In eSwatini, The Only Thing That Has Changed Is The Country’s Name
King Mswati III of Swaziland recently declared the country’s name would change to “eSwatini”, following a historical trend of African nations renaming themselves after gaining independence from colonial rule. Both eSwatini’s people and other African countries hoped the declaration marked the beginning of a new, and possibly more democratic, era in the country. However, reform seems unlikely given the current political situation in the country, and lack of signs of broader changes beyond the new name.
The declaration, which came on April 19 at a celebration of both Mswati’s birthday and eSwatini’s independence anniversary, follows a long history of African countries reverting to their ancient names upon independence. Although 50 years have passed since what was then Swaziland declared independence from British colonial rule in 1968, a sense of political optimism was felt in the country after Mswati’s decision. Many people, including both Swazis and outsiders, have defended the King’s decision, pointing to its symbolic meaning with regards to African history.
“It might have taken them 50 years to do so, but if they have decided to correct what must be a colonial imposition of calling their country Swaziland, everybody should wish them well,” wrote Elizabeth Ohene, a Ghanaian writer, in a letter to the BBC.
As eSwatini has not experienced a civil war in almost five decades, it might seem as though conditions in the country are ripe for political reform following the king’s decision. However, the current social and political circumstances in the country suggest otherwise.
With nearly a third of the country’s population living in extreme poverty, one of the world’s highest prevalence rates for the H.I.V. virus, and the country’s average life expectancy at only around 50, conditions appear to be all but promising.
Swazi politics also offers few positive signs. The landlocked country is smaller than the state of New Jersey, and remains Africa’s last absolute monarchy. No only is there little to no sign of democratic reform in the near future, but Mswati actively remains the central leader of all policymaking.
While eSwatini has a parliament, all political opposition parties are banned from its chamber, and many opposition leaders have been arrested.
In addition, Swaziland is heavily reliant on neighboring countries such as South Africa for several services and goods, including health care. About 85% of Swaziland’s imports come from South Africa, and the country’s currency, the lilangeni, is tied to South Africa’s rand.
Thus, taking into account the country’s high levels of poverty and corruption, as well as its heavy dependency on other countries for economic support, there lacks appeal for the foreign investment that it desperately needs.
"eSwatini is just not seen as exciting in growth terms and transparency terms,” South African economist Mike Schussler told the BBC.
"If you're a small country, you have to be seen to be doing more and better - perhaps like what Botswana has done.”
So, while Mswati’s declaration may have sparked certain degrees of political optimism on the surface, the country’s poor social and political conditions at the moment, as well as Mswati’s firm grip on power, show little hope for reform for the country in the near future.