Democratic pressure: Africa’s last absolute monarch running out of options

Democratic pressure: Africa’s last absolute monarch running out of options

By Inhlase Investigative Team

Nothing has yet come of eSwatini’s King Mswati III promise to open talks about democratic reform. Pro-democracy activists, who do not believe he really intends to welcome meaningful democratic change, have vowed to continue with the “revolution”. While this movement in eSwatini is led by youth, it is also attracting support from the King’s traditional strongholds in rural areas and among elderly people who are also now questioning the abject poverty they endure compared to the luxury enjoyed by the King and his household.

A political turning point for the 1.2 million amaSwatini, two thirds of whom live below the poverty line, was Covid-19. In March 2020, the virus was declared a pandemic and government implemented a state of emergency. The restrictions on human movement and banning of gatherings caused more hardship in a country with an already high unemployment rate, collapsed economy and high socio-economic inequality. While the restrictions provided a perfect tool for the state to crush any calls or protests for democratic change, Siboniso Mkhabela, an executive member of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) which has been calling for the multi-party democracy in eSwatini since it was established in 1983 said: “Covid-19 provided the much-needed spark to the revolution. There is no going back now.”

Duncan (not his real name as he preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals) of Shewula, a rural area east of eSwatini confirms this and says: “Covid-19 opened our eyes to the exploitation we have been subjected to. It exposed a lot of things for emaSwati. The huge inequalities were laid bare for all to see, even those in doubt. The hardships that came along at the outbreak of Covid-19 made emaSwati see that we live in a country that is up there amongst the most unequal.”

He added: “While it is said that we are independent, and we have been since 1968, we still do not have land. Here at Shewula we have no land to graze our cattle. The land was taken up by private farms and as you can see, the kraal here at my home is empty. It has been for years and is now falling apart. Cattle either died out of lack of grazing land and those remaining were stolen by cattle rustlers from neighbouring Mozambique.”

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), which measures political and economic change in developing countries, confirms that there is disillusionment with the monarchy in traditional rural strongholds.

“The problem is less the monarchy as an institution but rather the way in which King Mswati lll is currently exploiting it. He considers eSwatini his personal fiefdom, from which he can extract whatever he needs or wants…the King is personally exploiting his power for his own benefit and to the detriment of his people,” states the eSwatini 2022 BTI country report. 

In June last year violent riots and protests broke out in eSwatini when pro-democracy protestors clashed with police. Operation “kungahlwa kwenile” – the grass becomes thicker by the night – was in full force and pro-democracy campaigners were on the rampage. Over 70 emaSwati lost their lives during the protests and many were shot dead by security forces.

Government has refused to set up an inquiry into the riots and related protests marches including the arson attacks. Prime Minister, Cleopas Dlamini has said that police are investigating the matters.

The protests started in May following the death of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of Eswatini. The kingdom was rocked by massive protests with students at first demanding justice for Thabani, (#JusticeForThabani) as they believed he had died because of police brutality. The protests escalated and pro-democracy campaigners took over, calling for an end to King Mswati’s monarchical democracy, the last absolute monarchy in Africa. The protests spread to the 59 constituencies with citizens delivering petitions calling for democratic reform to tinkhundla centres.

After acting Prime Minister at the time, Themba Masuku, banned the peaceful delivery of petitions, police tried to enforce the ban but people across the country, even in rural areas, were not prepared to heed it. Housing and Urban Development, Prince Simelane, who is a trained soldier and the king’s brother, threatened the uncompromising youth that “government will meet fire with fire.”  One thing was obvious; police services were severely stretched by the delivery of petitions. Masuku also set up an inquest into the death of Nkomonye. The inquest led by magistrate, Nonhlanhla Dlamini has just finished collecting evidence and is yet to hand over to government its report.

Following the June unrest, King Mswati set up a fund of E500 million for the reconstruction of businesses torched during the violent riots but refused to set up a similar fund for compensation of those killed or maimed. He told a SADC envoy in December last year that he would open reform talks when he was done with January’s Incwala, a festival celebrating kingship, cleansing and renewal.

