Eswatini: Pro-democracy protests continue despite police intimidation

September 27, 2021
School students protest for the release of political prisoners. Photo: @SwaziNews/Twitter

The biggest pro-democracy uprising in decades took place in Eswatini (Swaziland) in late June.

In response, the Eswatini Armed Forces, which are controlled by absolute monarch King Mswati, killed at least 70 pro-democracy activists and left many others with serious injuries. Neither the brutal intimidation, nor the king’s attempt to pacify the nation with lies, religious fervour and traditional rituals, have quelled the calls for democracy.

The king’s response to protesters’ calls for dialogue and democracy was to call a Sibaya, a traditional meeting of the nation held in the royal cattle kraal (corral).

From a golden throne, the king delivered a cryptic speech to the few people who bothered to attend. After mocking the pro-democracy movement and denying he had given the orders to ban the delivery of petitions to parliamentarians (a key catalyst for the protests) and shoot to kill protesters, Mswati announced he had selected Cleopas Dlamini as the country’s new prime minister and then sped off in one of his Rolls Royce cars.

Dlamini is a former chief executive officer of the Public Services Pension Fund, a fund Mswati is accused of looting to inject cash into his businesses.

Mswati presumed that the combination of brutal force and denying the truth would be enough to quash the movement. That hasn’t happened, partly because of the growing presence of independent journalists and activist groups, which are pushing the pro-democracy demands and exposing state lies and secrets on social media.

One such lie is Mswati’s denial that he ordered the ban on delivering petitions to members of parliament. There are also rumours that he ordered the arrest of three MPs who accepted petitions calling for democratic reforms.

These rumours were proven correct by the arrest of Bacede Mabuza (Hosea MP) and Mthandeni Dube (Ngwempisi MP) on July 25. A warrant was also issued for the arrest of Siphofaneni MP Mduduzi Simelane, however, he has so far managed to evade arrest. These MPs are accused of inciting violence and looting by receiving petitions and have been charged under the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act, which makes political opposition a terrorist offence.

The MPs arrests received short-lived attention from the international community and sparked a second wave of protests. Supporters gathered at the country’s high court to demand the MPs release during a series of bail hearings presided over by Mswati’s sister-in-law, Judge Mumcy Dlamini.

Accused of being a puppet for the king, the judge first postponed her decision and then denied the MPs’ application for bail (and later their appeal), despite no evidence to support claims they had incited any violence or posed a threat if released on bail. They have been in jail for more than six weeks since their arrest and are awaiting an appeal to the Supreme Court scheduled for October 10.

Another lie that has been exposed by independent journalists on social media is Mswati’s denial that he gave the “shoot to kill” order against protesters.

An undercover agent recorded video footage of then-army commander Jeffery Shabalala in late August confirming that the order to shoot protesters came from Mswati. He is also on record alleging that Mswati ordered the MPs arrests. Although the king and government initially denied the allegations, they were forced to backtrack when the video recordings were released by Swaziland News, an online publication run by independent journalist Zweli Dlamini, a Swazi who lives in exile in neighbouring South Africa.

Shabalala resigned quickly after the release of the tapes, claiming he did so to avoid further investigation. The undercover agent who recorded the footage, former police sergeant Cebile Shongwe, resigned and fled to South Africa. She then made further allegations, including that members of the armed forces had thrown 14 protesters alive into fires started amidst the looting in June.

Although Shabalala was allegedly pressured to resign by Mswati, the resignation of the experienced army boss is a blow to the monarchy. It comes at a time when rumours of dissent within the armed forces and police are rising, and the king’s attempts to convince the nation and the world of his legitimacy are increasingly desperate. They have included several national prayer days and a promise to raise the salaries of armed forces personnel.

Most recently, the king announced a “Hallelujah strategy”, at the launch of a fund set up to reconstruct businesses damaged in June by looters.

First, Mswati announced that the fund to reconstruct looted businesses had grown from SZL500 million (A$45.8 million) to SZL1 billion (A$91.6 million), despite the cost of damages being revised down from the initial claim of SZL3 million ($A275k) to SZL800,000 (A$73.3k).

The king did not address allegations that the funds would be directed to his own businesses, which were targeted by protesters in June, and he repeatedly insists the country in which he holds executive, legislative and judicial power is democratic.

Mswati then asked Swazis to pray for the restoration of “peaceful” monarchical rule, and proclaim and write “Hallelujah” all over the country.

Finally, he banned any mention of pro-democracy MPs by state-owned media (that is, virtually all radio and TV stations and one of two newspapers in the country) and banned the broadcast of targetted MP Simelane’s gospel music.

In the week leading up to and following the announcements, protests were more prominent than Hallelujahs, and continued despite police intimidation and other attempts to disband the movement’s leaders.

Hundreds of activists marched to deliver a petition to the United Nations on September 10. High school students have led walkouts and activists from South Africa’s trade unions and political parties have led large protests at several Swazi border posts. Swazis living abroad have organised protests and financial assistance for the movement and injured activists.

However, the movement for democratic change in Eswatini lacks support from the international community, which will likely be needed to effect real change. Foreign ambassadors and the South African development community have issued statements condemning the brutality and calling for dialogue. But outside the country, little is being done to support the growing internal calls for democratic reform.

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