Eswatini: one man standing in the way of democracy
Democracy protests threaten the status of Eswatini’s King Mswati III as Africa’s last absolute monarch. In a country where people are not citizens but subjects, Mswati lives lavishly while the majority exist in dire poverty. Elections are largely ceremonial, political parties are banned and Mswati picks the prime minister. Young people are at the forefront of demands for constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy, but their reasonable requests have been met with lethal violence. Recent killings were on such a scale that international institutions for once took an interest in a country they usually ignore. They should not be fooled by the king’s offer of fake dialogues and instead should push for real change.
Eswatini’s protesters aren’t asking for a lot. They’re calling for the rights millions upon millions take for granted: not to be ruled over by an all-powerful king, and instead have some say in the decisions that affect their lives. But in Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, that’s too much to ask. The king has refused to make even superficial concessions. His response is outright repression.
The lavish lifestyle of a democracy denier
King Mswati III, who has ruled the country since 1986, is known for a few things. One is his collection of wives: he’s said to have at least 15, some of them picked during the annual reed dance festival in which young women are coerced into parading bare-breasted before him. Another is his wealth. He’s said to be worth around US$200 million, and he and his family hold controlling stakes in many of Eswatini’s biggest companies. He also gets a reported US$50 million a year from state coffers.
This wealth funds a rockstar lifestyle. Mswati is famed for holding extravagant parties. He owns several royal palaces – and in 2004 got the government to build more for his wives. Mswati loves cars too: in 2019 he spent a reported US$24.4 million buying 19 Rolls Royces for his wives, on top of his fleet of at least 20 top-of-the-range Mercedes; for longer trips, he has two private jets stationed at his private airport. When people complained about some earlier purchases of luxury cars, he made it a crime for people to photograph them.
In short, he’s an outrageously privileged man-child who’s never known anything other than unimaginable luxury, insulated from reality by a sprawling network of family members and sycophants who benefit from his largesse.
This might all be just a tawdry royal soap opera, a laughably quaint anachronism in the 21st century, were it not for the other thing Mswati is known for: his disdain for democracy. It’s clear why Mswati fears democracy: if it took root, his unchecked power and privilege would come to an end.
True, Eswatini has elections, but political parties are banned and opposition figures are repressed; many have fled to South Africa. The king gets to appoint some of his own members of parliament (MPs). He also picks the prime minister. Elections are nothing more than empty rituals designed to make Mswati’s absolutism less obvious.
Mswati says the current system – which he characterises as ‘monarchical democracy’, in which through voting people ‘provide advice and counsel’ to the king – is founded on the country’s values and ways of life. But he alone is the one allowed to define those values and traditions, with no room for any alternative perspective.
When Mswati speeds along Eswatini’s roads in one of his many luxury cars, he must find it hard not to see the searing poverty in which people live on the other side of the window. Around 59 per cent of people live below the poverty line and 25 per cent of children are malnourished. Eswatini has the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, leaving 45 per cent of children orphaned or vulnerable.
This kind of poverty is no accident: it results from an economy that is structured to feed money to the king and his entourage. The decisions the king makes are not guided by any consideration of improving the living conditions of the majority. Attempts to alleviate poverty will fail until this political elephant in the room is addressed.
Student killing triggers democracy demands
Little wonder that people in Eswatini are calling for change. And the demands did not start this year. 2018 – the same year the king unilaterally and without warning changed the name of the country from Swaziland – saw mass union mobilisations over pay and standards of living. Protests mobilised as the king held lavish 50th birthday celebrations costing millions of dollars. Security forces met the protests with live ammunition, rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas.
In 2021, protests came in two waves. The trigger point for the first wave was the disappearance in May of law student Thabani Nkomonye; his body, showing signs of torture, was found a few days later. The police did little to investigate his disappearance and gave conflicting accounts of events. Many suspected them of involvement in his death.
Students protested to demand justice for Nkomonye. But they didn’t just call for an end to police brutality; they demanded multiparty democracy as the key means by which the police – and other institutions of the state – could be held accountable to the public rather than the king. This made them a threat, and as soon as they protested, state violence was unleashed, with police firing teargas and arresting protest leaders.
It’s clear why Mswati fears democracy: if it took root, his unchecked power and privilege would come to an end.
Things escalated when three MPs defied all protocols by calling for constitutional democracy and the right to elect their own prime minister. In July two of them, Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, were arrested and detained under terrorism laws. They have repeatedly been denied bail by a judge who happens to be a sister-in-law of the king. The third MP, Mduduzi Simelane, has so far evaded arrest.
Following the MPs’ call, people started to flood the government with their own petitions demanding democracy. In response, the government banned the delivery of petitions, an act that further increased anger. The circulation of a video showing some of the king’s many children mocking democracy protesters only added fuel to the fire.