His responses, however, have not been enough to stop calls for democratic change. Since June 2021, emaSwati’s struggle to break free from absolute rule has intensified.

In Hosea, a rural village south of eSwatini, shifting political loyalties in favour of democratic reforms are evident among the elderly, many of whom are now at the forefront of calls for political change. Elderly men and women in this village are taking part in protest marches in support of two MPs from the constituency, Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, from the Ngwempisi Inkhundla who were arrested in connection with the June unrest last year. While the High Court has turned down their application for bail, a third MP, Mduduzi Magawugawu Simelane has escaped to South Africa. Prior to the June unrest, the three MPs had called for change, particularly with regards to the way in which the King appoints the prime minister. The trio called for the prime minister to be elected not appointed by the King.

The politicians are charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act which pro-democracy campaigners believe is used as a tool to silence them. Each time the MPs make an appearance in court, throngs of people come out to show their support, singing struggle songs.

Siboniso Mahlalela is a political activist in Lomahasha which is a small dusty village east of the kingdom along the Mozambique/eSwatini border. It has a long history of opposition to the monarchy and, following the June uprising, is now considered a political hot spot patrolled regularly by police. During the June protests last year, the area was marked by violent, often fatal, stand offs between residents and police.

One of the three opposition members in parliament, the late Mageja Masilela was from Lomahasha. It was known as a stronghold for the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress – the opposition to King Sobhuza’s Imbokodvo National Movement. That’s how Lomahasha became a pariah village often forgotten by the leadership.

“We have been neglected since then,” said Duncan in an interview with Inhlase in December last year.

King Sobhuza’s biographer, Dr Hilda Kuper recorded in her book – King Sobhuza II, King and Ngwenyama of Swaziland – that Lomahasha traditional leader, Chief Ngudvumane Mahlalela joined by neighbouring leader of Shewula, Chief Majembeni Sifundza (both late) had challenged the authority of King Sobhuza. They were card-carrying members of the NNLC.

In June last year, when running battles between police and the youth in this area broke out, senior citizens joined the protests which intensified and led to soldiers being brought in.

Mahlalela, who was heavily assaulted by police during the June violence says: “While we eat grass, living in abject poverty, Mswati (King) and the royal household are swimming in luxury. Here at Lomahasha, we are faced with a huge unemployment rate and the youth is mostly affected.”

Like many young people in eSwatini who are calling for political reform, the 34-year old Mahlalela has been looking for a job for 14 years but has never found one. Although he has given up trying to find a job, it is young people like Mahlalela who started the pro-democracy uprising in June 2021.

A 17-year old pupil, Maqhawe Lukhuleni, was shot during the uprising by a policeman known as Twenty Matsenjwa. While Lukhuleni is now confined to a wheelchair, two activists Mphostoli Masilela and Mxolisi Sigubhu Nyoni lost their lives when they later confronted Matsejwa about the shooting of the schoolboy who was not even part of the protesters. The policeman ran back to the police station for a firearm and came back to gun down the two political activists.

Mkhabela explains that: “The argument, I was told, got heated up when the activists told the officer that he shot the boy because he was loyal to King Mswati. They poked fun at the king’s leadership and the cop lost it. He ran back to the police station to fetch the gun.”

Masilela and Nyoni died because they made disparaging remarks about King Mswati’s leadership, sources who were present during the squabble leading to the shooting told Inhlase.

Police commissioner, William Dlamini condemned the killing of the two political activists and immediately suspended Matsenjwa. The police chief did not go into details of the shooting. He is currently awaiting trial for murder.

It should be highlighted that Matsenjwa is one of the many police officers recruited from the royal traditional structures. There is an unwritten law in eSwatini that before recruitment in the security forces is thrown to the public, first priority is given to the numerous royal residences to submit names of their own they want recruited. Matsenjwa was recruited in same way.

