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By Maxwell Dlamini, Jeffrey Smith and Nic Cheeseman

In normal circumstances when dozens of peaceful protesters are gunned down indiscriminately in the streets with scores more arrested, detained, and brazenly denied their human rights, the world’s media takes notice. Condemnation from the international community is often quick to follow. This has not been the case for eSwatini – formally Swaziland – the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa, where the kingdom’s estimated one million inhabitants are not citizens but rather subjects of the monarchy. 

For weeks unarmed protesters have been facing off against a heavily armed and repressive regime led by King Mswati III, who has ruled the small kingdom with an iron fist, and quasi-spiritual authority, since 1986.

Located between South Africa and Mozambique, the country has suffered what Amnesty International has defined as a “full-frontal assault on human rights” as the monarchy desperately attempts to hold on to power.

There are two main reasons why this spiralling violence has been largely ignored. First, eSwatini is a tiny landlocked country, the kind that are generally overlooked by foreign governments and commentators alike. Second, this is not the first anti-monarchy protest, so it is tempting to assume that the situation will soon return to normal as so often in the past. But this is a grave mistake.

READ | Mpumelelo Mkhabela: eSwatini: Peace can no longer be guaranteed without reform

It is true that past bouts of unrest – such as the violently suppressed demonstrations of 2011 – failed to result in meaningful political change. However, this is not a case of history repeating. 

Several vital characteristics this time around are distinct and game-changing.

Whereas past protest movements were coordinated and led by civil society groups and by eSwatini’s trade union leaders, this time the protests began as a spontaneous uprising following the death of law student Thabani Nkomonye at the hands of Swazi authorities.

Although he was not an activist, Nkomonye’s treatment – in addition to being killed, his parents were forced to search for his body – has become a national symbol of police brutality, in a similar way to how the killing of George Floyd galvanized public opinion throughout the United States. Since then, the movement has expanded to include a much broader cross-section of Swazi society – including rural areas that had not been previously mobilised for, or participants in, protest actions.

Authoritarian monarchy  

Popular anger has been fueled by the evident deterioration of eSwatini’s economic situation due to Covid-19, but also because continued land grabs by members of the royal family – carried out with violent impunity – mean that it is widely seen to be both predatory and out of touch with the growing needs of ordinary Swazis, a majority of whom live well below the poverty line.

There is indeed a growing recognition that many of the challenges that individuals face in eSwatini – from corrupt and murderous policing to a lack of drugs and oxygen in hospitals during the pandemic – is rooted in an authoritarian monarchy, leading to more assertive calls for fundamental regime change. 

As a result, reverence for the King has declined considerably, especially in more urban areas of the kingdom. This growing disaffection has been driven in part by the cavalier manner in which the monarchy’s largesse and obscene wealth have been flaunted on social media – for example, by Mswati’s children, who have even taunted the protesters in recent posts. Whereas in the past, eSwatini’s protest leaders have sought to transform the kingdom into a modern constitutional monarchy – like nearby Lesotho, for example – calls are increasingly coalescing behind wholesale demands for a democratic republic. 

In the last Afrobarometer survey, conducted in 2018, only 5% of people polled said that they were happy with the way that “democracy works in eSwatini.” Some 14% replied that eSwatini is “not a democracy at all” – which is of course correct. When asked about the best political system to govern the country, the most popular answer was “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.” In other words, today’s pro-reform movement resonates with the beliefs of a substantial majority of the Swazi people.

Another significant difference from previous bouts of unrest is that these popular frustrations are being channelled in a more coherent way. Although opposition parties have been officially banned since 1973, they continue to operate and have recently united under the Political Parties Assembly (PPA), which has bold demands for democracy at its centre. It is hard to know how long the PPA will last – but while it does, and as it continues to marshal popular dissent effectively, the monarchy faces an emboldened opposition that is increasingly marking itself out as a viable democratic alternative. 

Taken together, these factors have created a more tenuous situation than the kingdom has ever faced before. Put simply: many of those Swazis risking their lives on the frontline of today’s protests are determined to be the last generation to live under a “dictator king.” And although there is still reverence for Mswati among parts of the population – in more rural areas, for instance – it has become clear that the governing structure that exists today, in which the monarchy is supreme, and the Constitution a fig leaf for authoritarianism, is untenable.

For at least a decade now, Swazis have been unequivocal: they want to see change, not “quiet diplomacy” that preserves the oppressive status quo. This means regional influencers – namely, South Africa – and international powerbrokers like the US refusing to provide cover for Mswati, creating the opportunity for the Swazi people to choose their own destiny. Such efforts cannot happen without profound engagement with the domestic pro-democracy movement, however.

Too often, international teams have devoted more time to talking to Swazi authorities rather than the subjects they continue to repress, often brutally. As a result, while many Swazi opposition leaders are calling out for support and global solidarity, there is also a strand of the protest movement that is justifiably angry about past international failures and is now determined to “do this on our own.” Therefore, any international engagement must begin by listening to concerns on the ground and reflecting the declared wishes of Swazi society to move the kingdom towards a genuine transition to democratic reform.

Five central demands

To date, five central demands have emerged from the Swazi protest movement, including: an all-inclusive mediated national dialogue; the unrestricted unbanning of political parties; the creation of a transitional authority; a new democratic Constitution with a full set of political rights and civil liberties; and a democratic dispensation grounded in constitutional multiparty elections for the executive and legislature. These must be the demands that are put to Mswati, not a watered-down version that merely offers face-saving measures for the King while maintaining the apparatus of his increasingly corrupt and out-of-touch rule.

A major pitfall of allowing Mswati to dictate the terms of the conversation is that he will simply call another Sibaya – a national meeting – that will be nothing more than a talking shop with no power to effect real change, a cosmetic show that will silence rather than invite critical voices.

King Mswati III has expertly hidden in the shadows of other African dictators for nearly four decades now. His rule has been sustained by the perception that his regime is benign and universally loved. Those perceptions are rapidly changing as the violent authoritarian foundation for monarchic rule are gradually revealed.

Today, with the right support, Swazis can finally begin to build a country that respects its homegrown democratic aspirations while maintaining its rich cultural traditions – allowing a people who have grown tired of being treated as feudal pawns in a political charade the right to be citizens with the power to choose their own government. 

Originally published by News24.