Trouble has been brewing in the Kingdom of Swaziland, where decades of abuse by the monarch have brought the country to the brink of collapse, and just maybe, democratic reform.

King Mswati III of Swaziland
King Mswati III of Swaziland, who has ruled the country for the last 26 years.

Swaziland is a small country of one million people nestled in the mountains between South Africa and Mozambique. About the same size as Wales, it is a quiet, picturesque place; a favourite destination for nature lovers, ramblers and lovers of African culture, who flock to traditional ceremonies such as the annual Umhlanga or reed dance.

Since 1986, the country has been ruled by King Mswati III, who has brought untold misery, poverty and suffering to the people in this peaceful place. Controlling all political and economic power, for decades Mswati and his royal cohorts have been amassing more and more of the country's meagre wealth for themselves, while the economy and institutions of state crumble around them.

Repeated efforts by the International Monetary Fund and others to get Swaziland's economy back on track have failed, as the reform stalls and the government refuses to rein in public sector spending. Mswati's greed only compounds these underlying problems.

Through a form of royal trust that he is supposed to hold for the benefit of the Swazi people, the King earns income from all areas of the economy, including telecommunications, banking and mining. On top of this, the royal family is guaranteed a generous annual slice of the dwindling national budget that can no longer provide enough money for basic services, such as text books in schools or medicines in clinics.

Most observers agree that these economic woes are only symptoms of greater challenges - bad governance, a lack of accountability and a state that is totally controlled by the monarchy. Although there are three arms of government, in reality the executive is only answerable to the King.

Royal sympathisers

The parliament is largely comprised of royal sympathisers, while the judiciary is tightly controlled by the king's mercenary Chief Justice, Michael Ramodibedi, who has ruled that no cases can be brought against the King or any of his business interests.

Despite this democratic window dressing, Freedom House categorises Swaziland as 'Not Free' in its Freedom in the World survey report. This report reveals a catalogue of restrictions imposed by Mswati's government on basic civil and political rights, media freedoms and the ability of political parties to operate freely and contest elections.

In spite of its record of human rights abuses, disregard for democracy and poor economic performance (the economy is expected to grow by only 0.6 percent this year), Swaziland comes under little or no international pressure to reform.

In fact, King Mswati and his bloated ensemble are regularly honoured guests of the British royal family, recently attending both the royal wedding and the queen's jubilee celebrations in London. The madness of this situation has not been lost on civil society activists who have asked: why is Mswati welcomed in this way, when he is guilty of many of the same crimes as Robert Mugabe, who is nothing short of a pariah in the UK?

Cosy relationships

Mswati also enjoys cosy relationships at the regional level. Swaziland is a respected member of the local political boys' club, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) where, regrettably, his government's teargasing and shooting of peaceful protestors hardly raises an eyebrow.

On the contrary, Mswati is regularly pictured hobnobbing with the regions' top dogs, including South African President Jacob Zuma, who regards Mswati as a close friend and ally.

This friendship has paid off for Mswati, as South Africa has committed to bail out the ailing Swazi economy in a loan deal worth some $300 million. This funding comes at a time when the IMF, African Development Bank and other international financial institutions say that Swaziland is too much of an economic basket case to qualify for financing.

There is no doubt that the situation is unstable. Since early 2011, civic unrest has been palpable in Swaziland. Because political parties are banned, much 'political' activity is expressed through the trade union movement which is relatively strong and a represents a growing threat to the government's hegemony.

Teachers, nurses, transport workers, students, lawyers and civil servants have all publicly vented their unhappiness over the past 18 months, striking and demanding better conditions and higher salaries. They have been variously greeted with court injunctions, rubber bullets, tear gas, detention and in some cases beatings and torture.

Refusal to negotiate

The government has been unbending in its refusal to negotiate with the unions, leading in 2011 to the closure of the court system for four months and most recently a five-week teachers' strike that was on-going at the time of writing.

Much of this volatility is linked to how poor Swazis now are. Despite notional lower middle income status according to the World Bank, Swaziland boasts some of the most depressing numbers in a continent of spine chilling statistics.

Seven out of every ten Swazis has to get by on only $1 a day. Almost three in every ten adults in the country is infected with HIV. Life expectancy is a pitiful 48 years at birth.

So far, however the civic movement has failed in its efforts to build a genuinely mass-based movement for democratic change. The piecemeal reforms demanded by the various labour unions have remained just that, and have not coalesced into something broader that can unify all forces in a democratic movement that is home to activists from all ends of the spectrum from radical communists to Swazi traditionalists.

So what can be done?

For one, an end to international silence on the crisis in Swaziland, could help to jolt Mswati and his cronies out of their luxurious ivory towers and focus their attention on an increasingly discontent populace. Targeted sanctions would send a powerful message, but even just a refusal to entertain a serial human rights abuser in Buckingham Palace would be a good start.

Swazi civil society organizations themselves also need to box smarter. They should be more careful in their analysis of what sources of power are propping Mswati up. A recent Gallup Poll showed that contrary to popular belief, Mswati is not universally liked in Swaziland, with 43 percent of the population admitting that they do not support him.

This means that there are almost half a million Swazis that are ready to listen to alternative proposals on how their country can be run. Are pro-democracy organisations ready to give a voice to these disenfranchised Swazis?

Finally, South Africa must come to the party. The big neighbour has enormous political and economic influence over Swaziland, so it is ideally placed to positively shape the course of reform in Swaziland. Noises made at the recent policy conference of the African National Congress (ANC) indicate that the ruling party in South Africa remains a strong supporter of multi-party democracy in

Swaziland. It is still far from clear however whether or when this will translate into government policy towards the Kingdom.

One might ask whether, given the dissatisfaction with rulers like Mswati, the Arab Spring won't trickle down to Southern Africa. We should remember though that the Arab Spring was organised, not organic. Time to get organised Swaziland.

Cathal Gilbert