 “The shooting in July of the two comrades marked the start of the revolution in Lomahasha, which all along had been a sleeping giant,” said Mkhabela who was recently stopped from filling potholes in a road with other residents by police who said it was illegal to do so.

Police commissioner, Dlamini reported that since June last year there has been a marked increase in arson attacks on schools, police houses/property and government property. Petrol bombs have widely been the weapon of choice and police have been unable to arrest the culprits. In his report, he said there has been over 120 cases of arson. The attacks are becoming more frequent with the attackers still anonymous. In April this year.

Prime Minister Dlamini has appealed for calm and for a stop to the arson attacks, one of which was a petrol bomb attack on the home of King Mswat’s son, Prince Sicalo. PUDEMO’s secretary general, Wandile Dludlu’s car was attacked with a petrol bomb. Dlamini has maintained that the riots and on-going arson attacks are not politically motivated but are criminal elements sponsored by a foreign country seeking to establish diplomatic relations with eSwatini.

The MSF’s Maseko blames government for the arson attacks being carried out by unknown people. He says it is government which planted the seed of violence when it violently crushed every peaceful protest, even those that were purely labour related. Maseko says the attacks may be carried out by people sympathetic to the calls for democracy, but they are in no way related to MSF.

“As for us at the MSF, we will continue calling for democracy as we are doing now through peaceful means. We will never stop but we will engage only peaceful means,” he said.

 Maseko took comfort in the fact that none of the political parties have claimed responsibility for the arson attacks or any links with the attackers.

Maseko stresses how government has met every peaceful move with violence as it unleashed security forces on innocent and unarmed people. It was government, he says, that turned peaceful protests into violent ones when it banned the delivery of petitions. The ban on delivery of petitions in the tinkhundla centres was announced by then acting Prime Minister, Themba Masuku, shortly before the June unrest in May last year. In enforcing the ban, security forces engaged violent means against unarmed youths.

The abuse of Covid-19 regulations was at its worst after in the aftermath of the June protests. King Mswati and his government abused the regulations to impose a dusk to dawn curfew. Police and soldiers were all out to enforce the curfew which was meant to deal with the uprising.

In October last year, a businessman, Nhlanhla Kunene was shot dead by police for violating the curfew, an incident that sparked more protests that drew serious reprisals from security forces. Police, it was reported, had stopped him as he was driving home at about midnight. He complied but was shot in the process. According to police he tried to run away on foot. The shooting was not investigated.

Protests marches in condemnation of the shooting spread throughout the country. Police and soldiers got down to serious work assaulting protesters who were not only demanding justice for Kunene but also calling for the downfall of King Mswati.

At the small town of Siteki in the Lubombo region, soldiers were deployed to stop protests for Kunene. They commandeered a bus loaded with workers on their way to join other protesters. The protesters, according to an eyewitness who also became a victim of heavy assault, were loaded in an army truck and taken to a secluded place in the bushland where they were heavily assaulted and left barely breathing.

According to the victim, The protesters were forced to sing King Mswati’s praises and hurl condemnation or insults at erstwhile MP Simelane, now in exile.

In another spine-chilling incident in October the year police outside Mbabane stopped a bus loaded with teachers and nurses on their way to join a protest march. They ordered everybody out, but the passengers refused arguing they have not reached their destination.

In most brutal fashion, said eyewitnesses who were in the bus, police threw teargas inside the bus and when passengers jumped through windows, they were met by a hail of rubber bullets. The injured were left to fend for themselves.

President of the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Association, Welcome Mdluli said from that skirmish, they recorded 40 patients who were treated for rubber bullet and other wounds.

Pro-democracy activists believe that King Mswati is running out of options as the pressure to introduce meaningful democratic reform mounts.


This article is part of ‘The Palpable Stirrings of Change in eSwatini’ series made possible with the support of the Canon Collins Educational & Legal Assistance Trust under the Sylvester Stein Fellowship.

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