Eswatini: ‘Greed’ of King Mswati III ruining prospects for youth, driving conflict

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Saturday, 3 July 2021 11:54, updated on Monday, 5 July 2021 09:49

Protestors in Eswatini have clashed with the army over the killing of a student (photo/Zambia24)

Eswatini's protests may have been tamped down by the Kingdom's security forces. But a new alignment with South Africa's opposition EFF party suggests the regime is now on a collision course with Eswatini youth.

This week’s violent protests in the Kingdom of Eswatini really had their genesis in the simmering student anger that started weeks ago after the “murder of a student by police in cold blood,” opposition Pudemo’s Sonke Dube says.

The death of Eswatini student Thabani Nkomonye in May spurred fellow young people on to take to the street in protest. It’s believed that Nkomonye died in police custody as a result of brutal treatment, although the police claimed he was in a car accident.

Multiparty democracy

On the students’ list of grievances was the demand for a multiparty democracy that would hold institutions like the police to account. There are elections in this absolute monarchy but political parties are banned. The police and military are geared towards serving the interests of King Mswati III first.

“Democracy is not only going to change the lives of our people but is also going to change the education system,” Dube says. “Right now the education system is only aimed to keep young people away from the streets, because as they finish tertiary education or high school, the only alternative for them is to be idly around shops.”

This is a reference to the scarcity of jobs in the small, landlocked country of just over a million people where Save the Children in March estimated about a third of the population have been going hungry. Dube blames the scarcity of jobs on the “greed” of the polygamous King Mswati III, who lives a lavish lifestyle and whose children hold positions in government.

After the student protests started, three reformist MPs led calls for the prime minister to be elected by the people rather than being appointed by the king. Former prime minister Ambrose Dlamini died in hospital in December after he tested positive for Covid-19 and his deputy Themba Masuku had been acting in his place since.

Frustration boils over

They encouraged ordinary Swazis to go to their tinkhundla (parliamentary constituency offices) to deliver petitions to ask for the right to elect a prime minister, but Masuku decided to ban this, citing Covid-19 concerns. Frustrations boiled over and riots started, especially in the rural tinkhundla where the dissident MPs are based. Protesters intensified their actions after they were met by force.

On Monday (30 June) night opposition activists fuelled false rumours, mainly on social media, that a fearful King Mswati III had fled the country as protesters descended on businesses, looting and burning supermarkets and small shops.

This went on for several days, but by Friday the momentum had abated somewhat, partly broken by the mid-week announcement of tight Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, including an 11-hour overnight curfew, and data network blackouts for most of the day.

Network blackout

The outage was due to “a directive from the Eswatini Communications Commission to networks to suspend access to social media and online platforms until otherwise informed”, MTN Eswatini said in a statement. It was an unexpected first for the country on a continent where this has become a common tactic.

“This is the worst that it has been in a long time,” a local resident who wanted to remain anonymous, said on Friday. Older residents compared the intensity of the upheavals to the eight-day strike in 1996, when workers demanded constitutional reforms.

Long queues of people were waiting to buy food at some of the supermarkets that remained standing, but many of these were low on stocks after being looted, and as protesters blockaded roads and burnt trucks – the first time this tactic, common in South Africa, was applied here.

‘Army has been unleashed on unarmed civilians’

One of the dissenting MPs, Mduduzi Simelane, spoke to SABC by phone on Wednesday from hiding. “The army has been unleashed on the unarmed civilians,” he said. “They are taking people from inside their houses. It really is so bad.”

One of those taken in by soldiers was a leader from Eswatini’s branch of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party in South Africa led by former youth leader Julius Malema. Pudemo, which once was closely aligned to the ANC, had over the past few years been closer to the more activist and outspoken EFF.

Pudemo reckoned that by Friday afternoon, almost 70 protesters had been killed and 150 injured, but this could not be verified. Acting Prime Minister Masuku said in a statement on Thursday he was “yet to receive an official report about alleged deaths due to the riots” and added that he would “investigate these allegations”. He also said people should “not take the law into their own hands, as this can lead to further escalation”.

Pudemo’s posturing was victorious and secretary-general Wandile Dludlu at a Zoom press conference from South Africa, stated on Friday: “The Swazi moment has come that the Swazi people and the world have been waiting for and it is an honour that the Swazi people took it with both hands and acted decisively.”

Even though they didn’t start the protests, it’s unclear whether Pudemo had actually achieved any objectives. Dludlu, however, said the agenda of the people had been placed before the monarchy now, which had “for the past 48 years refused to take seriously the issue of the lack of service delivery, the issue of good governance, the issue of a government of the people under a democratic dispensation, and now he has no choice because it is on his table and it is on the agenda of the region and the continent.”

The African Union as well as the South African government had issued statements asking for restraint from the Eswatini police and military when dealing with the protesters, and for dialogue between the protesters and government.

Bottom line

Thus far, it’s not clear whether this dialogue has started, or if it would happen at all. The internet blackout meant that protests were hard to coordinate and often descended into leaderlessness and common criminality. For the first time Indian shops were targeted and burnt down in xenophobic-style attacks more common in South Africa.

Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation, a staunch government critic, said despite the intensity of the protests, these could end up not achieving much. Instead of sympathy, protesters could face a backlash and broken trust, as people were now out of food, and many who were working for businesses that were damaged or burnt down, have now lost their jobs.

“You see, when there is no job, and there is no uhuru, and you go back and say oh, I’ll give you uhuru, the person will say ‘get the f*ck out of here’.”

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