The power of the ballot box

The power of the ballot box

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

The high number of unseated Members of Parliament (MPs) in the eSwatini’s 2023 parliamentary election serves as a crucial reality check for the authorities misreading the lessons of the civil unrest that rocked tinkhundla governance to its core in June 2021. According to the election results released recently by the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), a whopping 48 former MPs out of 59 could not garner enough votes to retain their seats in the 12th Parliament. In what is a clear show of the power of the ballot box, the increasingly politically conscious electorate sent the guardian angels of tinkhundla system packing in the 48 constituencies across the country. One of the unexpected winners is none other than academic, Dr Bonginkhosi Dlamini, who claimed the scalp of former Speaker Petros Mavimbela in the Mhlambanyatsi Constituency in the Manzini region.

The confounding results saw also eight male ex-MPs crashing out only to be replaced by women in the highly patriarchal society. Lomahasha MP Zanele Mashaba produced one of the upsets when she roundly defeated ex-MP Ndumiso Masimula. No wonder, the scars of the civil unrest still run deep in the Lomahasha and Shewula communities where police brutality cost two young men their lives and a teen boy his movement. Yet, no amount of disinformation and reputational damage could de-campaign Siphofaneni MP Nomalungelo Simelane. She is the wife of one of the three pro-democracy former MPs, Mduduzi Simelane. Together with his incarcerated comrades-in-arms, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, her exiled husband was betrayed by the self-serving MPs in the 11th Parliament for repeatedly calling for democratic change. 

Happening in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and civil unrest, the dramatic drop in the number of re-elected ex-MPs puts a question mark over the future of the no-party tinkhundla system of government. In the 2018 elections, 46 ex-MPs out of the then 55 constituencies were voted out of the 11th Parliament. Members of the Swaziland Liberation Movement (Swalimo), who defied the election boycott stance taken by the Political Parties Assembly, a coalition of political parties, scored victory when their most vilified Siphofaneni candidate Nomalungelo Simelane got the second highest votes defeating a pro-tinkhundla candidate, Moshoeshoe Nkambule. Others may well argue that the electorate in most constituencies decided to go with ‘new brooms that they hope would sweep clean’ and bring in the much-desired improvements in their livelihoods. From looks of things, there is more to this than meets the eye. 

In the latest Afrobarometer survey in eSwatini conducted in October-November 2022 and published in July 2023, researcher, Sipho S. Kunene, gives insight into what could be the reason behind the heavy loss suffered by the ex-MPs at the end of the five-year term. Afrobarometer is a pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network that provides reliable data on African experiences and evaluations of democracy, governance, and quality of life. It conducts face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent’s choice. As part of the outgoing government, the ex-MPs’ failure can be ascribed to poor government performance and deteriorating economic conditions emblematic of a broken system.  

“As Eswatini’s government concludes a five-year term marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in June 2021 (Amnesty International 2023), economic warning signs are flashing red. Gross domestic product growth slowed to an estimated 0.4% in 2022, down from 7.9% in 2021, while unemployment, inequality, and poverty remained stubbornly high, underpinned by weak job creation in the formal economy (World Bank 2023),” reads the Afrobarometer report.

It clearly states that in eSwatini most economic indicators have taken a nosedive since 2018. A majority of interviewed emSwati say the country is headed in the wrong direction. They describe both the national economy and their personal living conditions as very bad. Sadly, this survey also finds that an increasing number of citizens went without basic life necessities during the previous year. Few citizens are optimistic that things will get better anytime soon. 

The Afrobarometer key findings are as follows:

  • More than eight in 10 emaSwati (84%) say the country is going in “the wrong direction,” twice as many as in 2018 (42%). 
  • Almost nine in 10 citizens (86%) describe the country’s economic condition as “fairly bad” or “very bad,” an increase of 38 percentage points compared to 2018 (48%). 
  • More than two-thirds (68%) of emaSwati say their living conditions are “fairly bad” or “very bad,” more than double the share in 2018 (31%). 
  • Increasing numbers of citizens report going without a cash income (78%), medical care (78%), enough food (66%), and enough clean water (55%) at least once during the year preceding the survey. 
  • Public approval ratings have plummeted for the government’s performance on managing the economy (12%), improving living standards of the poor (10%), creating jobs (6%), narrowing gaps between rich and poor (5%), and keeping prices stable (4%). 

In the ranking of top 10 problems, emaSwati rank the critical economic issues of unemployment and wages No. 1 and No. 2 cited by 52% and 31% citizens respectively, among the top three concerns. The management of the economy ranks sixth among the most critical problems that they want the government to address. Interestingly, the democracy/political rights rank seventh, higher than food insecurity and crime/security. This is a clear indication of the growing political consciousness among the citizens. 

