The chair of this week’s annual Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit of heads of state and government is being transferred from the region’s leading democracy to the last absolute monarchy on the continent.
King Mswati III will take over from Botswana’s President Ian Khama.
The headquarters of SADC are in Gaborone, and Khama was outspoken about undemocratic practices among his peers, most notably the repeated controversial re-election of his long-serving eastern neighbor, Robert Mugabe, from whom he took over.
In an unprecedented move, Khama unexpectedly withdrew his country from regional election monitoring duties, which were regarded as a waste of resources because their reports and recommendations were repeatedly ignored by political systems propping up dictatorships.
The summit’s theme is Resource Mobilisation for Investment in Sustainable Energy Infrastructure for an Inclusive SADC Industrialisation for Prosperity.
Everything is being done to ensure the summit is a “resounding success”. The road to the new airport at Sikhuphe, 80km from the Swazi capital, Mbabane, and named after the king, is being made a dual carriageway and is lined with billboards advertising the event and welcoming guests.
The airport project is regarded by many as another sign of extravagance amid extreme poverty, because of the king’s acquisition of a bigger plane that was too large for the smaller Matsapha airport in Manzini.
More than two-thirds of Swazis live under the poverty datum line, and civil servants are threatening to march at the SADC summit to protest against poor salaries.
Mswati, unlike the rest of his peers, who were elected, giving a semblance of democratic practice in line with SADC treaties and protocols governing democratic elections, inherited the throne in 1986, making him the third-longest-serving head of state in Southern Africa after Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos (since 1979) and Mugabe (since 1980).
In matters of governance, Swaziland has a unique and controversial nonparty system, known as tinkhundla, in which leaders are appointed by traditional regional councils on the basis of “individual merit”.