MBABANE, SWAZILAND — 'PATIENCE pays,' the inscription on the back of the bus admonished impatient drivers as it rambled through the undulating Swaziland hills. The legend may well have been a national motto: How else could this be the last surviving absolute monarchy in Africa?
Swazi society is deeply traditional, stratified into clans of royals, nobles, and commoners. Chiefs and princes rule the countryside in feudal fashion while the young King Mswati III and Queen Mother Nthombi Twala rule by decree.
On Jan. 22, the traditional hierarchy was stunned by a massive strike that shut down the country's economy for a week to try to force democratic reforms. The strike was led by the country's largest labor federation, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU).
In unprecedented civil unrest, Swazis looted shops and sabotaged government utilities. At least one protester, a teenage girl, died in security-force action. But after the king threatened "war," the strikers went back to work.
Things calmed down temporarily. A rally of union members yesterday, which had been banned by police, went ahead anyway, but with smaller numbers. At police orders, the 3,000 to 4,000 attendees dispersed, but did discuss resuming the mass strike possibly on Feb. 19.
Behind the strike was growing dissatisfaction with the autocratic rule of the monarchy.
Among 27 labor, economic, and political demands by the SFTU was one that King Mswati revoke a 1973 decree, which suspended the former British protectorate's Constitution and banned political parties.
Swaziland, a tiny mountainous territory landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, has lagged behind in the democratic groundswell reinvigorating the region. South Africa, Mozambique, and Malawi joined the "democratic club" of neighbor states Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia when they held their first democratic elections in 1994. Angola, long beset by civil war, now appears on the road to peace and multiparty rule.
Greg Mills, director of the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs, said last week if Swaziland does not join in, it may create regional tension. "South Africa would find it difficult to sit next to a country that is doing what the old [apartheid] government used to do."
But in a hard-line speech reminiscent of apartheid-style rule, Mswati on Jan. 27 ordered his subjects back to work. The SFTU responded by saying it would urge its followers back to work if only Mswati agreed to revoke the 1973 decree.
SFTU secretary-general Jan Sithole said organized labor became an "omnibus" movement where much political activity remained banned. "Our problems can only be addressed where there is democracy and accountability."
Mr. Sithole need hardly have bothered: On Jan. 29, as ordered by the king, a large part of Swaziland's work force returned to work, watched over by a heavy security presence. The capital, Mbabane, and the main industrial town, Manzini, were back to normal after a week of near-desertion.
The labor federation backed down, suspending what remained of its strike "to allow effective and meaningful dialogue" with the government. The retreat left the SFTU tarnished.
Again, the forces for change had to be patient.
If empty purses and hunger contributed in sending people back to work last Monday, the power of traditional values and respect for Mswati was an equally important factor. One woman, who asked to not have her name used, a curio vendor in picturesque Ezulwini Valley, personifies both.
She said that during the strike she lost 800 Emalangeni ($220) a day. A widow caring for eight children, she could not afford that. Neither did she understand the strike. "I don't know who [the SFTU] are. We don't know, if there is a change, what is going to happen. When I was born, there was the king, and there were the elders."
Mswati is held in high regard by much of the population. Even the strike organizers were careful not to challenge him directly, saying that the monarchy should be retained, but be constitutionally accountable, as in Britain.
South Africa - a major force in Swaziland, whose economy is dominated by its much larger neighbor - has resisted calls to intervene using its economic muscle, attempting instead to strengthen the hand of the king, widely held to be more amenable to change than the queen mother and other royals.
South African diplomats say change is now merely a matter of time. One, based in Mbabane, said South African President Nelson Mandela phoned Mswati after his hard-line speech.
"The king is in favor of reform.... If they do not find a solution now, [unrest] will happen again in three or four months time, and that they cannot afford," the diplomat said.