The start of a landmark legal challenge to the rule of King Mswati III has boosted the pro-democracy movement in the tiny southern African state of Swaziland.
The fight began when 289 residents of the small rural community of Kashali were threatened with eviction from their homes by an emissary acting on the king's orders. 18 of their homes have been demolished. The king wants the land they live on to produce income for the royal family. The residents have initiated a class action against the king's emissary, and against the head of the police.
Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, rules Swaziland with an iron fist. Political parties are banned in the country, as is all civil society activity that criticizes or opposes the monarchy. He is above the country's constitution and derives much of his income, which is used to support a large royal family of 13 wives and 26 children, from the expropriation of wealth from agriculture and businesses.
Swaziland is classed as a middle-income country by the World Bank, yet 70 percent of its population of one million live in poverty. It has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world - 26 percent of the population as a whole - and one of the lowest average levels of life expectancy - just 31 years.
The king's income is estimated by sources within government and civil society at about U.S. $6.1 million a month. Royal expenditure, plus that of the ruling elite who populate the country's top government structures, constitutes a major drain on Swaziland's economy.
This has been a central criticism by the pro-democracy opposition - comprising the banned People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and its youth wing the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO). These organisations have long pointed out that the vast wealth inequalities of the country are central to the massive poverty and are a key reason why autocratic rule persists. PUDEMO and the not yet banned Swaziland Democracy Campaign are pressing for an end to the autocracy and the creation of a multi-party democracy.
Now, however, the small community of Kashali have decided to try to apply the law that protects people from unfair eviction from their land to their own situation. So far the king has acted with impunity in taking land that he wants to use or taking crops and livestock.
"This all happens quite arbitrarily," says Chief Matatazela, who, under the traditional system of chiefs that controls much of Swaziland's local government, is nominally in charge of Kashali. "If the King feels that he is not getting enough income then he takes what he likes from the Swazi National Land that he supposedly keeps safe for the Swazi nation."
According to the constitution Mswati III's holding of land "in trust for the nation" is a largely symbolic entitlement. Lawyers for Kashali's residents affected by the demolition orders say that this does not extend to the destruction of property to enforce evictions.
At the beginning of March the Swazi High Court froze all demolitions and construction in the disputed area, pending a final ruling in April. The judge presiding over the case, Justice Bheki Maphalala, described it as "a serious constitutional and human rights matter."
His comment has boosted the plaintiffs' hopes of that they will have their complaint against the king's emissary upheld and be compensated for the loss of their homes. If this happens, the case would represent a first legal challenge by a community to the monarch's powers. But how this will unfold remains uncertain. The case has been adjourned until late April.
"For some, the houses represented a lifetime of savings and aspirations," says Senator Dlamini of the Shakali Development Committee, which supports the class action. "Forced evictions through the destruction of homes go right against the spirit and letter of the Swazi Constitution. It was the most terrible thing to do - to destroy people's homes. Those whose houses have been spared so far are scared to live in them."
The Swazi legal system has a certain degree of independence from government interference, but pro-democracy campaigners, who are watching the case with much anticipation, say that the courts have never been used to tackle the autocratic powers of the king.
But the story does not end there. A further twist to the situation facing Kashali's residents lies in the rivalry between the king and Chief Matatazela, who is in fact the kings older brother and himself a prince.
The prince supports the residents in their fight to reverse the demolition and eviction orders and to receive compensation for their lost homes. He has put up most of the funds for financing the case.
There is famously bad blood between the prince and Mswati III, as the king allegedly usurped the throne and had his older brother held for many months in detention while he consolidated his power. The prince was later readmitted to Swazi society but has never been one of the king's cronies. He lives in virtual seclusion and is rarely seen in public. The prince supports the creation of a constitutional monarchy under a multi-party democracy, another reason he is a thorn in the kings side.
Some pro-democracy activists, such as Senator Dlamini, see the Kashali evictions as evidence of the king seeking to impose his authority over his recalcitrant older brother, in addition to his straightforward desire to gain more control over the land. Others believe the court case could be the start of something much bigger - a precedent for rolling back the autocratic power of the king.
According to Quinton Dlamini, the president of the Swaziland National Association of Civil Servants and a prominent human rights activist, who is also advising the lawyers for the plaintiffs, the court case represents the opening round of what he believes will be the king's "Tunisia moment."
Dlamini believes the case will call into question the king's expropriations of Swaziland's wealth. "It is a definite blow to the king's efforts to remain unbound by the constitution. It will be a major challenge to his generally arbitrary and despotic rule."
Mark Waller is a freelance journalist living in Soshanguve, South Africa. Image by Waller.