Sobhuza II, the reigning monarch, repealed the 1968 constitution in April 1973, dissolving parliament and assuming all powers of government. He justified his actions by stating they were necessary to preserve the Swazi way of life and eliminate divisive political practices.
Following King Sobhuza II’s death in August 1982, a power struggle erupted within the royal family. It took until 1986 to resolve the issue, with Prince Makhosetive ascending to the throne as King Mswati III. His rule, characterised as autocratic and marred by allegations of corruption, faced demands for democratic reforms.
A call for democracy
During the 1990s and 2000s, Eswatini witnessed demonstrations and strikes as citizens demanded faster progress toward democratic change. In response to mounting pressure, King Mswati III appointed a committee in 2001 to draft a new constitution. However, the draft fell short of the expectations for democratic reform, as it banned opposition political parties and allowed the king to retain absolute governing powers.
Despite the criticism, a revised version of the constitution was signed in 2005, which neither banned political parties nor acknowledged their existence. This marked a small step towards political openness, though critics argued that more substantial reforms were necessary.
Language and Ethnicity
The Swazi people, along with the Zulu and Xhosa, form the southern Nguni ethnolinguistic group. Their language, Swati or Swazi, belongs to the Benue-Congo group of the Niger-Congo languages. This unique language serves as a means of communication and cultural expression for the Swazi community. It is pivotal in preserving their traditions, history, and identity.
The ideal of polygyny
Polygyny is a traditional ideal in Swazi culture, where a man is allowed to have multiple wives. Each marriage involves the payment of a bride price, symbolising the commitment and responsibility of the husband towards his wives. The king’s wives and children are settled in royal villages, strategically dispersed throughout the territory. This arrangement showcases the king’s wealth and status and fosters diplomatic relationships with different clans.
Social structure and kinship
The Swazi society has a strong emphasis on social structure and kinship bonds. Men are classified into age groups, which are reorganised every five to seven years. This system requires labour and other services from men based on their age group. It promotes a sense of responsibility and fosters unity and cooperation within the community.
Beliefs and spirituality
Swazi culture combines traditional beliefs in magic, witchcraft, and a highly organised ancestral cult. These beliefs are deeply rooted in the spiritual fabric of the community and play a significant role in their daily lives. The ancestral cult involves paying homage to ancestors through rituals and ceremonies, seeking their guidance and blessings.
Cultural festivals and celebrations
The Swazi people celebrate various cultural festivals that showcase their heritage and traditions. One of the most notable festivals is the Umhlanga Reed Dance, where unmarried women gather to cut reeds and present them to the queen mother. This vibrant celebration symbolises purity, chastity, and the preservation of cultural values.
Eswatini today: Striving for progress
In recent years, Eswatini has made efforts to improve the rule of law and enhance governance. Although there have been concerns about the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press, significant improvements have been observed. The Court of Appeals resumed hearing cases in 2004 after a two-year absence, signalling a commitment to uphold the principles of justice.
In 2018, King Mswati III announced that the country would officially be known as Eswatini, reaffirming the nation’s Swazi identity. This change marked a symbolic shift and underlined the country’s determination to embrace its cultural heritage.
A Journey of Resilience and Identity
The journey of Eswatini from colonisation to independence has been one of resilience and identity. The Swazi people’s early migrations, the consolidation of territory under Mswati II, and the diplomatic relations with Great Britain laid the groundwork for the nation’s future. The struggle for independence, the power dynamics within the royal family, and the calls for democratic reform have shaped Eswatini’s sociopolitical landscape.
As Eswatini continues its quest for progress and inclusivity, the nation faces both challenges and opportunities. The commitment to the rule of law, the pursuit of good governance, and the preservation of cultural heritage will undoubtedly shape Eswatini’s path towards a brighter future.