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Eswatini: South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki called in to intervene

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Monday, 12 July 2021 15:19

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki on 8 March 2013. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has been approached to help facilitate talks between government and civil society in Eswatini, following four days of violent protests in the absolute monarchy. It is understood that Eswatini's King Mswati III and prime minister Themba Masuku approached the former statesman; but Mbeki told them he would only agree if the process is led by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a source close to the process said.

A planned weekend visit by a SADC Troika delegation – consisting of foreign ministers from Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe – did not take place. For the initial talks that were held last Sunday 4 July, only hand-picked civil society organisations were invited. Leaders from other NGOs ‘gatecrashed’ the meeting to convince ministers to include them.

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, chair of the multi-stakeholders coordinating team, said civil society wanted to meet the SADC delegation separately so that they could express themselves freely. He said leaders were “hopeful” that there would be a proper meeting when the delegation returns, reportedly some time this week.

‘Placing impediments’

In a letter addressed to SADC executive secretary Stergomena Tax dated 9 July, Maseko accused the Eswatini government of “placing impediments, roadblocks and obstructionist [sic]” between the SADC delegation and representatives from outside government.

This is after Eswatini’s foreign minister Thuli Dladla warned the SADC delegation that her government might tighten Covid-19 restrictions and this could “hamper the envisaged consultations” that they have been invited to engage in.

Maseko also said: “The purported ‘peace’ at the moment may just be the calm before the storm, and a failure to read the political dynamics.”

More protests to come

Mlungisi Makhanya, leader of the banned opposition party Pudemo, said further protests have been planned for this week, and will build up to “the mother of all marches on Friday [16 July]”. Funerals were held over the weekend for those killed in the aftermath of the riots that started two weeks ago on 28 June.

Initial reports put the damage to businesses at an estimated R3bn ($208m), with over 5000 jobs affected.

Pudemo wasn’t involved in organising the initial protests, but the party has used the opportunity to reiterate its demands for a constitutional monarchy. Makhanya however said after the “massacre” of protesters – the official toll is 27 but some civil society organisations have put it at up to four times this number – people might not want to retain the monarchy at all.

Significant constituency?

Government leaders have, however, questioned whether civil society organisations and the opposition MPs represent a significant constituency. They also claim that similar groups of people delivered petitions to different tinkhundla (constituency offices).

The government’s directive that petitions be sent via email instead of being handed in physically, due to Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings in front of offices, sparked violent protests.

The government’s efforts to smooth over its image were dealt a blow over the weekend when its South African-based PR firm Vuma Reputation Management decided to ‘resign the account’.

In an interview, Manqoba Khumalo – minister of commerce, industry and trade – said people submitted petitions in 51 of the 59 tinkhundla last month. He however questioned whether the petitions expressed the people’s views. “It is also too presumptuous to presume that if somebody writes something on a petition and deliver it, that represents the voice of the majority,” he said. According to Khumalo, majority of Eswatini’s citizens are satisfied with the status quo.

He said the country’s current constitution, that was adopted in 2005, “was a result of a consultative process, a referendum-type process, when people said ‘we want our monarch and our politics to be intertwined’ and that was the result of the majority of the people [choosing this].”

“So you’re not going to change that because there’s been a petition, or because there’s been violence. You’re going to change that through dialogue that brings everybody that was there, when the current constitution was formulated, to the table,” he said.

Khumalo said dialogue would tell whether the civil society organisations had any support. “A majority will be numbers, and those numbers will be determined correctly, through the dialogue,” he said.

Problem with current electoral system

Critics however say the country’s current electoral system makes it impossible to determine support for the opposition as political parties are still banned. This is despite the 2013 African Union Elections Observer Mission stating that the ban should be reviewed because Articles 14(1)(b) and 25 of the Constitution enshrine freedom of conscience, expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement. But in 2018, subsequent elections were held despite the ban still being in effect.

Khumalo said the situation in Eswatini “normalised” last week, following violent protests the week before. “There are no signs of police and soldiers on the street,” he said, adding that those claiming otherwise “are pushing propaganda”. He questioned the authenticity of some videos circulated by government critics, which showed law enforcement officials brutalising people, often in their own homes. He said these would be investigated to determine if “inappropriate action” took place.

He insisted that soldiers and police intervened for a “specific purpose” saying that when they did go to people’s homes, it was to recover stolen goods. “For example, I am aware of a case where a business’s valuable assets were stolen and some neighbours saw assets being hidden in a house, and police went to get those assets.”

Economic hit

Initial estimates put damage to businesses on at least R3bn ($208m), with over 5000 jobs affected.

Eswatini’s foreign minister Thuli Dladla was quoted in Times of Swaziland saying that business owners would also be invited to speak to the SADC delegation. “Businesses that were affected were not able to come and appear before the Troika, so they expressed concern that the fact finding mission did not interview them, yet they are the ones that suffered losses,” she said.

Arrests & torture

Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to smooth over its image were dealt a blow over the weekend when its South African-based PR firm Vuma Reputation Management decided to ‘resign the account’. This is after a decade of receiving millions of rands from businesses that wanted sell the country’s image to potential investors. Last week, Vuma had set up interviews for journalists to speak with Khumalo.

Vuma’s resignation came after two South African journalists from online magazine, New Frame, were arrested and tortured by security forces on Sunday 4 July. The journalists had been working on a story about protesters who were killed. In a statement, New Frame said Vuma was “bending the narrative towards the interests of a highly repressive police state.”

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