In their small landlocked upland kingdom, under a British high commissioner from 1906, the Swazi preserve their tribal traditions more effectively than most other African nations. Part of the explanation is that little development occurs during the colonial period, because the status of the region is so uncertain.
The South Africa Act of 1909, creating the Union of South Africa, envisages that Swaziland will eventually be incorporated within its large and powerful neighbour. One result is that the frontiers with the Transvaal and Natal remain open, almost as if the merger has already taken place. Another is that neither Britain nor South Africa has a clear incentive to develop the region.
In this situation the hereditary king of the Swazi people is easily able to retain his powerful role in the community. Sobhuza II, enthroned in 1921, has a passionate commitment to preserving Swazi traditions. A very long reign, till his death in 1982, gives him every chance of achieving his aim.
The South African government makes frequent approaches to Britain to put into effect the annexation anticipated in 1909, but the British government resists doing so – particularly after the 1948 election brings in a South African government with a rigid programme of apartheid.
By the 1960s the economy of Swaziland is making considerable progress, with the export of wood from the densely forested mountainous area in the west and of sugar from plantations in the more low-lying eastern regions.
By then the dismantling of the British empire is in full swing. A constitution for limited self-government is introduced in 1963. In 1967 a revised constitution transforms the Swazi territory into a protected state as the Kingdom of Swaziland. Full independence follows a year later.
Independence: from AD 1968
Having shephered his kingdom back to independence, Sobhuza sets about establishing a latter-day version of an 18th-century enlightened despotism. In 1973 he scraps the constitution devised under British guidance and reverts to a traditional system of government with all effective power in royal hands. He retains the outward form of government by prime minister and cabinet, but as with his 18th-century predecessors all these officials are appointed by the king.
The result, since in this case benevolence does go hand in hand with despotism, is a period of stability and progress for Swaziland – with a new emphasis, as far as the economy will allow, on improvements in education and health.
But such anachronisms cannot easily survive in the late 20th century. Sobhuza himself introduces in 1978 an experimental form of democracy, in which traditional local groups (the tinkhundla) elect the members of an assembly on the basis of universal suffrage over the age of eighteen. But the assembly has little legislative power.
The death of Sobhuza in 1982 is followed by a power struggle within the royal family, resulting from the fact that Sobhuza’s designated heir, the prince Makhosetive, is still in his teens. The period of regency of his mother, Queen Ntombi, is turbulent. But in 1986, when the prince comes of age, he is safely enthroned as Mswati III.
Problems begin to accumulate for Swaziland during the 1990s, including a terrible drought in 1992. Half the nation’s cattle die during the year, and more than half the population of 800,000 rely on international food aid.
Political unrest also becomes a feature of national life. Disaffected students of the Swaziland Youth Congress set fire to the national assembly in 1995. Strikes become common. From 1996 the central issue is a growing clamour to end the nation’s system of absolute monarchy and the ban on political parties. The king, in response, promises to review the system. But little progress is made. At the end of the decade the situation is still unresolved.