Originating from a Bantu-speaking clan in what is now Mozambique, the Swazi people swept westwards in a series of conquests in the 18th century and established a kingdom led by King Ngwane III. The name of both the country and its people derives from King Mswati II, who extended the kingdom’s borders and its influence in the 19th century. As a result of the Second Boer War, Swaziland (as eSwatini was then known) became a British protectorate in 1903, but limited interference in local matters by the colonial authorities enabled the nation’s royal elite to preserve its status in society. Swaziland gained its independence on 6 September 1968 during the reign of King Sobhuza II, who governed the Swazis for a total of 83 years.
His son, Mswati III, ascended to the throne in 1986 and has ruled the country ever since. eSwatini remains the only absolute monarchy in Africa and is one of just seven in the world. The Swazi king has many wives and children. In appointing an heir apparent, consideration is also given to the prince’s mother, since royal authority is symbolically divided between two people: the king himself, symbolised by the lion; and the king’s mother, symbolised by the elephant.
On the orders of Mswati III, the colonial-era name Swaziland was changed to the Swazi-language eSwatini in April 2018. Following its name change, eSwatini became Estonia’s deskmate at the UN. The country has shown a keen interest in Estonia’s e-governance and e-services, and in 2019 the Minister of Information and Communication Technology of eSwatini, Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini, visited Estonia to learn more.
CULTURE AND TRADITIONS
eSwatini is characterised by its adherence to traditions and strong sense of community. The biggest annual event in the Swazi calendar is the Uhmlanga reed dance, where for one week at the end of August around 40,000 young women gather in the royal village. According to custom, the Uhmlanga is designed to recognise and value the virginity of the young women, who are all unmarried, and to foster their feeling of togetherness.
An important place in the ceremony is held by reeds, which symbolise virginity – according to folklore, a reed which is broken or has a noticeable droop indicates that the bearer has lost her virginity. The week culminates on the sixth and seventh days in a series of ceremonies in which the girls demonstrate their singing and dancing skills before both a royal audience and thousands of ordinary spectators. On the seventh day they are greeted by the king, who arrives with an entourage of many dozens of attendants, who thank the young women by bowing before them.
For the royal family, the Umhlanga is important because the king may choose a new wife from among the participants. However, this does not take place at the time of the ceremony: the decision to take a new wife is made considerably earlier by the king, who speaks with his intended and her family ahead of the ceremony. In doing so, the king does not divorce his existing wives, but the young woman becomes part of the extended family of the monarch, who practises a polygamous lifestyle – in 2019, King Mswati III had a total of 15 wives and 35 children.
With a population that is predominantly Swazi, eSwatini is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in Africa. It has two official languages: English, which is used in administration and taught at schools; and Swazi (siSwati), which is mostly spoken at home and used in everyday communication.
The average age of the Swazi people is just 23.7, making eSwatini the country with the youngest population in the world. The nation has been severely affected by the HIV epidemic, which arrived in eSwatini in 1986. In the decade that followed, the number of infections in the country skyrocketed, to the point where a national disaster was eventually declared in 1999. Since the 2000s the state has made great strides in the field of sexual health, largely with the support of foreign aid. For example, treatment is currently available to 87% of HIV-positive people in eSwatini and free contraceptive products to two-thirds of the population. Widespread awareness-raising efforts have also led to a gradual decrease in prejudice and social stigma related to HIV. Nevertheless, just over 27% of Swazis between the ages of 15 and 49 continue to live with HIV, and the epidemic has left its mark on a number of generations – one in every four children in eSwatini today has lost one or both of their parents to the virus.
Of its total gross domestic product, eSwatini spends almost 7.1% on education – one of the highest such indicators in the world. By comparison, Estonia directed 6.2% of its GDP into education in 2018, while the EU average is just 4.7%.
The availability of education has improved in eSwatini primarily due to the free basic education the state offers from Grades 1-7. The main concern in the country is the slow progress students make, which is one of the reasons many drop out before reaching a higher level of education. eSwatini lacks the qualified and properly trained teachers it needs to ensure high-quality education. The educational outcomes of Swazi children are also affected by the standard of living in their families and where they live: compared to children from more prosperous urban settlements, 30% fewer children graduate from Grade 9 in rural areas.
As in Estonia, there are 45 UNESCO ASPnet schools in eSwatini. The mission of the network’s members is to educate open and socially active individuals who care for the environment and the well-being of people, thereby contributing to the achievement of sustainable development goals. National coordinators organise training for the schools in the network and provide opportunities for them to cooperate, showcase their activities and make new contacts. A total of 10 schools in Estonia and eSwatini started working together during the 2019/2020 academic year.
