By Pholile Dlamini Shakantu
South Africa’s apex court recently handed down a judgement declaring that independent candidates who desire to stand for election – whether it be for provincial or national seats – are permitted by law to do so. In light of this judgement, I am compelled to draw a parallel between Eswatini and South Africa’s electoral system as South Africa moves away from a purely proportional representation system to make way for a model that brings constituencies to the fore, which we have long favored here in Eswatini.
The Eswatini system of Government is based on Tinkhundla democracy. The term “Inkhundla” or “Tinkhundla” (plural) is a SiSwati name for a constituency. In our system, constituencies (Tinkhundla) become engines for development and empowerment of Emaswati. Constituencies are also used to access services, as political spaces and popular representation of the people in Parliament. Our Tinkhundla democracy emphasizes that people be elected or appointed to public office based on individual merit, not affiliation to any particular party or grouping.
Elections in Eswatini are run according to the constituencies which we call the Tinkhundla system. This system allows individuals to campaign for elections. The primary and secondary elections take place in communities and constituencies (Tinkhundla). As EmaSwati, it was important for us to transform our system to allow individuals to be elected at grassroots level directly into parliament.
The Tinkhundla concept of government has its roots in World War II when, in order for Eswatini to recover from ravages of the war, Tinkhundla were established. While traditionally Tinkhundla was used in reference to meeting places created in each chiefdom for the purposes of dealing with local affairs, this concept was revised in 1978 to describe our electoral process, economic development structures and a national governance system.
It also embraces our African culture and traditions, and is now the foundation for the bottom-up development planning process and local service delivery in partnership with central government. Tinkhundla also cover urban as well as rural areas, giving all citizens a chance to elect their representative and access them directly to address any challenges.
While the system may be unique, it has been met with criticism for being too “conservative” and some even suggest undemocratic. This is untrue. We would go so far as to say it complies with democratic principles. People often criticize what they don’t understand or something that poses a different way of thinking to what they are used to.
Our system is democratic and nonpartisan. Emphasis is placed on individual merit as a basis for contesting elections rather than political party representation. The system has also been praised by the international community for its inclusiveness, particularly during the nomination of candidates. Its grassroots are based in that those elected, are directly elected from constituency level, and serve as their representatives.
Our system is also anchored on monarchical democracy which allows for those elected to play an advisory role to the king on how the country should be governed. A strong link exists between the ballot box and the monarch in that the electoral process is undertaken and takes off at a constituency level. People first express themselves by means of nominating and casting a vote. This system affords the right to directly elect the individual who should represent them in the parliament.
The process is nondiscriminatory and boosts the right to equality for all. Cabinet is then formed from both the elected and appointed members, through appointments by the king based on both the provisions of the law and recommendations from relevant structures, as well as the skills required for each portfolio. All decisions of the cabinet including budgetary matters are then passed through Parliament where we see our democracy at play.
While it is not always easy to agree on issues in Parliament, Eswatini prides itself on ensuring that national interests are best served through consensus with representatives of emaSwati.
The system provides fairness in the sense that candidates can be elected into public office regardless of their background or level of education. This is true democracy at play where there is no requirement of being aligned to one political party or another, but rather each candidate’s requirement is simply to serve those who elected them. I believe that this promotes accountability in the system. Members of Parliament are direct representatives of the people and therefore must be directly accountable to the people who voted for them.
Electoral processes and elections are essential to the development of democracy in any nation. Every country is obligated to design a system of Government that not only fits with democratic principle but also with the traditions and cultural norms of their society. This decision by the Constitutional Court will go down in history as a defining moment for all South Africans.
Pholile Dlamini Shakantu is the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs for the Kingdom of Eswatini.