As the overwhelming majority gives the government poor marks for its performance on economic issues, it does not come as a surprise that the electorate voted the 48 MPs out of government. This flies in the face of the outgoing Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini’s sugar-coated end-of-term government statement. He gloated over the restoration of political and economic stability against the backdrop of Covid-19, the civil unrest and Ukrainian war. His calamitous term saw the bloodiest protest repression in the history of eSwatini which resulted in hundreds of casualties. Having branded the protesters ‘terrorists’ and ‘rabble rousers’, the Dlamini-led government did not institute any commission of inquiry into the indiscriminate shootings and killings of emaSwati. Another Dlamini PM, who King Mswati III will appoint at the end of the ongoing Sibaya (People’s Parliament), has his work cut out to turn the economy around and improve the quality of life of all citizens.  

Retired University of Eswatini political science lecturer, Dr Qambukusa “PQ” Magagula attributes the former MPs’ failure to keep their seats in the August House to, among other things, the electorate dissatisfaction with poor service delivery. He also sees the civil unrest as one of the contributory factors. He believes that the civil unrest raises the level of political consciousness of emSwati who are now aware of the shortcomings of the political system. The electorate elected new MPs who have capacity and knowledge to influence government policies to make a difference in their lives. The electorate used the power of the ballot box.

“It is important to also consider the age group of the voters in the 2023 parliamentary election as compared to the previous one in 2018. The young generation faces completely different challenges from the older generation. This younger generation blames the political system and government for the challenges of high unemployment and lack of job creation,” Dr Magagula says.

To Swaziland Unemployed People’s Movement (SUPMO) president Lucky Dlamini, the sharp drop of former MPs in the elections has come as no surprise. He explains that they were voted out because they had proven themselves to be a liability to the electorate. This has further bred voter apathy among the youth which constitute a majority of the country’s 1.2m population. He adds that the former MPs de-campaigned themselves when they failed to implement the political and economic demands outlined in the petitions the youth delivered to them in 51 constituencies before the civil unrest. 

“The youth is demoralised by the conduct of the people once are voted into Parliament. As a result a majority elected not to participate in the elections because there is nothing for them. The candidates may mention issues like scholarships, education and jobs which resonate with the young people, but they know that these are empty slogans meant to win their votes. The youth knows very well that they are excluded from the country’s economy. That’s why in every election the candidates end up complaining about the youth who took their money and disappeared on the polling day,” he says.

Only Sigwe MP David Ngcamphalala was re-elected in the 2023 elections

The new MPs should learn a lesson from the 48 ex-MPs who now live to rue the day they chose to prioritise politics of the belly over service of the people. They turned their backs on the three pro-democracy former MPs Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza, Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Simelane who were calling for democratic reforms. The duo is serving time in jail for terrorism charges while the latter is exiled in the United Kingdom. Worse still, the outgoing MPs, who wanted to preserve the status quo, shot themselves in the foot when disregarded the people’s clarion call for multiparty democracy as one of the nine demands presented in the 51 constituencies.

“I remember that we delivered the first petition with nine demands in the Manzini North Inkhundla. Subsequently, more than 51 MPs received petitions in their constituencies across the country. In a constitutional democracy, it means the majority of our people, had given them a mandate to change the system of government. It was supposed to be clear in the minds that they had already been given a mandate to act,” Dlamini says, adding: “That was before the then Acting PM Themba Masuku even deployed police to stop the delivery of remaining few petitions which triggered the civil unrest. We wanted to prove him wrong when he said a majority of emaSwati loved tinkhundla system and didn’t want to change it. If numbers do not lie, the majority of emaSwati showed that they indeed want democratic change. But sadly the country’s authorities, who still want to preserve the status quo, decided to crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters.” 

In an interview with the Times of Eswatini, former Motshane MP Robert Magongo bemoaned the mentality of the electorate to vote out MPs at the end of the five-year term in Parliament because sebadlile (meaning they have eaten or made a fortune). He said that is untrue because the legislators spend more money helping the electorate.

“There’s no such thing as kudla in Parliament, but we get to spend more money on the electorate’s personal needs in the spirit of assisting and empowering them. There were about 10 000 people who registered to participate in the elections in Motshane. Can one be able to cater for all these people’s needs,” he wondered.   

The Afrobarometer survey suggests that the new government will need to act urgently to improve the quality of life of emaSwati.

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