Eswatini: democracy a matter of life and death
Eswatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead in January. It isn’t yet known who committed the crime or what their motivations were, but few expect an adequate investigation. Maseko was a leader of Eswatini’s democracy movement and a public thorn in the side of absolute monarch King Mswati III, who recently threatened activists with repercussions. There have been several more apparent assassination attempts against democracy campaigners, and when mass democracy protests arose in 2021, security forces unleashed lethal violence. It’s time for the country’s international partners to insist on a proper investigation of the latest killing – and urge a genuine process towards democracy.
Thulani Maseko knew speaking out in Eswatini was a risky business. An activist and well-known human rights lawyer, he’d previously spent 14 months in jail for criticising the country’s lack of judicial independence. Now he’s dead, shot in his home by unknown assailants.
Among those Maseko litigated against was the country’s tyrannical ruler, King Mswati III. Mswati, in power since 1986, is Africa’s last remaining absolute monarch. In 2018, in one indication of his unchecked power, he changed the country’s name to Eswatini from Swaziland, unilaterally and without warning. Maseko was planning to take Mswati to court to challenge the renaming on constitutional grounds.
Maseko was chair of the Multi-Party Forum, a network bringing together civil society groups, political parties, businesses and others to urge a peaceful transition to multiparty democracy. He was also the lawyer of two members of parliament – Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube – arrested and detained in 2021 on terrorism charges for calling for constitutional democracy.
UN Human Rights Chief @volker_turk condemns brutal killing of leading Eswatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko. Authorities must ensure an effective investigation and protect safety of rights defenders, journalists, political activists & civic space.— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) January 23, 2023
It isn’t yet clear why Maseko was killed or whether those who did the deed were acting on their own initiative or following someone else’s orders. But for many in the country’s democracy movement, it’s more than a little suspicious that just before the killing Mswati is reported to have said the state would ‘deal with’ people calling for democratic reforms. Maseko had reportedly received death threats.
Civil society is calling for Maseko’s killing to be properly investigated. Those carrying out the investigation should be independent and ensure whoever is behind it is held to account, however high the trail goes. But there seems little hope of that.
Blood on the king’s hands
If Maseko’s killing was a reaction to his human rights work, it’s an extreme form of reprisal, but it’s not the only recent mysterious death. In May 2021, law student Thabani Nkomonye disappeared. When his body was discovered a few days later, it bore signs of torture. The police did little to investigate; many believed they were responsible for the killing. His family rejected the findings of the inquest.
When news of Nkomonye’s killing broke, students protested to demand justice – and multiparty democracy, because only under democracy can state institutions be held accountable. This was the trigger for months of protests that swept Eswatini in 2021.
What the democracy movement is asking for is commonplace elsewhere: the right for people to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
As protests went on – with people further angered at the detention of the two parliamentarians who’d backed democracy calls – some protesters started to target businesses owned by the monarchy. When protesters started fires, the state’s response was lethal. Dozens were killed and around a thousand injured as security forces fired indiscriminately at protesters, in a shoot-to-kill policy evidently ordered by Mswati. Bodies were reportedly burned in an attempted cover-up. Even if Mswati doesn’t turn out to have Maseko’s blood on his hands, there are plenty of other killings he’s likely responsible for.
Further youth-led protests in 2021 saw the army sent into schools to intimidate children. In some areas security forces went door to door, dragging young people from their homes and beating them. In October 2021, live ammunition was again fired at a bus carrying protesters. Protests were then banned nationwide.
Part of a pattern?
Amid continued repression, people have little hope that the killing of Maseko will be the last, and if anything the fear is that it could mark an escalation. If the state is behind the attack, it suggests an increased boldness to its repression: it may be targeting high-profile figures in confident expectation of impunity.
There are other indications this may be the case: Penuel and Xolile Malinga of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the major political party, have twice had their home fired upon in the last few months. In April 2022, the cars of two other PUDEMO activists were petrol bombed. In December 2022, human rights lawyer Maxwell Nkambule survived an apparent assassination attempt when his car was fired on.
Mswati has many other tools at his disposal to repress dissent. Internet shutdowns were applied in 2021. The Suppression of Terrorism Act is routinely used to detain activists and journalists, including for such trivial acts as shouting slogans or wearing t-shirts with the logos of political groups. Police target student activists with intimidation, threats, abduction and torture.
The state further signalled it had more interest in repression than investigating Maseko’s killing when two protesters were shot in a march demanding justice. The danger is of growing lawlessness and further waves of state lethality in response to any protest violence.
Genuine dialogue needed
What the democracy movement is asking for is commonplace elsewhere: the right for people to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. People want to pick the prime minister themselves, instead of the king doing it. They want to be able to vote for political parties, which are banned from elections. They want the king to be subject to the law, which requires a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy. And they want an economy that works for everyone: currently Mswati lives a life of rockstar luxury, funded through his family’s direct control of key state assets, while most people live in dire poverty.
An agreement to hold a national dialogue – struck with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) following the 2021 protests – hasn’t been honoured. Even if it happened, many doubt such dialogue would be genuine.
South Africa has a special responsibility to urge democracy, as the country that’s home to Eswatini’s many civil society and political exiles. It’s time for South Africa and SADC to stand up to Mswati, demand genuine accountability over the killing of Maseko and push harder for real dialogue, constitutional reform and a path towards democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must commit to conducting an independent and impartial investigation into the killing of Thulani Maseko and hold those responsible to account.
The government must release all activists and other prisoners of conscience held in relation to the 2021 protests.
The Southern African Development Community must urgently engage with the government of Eswatini towards holding a genuine dialogue on democratisation.
Cover photo by Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images