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Pro-democracy protest is currently ongoing in eSwatini demanding an end to the regime under King Mswati III who has ruled the country formerly known as Swaziland since 1986. Reports on the ground suggest that the situation is reaching a boiling point.

Over the past few months, the Kingdom of eSwatini has experienced its worst bout of political violence in its postcolonial history. The unrest in the small southern African country, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, started in May, when protesters took to the streets to denounce police brutality in the aftermath of the death of 25-year-old university student Thabani Nkomonye, widely believed to have been killed by traffic police officers.

The unrest poses a major challenge to King Mswati III who has shown no willingness to respond to the demands of his people. This intransigence could deepen the crisis and lead to further violence and ultimately his fall from power.

Over 100 been killed since the unrest began in June and activists are blaming the government of downplaying the death toll. The sooner SADC moves in, the better for the people of eSwatini and also the region as a whole.

King Mswati III has ruled eSwatini since 1986 under the banner of Swati custom. Parliament is partly appointed by the king and partly elected through popular vote, but those who run as MPs cannot represent any political party. The king appoints the prime minister and holds considerable influence on all executive and legislative decisions. He is also the commander-in-chief of the army and the police

As protesters’ demands evolved over the past few months, people started demanding changes to this political set-up. Thousands of emaSwati delivered petitions for political and economic reforms to their Tinkhundla, the siSwati name for local constituencies.

The main demand was to allow for the popular election of the prime minister. A variety of social and economic issues were also raised, including demands for jobs, university scholarships, better infrastructure, and better healthcare.

The protests have a strong presence of rural youth, a highly disenfranchised group with little voice in the political arena. Social media played an important role in mobilising people across urban and rural areas and creating a shared platform.

The main economic activities in the formal sector include sugar production and processing, timber, textile manufacturing, and a service and retail sector dominated by branches of South African companies. Key economic players are locked into often secretive partnerships with the king and his family, with a considerable number of public resources diverted for private gain, including for example the use of public pension funds to inject liquidity in businesses close to the king’s interests.

All that is left for the vast majority of people, who are not connected to royalty and lack white privilege, is precarious employment with appallingly low wages and harsh working conditions if they are lucky. In 2019, official statistics put the general unemployment rate at 22 percent, while youth unemployment was at 46 percent.

The latest available data on poverty levels showed that 72 percent of the population earned $5.50 a day or less in 2016. The situation is likely much worse today due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under Swati tradition, all Swati citizens are eligible to receive a piece of land in rural areas by paying tribute to a chief. But over the years, this system of customary land tenure has also deteriorated. Today, many amaSwati cannot claim this right because of the increasing marketisation of land distribution.

Such entrenched levels of poverty and inequality can only be remedied with bold economic and political reforms. The king and his clique, however, have demonstrated that they would not negotiate with those demanding change. At the same time, the ritual and institutional checks and balances provided by custom to curb the powers of the king, so that he does not turn into a ruthless dictator, have also failed.

We deplore the regimes high handed attacks and view it as an assault on democratic freedoms of the people of eSwatini who are demanding constitutional changes in the way they want to be governed.

Schools have been shut down after students joined pro-democracy demonstrations in the southern African kingdom. Students’ groups and private commuter bus operators have been at the forefront of the latest protests over the past two weeks.

The government of eSwatini needs to be told that in no uncertain terms will it go on killing its people wantonly just because they are demanding their democratic space.

The king and his allies have accumulated so much wealth that they have too much at stake to peacefully exit power. They will not go without sustained external pressure, so it is now up to neighbouring South Africa, the Southern African Development Community, and the international community at large to act.


Dr. Mustafa Mheta

Senior researcher/Head of Africa Desk

Media Review Network

South Africa