GIRLS' EDUCATION AND LIFELONG LEARNING
Guaranteeing high-quality education for all is a sustainable development goal and UNESCO is the lead organisation in coordinating its achievement. Gender equality in education is analysed in terms of enrolling in school, educational progress, opportunities that open up after leaving school and lifelong learning. The literacy rate in eSwatini is the same among men and women, and there are no major differences in the duration or availability of education between boys and girls. However, getting girls to return to school after falling pregnant and getting young people onto the labour market are problematic in the country.
The principles of lifelong learning, accompanied by equal and flexible opportunities for self-improvement, are important in ensuring gender equality in society. Gender equality contributes to the development of society as a whole. For the population of eSwatini, the education of young women is of vital importance in stopping the spread of HIV, since it tends to be women who run households and raise children. Moreover, the likelihood of girls who pursue an education contracting HIV through sexual transmission is four times lower than among girls who do not attend school.
Agriculture accounts for approximately 6.5% of eSwatini’s GDP. It is characterised by limited yield due to climate change and a lack of investment. It is estimated that 70% of people in the country produce everything they need for themselves throughout their lives. Staples include the porridge-like cornmeal pap, yams, sorghum and pumpkin and its leaves. In addition to crop-farming, animal-rearing is widespread in the country, particularly goats and cattle.
The most common cash crops in eSwatini are sugarcane, maize and pineapple. The nation is the fourth biggest producer of sugarcane in Africa and is ranked 25th in the world, with huge plantations in the east of the country. Its main export partner for sugar is the European Union, to which more than half of all Swazi sugar is sent. Sugarcane production is water-intensive and therefore threatened by droughts, by which small producers who lack watering systems and plant protection resources are hit hardest.
NATURE - LANDSCAPE
In geological terms, eSwatini is one of the most ancient places on Earth and the only country entirely underlain by the more than 2.5 billion-year-old Kaapvaal Craton. The country’s famous Sibebe Rock is the oldest monolith in the world and second only in size to Australia’s Uluru.
Accounting for a significant proportion of the Swazi economy are the country’s forests, which cover 33% of its territory. The mountainous northern and western parts of eSwatini are home to sprawling commercial forests in which rapidly regenerating pines and eucalypts are grown. Planted forests make up 9% of all forests in the country. Nevertheless, there is limited processing of raw timber in eSwatini, most of which is exported to South Africa for commodification.
eSwatini is home to the world’s oldest known iron mine. Carbon dating has revealed that haematite ore was mined at Ngwenya as long ago as the Middle Stone Age, 41,000 years BC. Although there are gold and diamond deposits in eSwatini, they are not actively mined (unlike in neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique) due to a lack of resources and investment.
NATURE - ANIMALS
A total of 766 species of birds and animals have been identified in eSwatini, with birds alone accounting for an astonishing number: upwards of 500. Protected areas began to be established in the country in the early 1970s. Today there are 17 such areas, covering 4.26% of its territory. Best known among them are Hlane Royal National Park, where you can encounter elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses and zebras, and Malolotja National Park, which is home to the country’s highest peak, Emlembe (1862 m). Biological diversity is being undermined in eSwatini by encroaching forestry and expanding sugarcane production.
eSwatini’s Lubombo Biosphere Reserve was admitted to UNESCO’s ‘Man and the Biosphere’ (MAB) programme in 2019. There are around 700 protected areas of this kind in the world, with Lubombo being the first Swazi reserve to be added to the list. MAB is an intergovernmental scientific programme which aims to ensure biological diversity and the balanced development of human culture globally. The reciprocal impact of nature and the local community is studied on the reserves included in the programme, with solutions being developed for sustainable use. Like eSwatini, Estonia has one biosphere on the UNESCO list: that of the Western Estonian archipelago, which has been part of MAB since 1990.
URBAN ENVIRONMENT AND ECONOMY
Almost a quarter of the Swazi population (24.2%) is urbanised, which is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. The biggest centres in eSwatini are its capital, Mbabane, which is home to the country’s government agencies, and Manzini, its biggest city in terms of number of residents and the industrial and business heart of the nation. While the village society of eSwatini continues to be characterised in places by its adherence to traditions and rule by clan chiefs, the way of life of those in cities is modern and has moved away from the customs of their forebears.
As a landlocked nation, eSwatini is economically very much dependent on trade with neighbouring South Africa. As much as 81.6% of all the goods imported into eSwatini come from South Africa, to which the country exports 69.4% of its own goods in turn. Large numbers of Swazis have been working in South African mines since the early decades of the 20th century, and there is significant labour migration between the countries to this day. The unemployment rate in eSwatini stood at 25.7% in 2019 and its government must grapple with the fact that a lack of suitable jobs is forcing many skilled workers and educated youngsters to move to South Africa and other countries in search of work.