For many people who had never protested, this was the last straw. Among them were many young people, with student unions leading the way; young people in Eswatini experience staggeringly high levels of unemployment. They are also the most exposed to social media, giving them a greater insight into different possibilities. Protests spread from urban to rural areas, reaching far beyond cities. South Africans protested at the country’s borders.
As protesters set up roadblocks, Eswatini ground to a halt. As well as boycotting the king’s businesses, people targeted the premises of businesses owned by him, setting them on fire. These acts of anger enabled the government to vilify protesters as ‘rioters and foreign agents’.
A lethal response
Predictable state violence ensued, but with a new level of lethality. Dozens of people were reported as killed by the security forces, among them children, and around 1,000 were injured. Security forces reportedly fired indiscriminately at protesters; leaked undercover footage revealed that it was the king who ordered a shoot-to-kill policy as well as the arrest of the pro-democracy MPs.
Hundreds of protesters and opposition supporters were jailed. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was enforced and the army filled the streets. An internet shutdown was imposed, disrupting protest organisation and cutting off access to independent media – a vital corrective to the king’s mouthpiece of state media.
In some areas security forces went house to house, dragging young people out and beating them. Hospitals were overwhelmed with injured people. People who survived shootings were told they could not keep the bullets extracted from them to use as evidence. Some bodies were reportedly burned in an attempt to conceal the state’s crimes. No one has been held accountable.
A second wave unfolds
The king must have thought he’d restored order and could safely go back to counting his money and picking yet another wife. He talked about national dialogue, but what he offered was a Sibaya – a traditional gathering in which he was the only person allowed to speak. During this event, which he packaged as a ‘people’s gathering’, he appointed a new puppet prime minister. He also announced a fund to restore damaged businesses; it would be no surprise if businesses owned by his family were to benefit the most.
But the fig leaf of the Sibaya seemed to appease international observers: a delegation from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was persuaded not to meet with Pudemo, the main banned opposition party, and global north donor states seemed to see this as some kind of progress. But protesters, who the king called ‘satanic’, were not fooled: they protested in the city of Manzini during the Sibaya. In response the police used teargas and arrested several people.
In September and October, schoolchildren took up the protest banner. Videos circulated online of students holding organised, orderly walkouts from their classes. They called for the release of the detained MPs, as well as improvements to their schools and free education. They may be young, but they can see the evident injustice and understand that in the absence of democracy their concerns about education are not going to be addressed.
The state’s response was predictable: it sent the army into schools, confronting children with the brutal reality of the king’s rule. Of the 17 students arrested at a protest on 11 October, one was only seven years old. When this tactic failed and walkout protests continued, the government closed all schools indefinitely and then claimed that protesters were somehow depriving children of their education.
But others followed the students’ lead. Unions joined in and a public transport shutdown was held over a weekend in October. Further repression came as a response, including a second internet shutdown, and on 20 October, live ammunition was again fired, this time at a bus of protesters heading to a protest in the capital. Protests were then banned nationwide.
A rare moment in the spotlight
In response to the second wave of protests and following another SADC delegation visit, the king has offered to hold a national dialogue. This will come after a month of traditional celebrations of royalty, for which many will hardly be in the mood. Understandably, many see little hope that the dialogue can deliver change, and expect another choreographed show that might keep SADC and other foreign observers happy but won’t pave the way to democracy.
The problem for Eswatini’s 1.1 million people is that international organisations and foreign states don’t see their small country as having much strategic importance. It’s one of the reasons why Mswati has got away with all of this for so long. Until the killing started, institutions like the African Union, SADC and Commonwealth, and donors that thought they could tackle poverty while the king stayed rich, largely turned a blind eye to the king’s excesses. Its powerful neighbour, South Africa, which props up the Southern African Customs Union that is Eswatini’s economic lifeline, has done the same.
There are signs that the use of lethal violence finally provoked greater concern – but there is now the fear that an act of performative dialogue could placate the outside observers that have taken a fleeting interest in Eswatini. But they should not sell Eswatini’s youthful democracy movement short.
By refusing any movement towards democracy, Mswati has become the greatest threat to the continuity of the institution he cherishes. People have started to see beyond his personal intransigence and excesses and begun to realise that the problem is the institution of absolute monarchy itself.
If Mswati had been prepared to countenance multiparty democracy and limits on his powers, Eswatini could now have a constitutional monarchy with functioning democratic institutions, upholding traditions while giving people, as citizens, a say. This would be an Eswatini that many people would be proud of. Not having taken that path, the longer Mswati holds out now, the more likely it becomes that he will lose it all.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
King Mswati should commit to a genuinely democratic, plural and open-ended national dialogue without the exclusion of any participants or issues.
King Mswati should enable an independent international inquiry to be held on security force killings and other rights violations of protesters, which identifies the perpetrators and commissioners and holds them to account.
International partners – including SADC and South Africa – must strongly urge King Mswati to commit to a timeline for the establishment of multiparty democracy.
Cover photo by Simphiwe Nkwali via Gallo Images