Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is a “ticking time bomb”, according to Hlobi Dlamini, a gender and women’s rights advocate from that country. Reflecting on the state of Eswatini in the wake of a June 2021 uprising in pursuit of democracy and human rights, Dlamini said it is only a matter of time before there is another explosion of unrest.
“Even though the people may not be visibly on the streets, the anger, the hatred, the trauma, everything suggests that when the day comes for action, the amount of energy that has been now stored and censored is probably going to make more damage than before,” she said.
Dlamini was speaking at a Daily Maverick webinar hosted by the Maverick Citizen editor, Mark Heywood, on Thursday. They were joined by Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer and co-chair of the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), in discussing “When will democracy come to Swaziland?”
The past three years have seen the situation in Eswatini move from bad to worse, said Dlamini. The country was already struggling with a collapsed economy, high levels of unemployment and rampant socioeconomic inequality when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Women were among the worst affected, associated as they are with industrial labour and small self-employment ventures in the country.
“As we were trying to adjust to the Covid issue, then we as a country – I think, not surprisingly – reached a point where the political tensions that had been long existing finally overboiled. We saw thousands of Swazis taking to the streets to demand basic human rights, which are a challenge of non-service delivery by the current government,” said Dlamini.
A Daily Maverick report from 18 July 2021 indicated that the violent protests were also rooted in a decree by King Mswati III – the last absolute monarch in Africa – banning citizens from sending petitions to parliamentarians to demand democratic reforms.
The period of unrest was met with a violent backlash from the government, resulting in deaths, trauma and social displacement among citizens, said Dlamini.
While a United Nations report found that about 46 people were killed during the unrest, Maseko claimed that data collected during the course of the crisis indicated more than 100 deaths.
“With the lawyers with whom I’m working, at the time the crisis was at a height, we were about, over 700 people in jail, but the number kept going up… the minimum could be 1,000 people were arrested,” he said.
Dlamini expressed that while efforts are still under way to fix the psychological, physical and economic disruption that emanated from the government’s response to people’s demands for democracy, morale had not been lost.
“I think the attempt to grip people with fear has been successful, because the moment you say, ‘We’re going to the streets,’ there’s a significant amount of fear… but I don’t think the agenda has changed,” she said.
State of Eswatini
A 1973 decree banning political parties, issued by King Sobhuza II, remains in place in Eswatini, according to a Human Rights Watch review of the country from 26 March 2021. During the webinar, Maseko made it clear that while years of unrest led to the establishment of the country’s 2005 Constitution, the body of fundamental principles has failed to ensure the human rights of a modern society.
“The way that power is distributed is such that the king remains the fundamental holder of power, both in terms of him being the executive, in terms of being the head of the Parliament, and also holding judicial power, because power remains vested in him,” said Maseko.
Heywood referenced a meeting between President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC’s) chairperson of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, and King Mswati III in November 2021. He asked whether the promise of national dialogue and a process of reform that came out of that meeting were being met.
While there have been articulations from the Eswatini government that they are going to open space for dialogue, Dlamini feels that there is not currently a setting for open and fully participative discussion.
“The treatment from the current government to its citizens should be suggesting that they’re willing to come to the table, but if we are still… as civilians feeling under attack, I don’t imagine there could be a level ground for discussion,” she said.
Maseko spoke about a letter he sent to Eswatini Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini on 8 March 2022, condemning the use of the Sibaya National Dialogue as a mechanism for participation and reform in the country. Sibaya is a traditional forum structured in such a way that it reinforces the king as the sovereign and the citizens as his subjects, according to a report for ISS Today.
Using Sibaya as a platform for negotiations around democratic reform would mean allowing the king to determine the process, rules of engagement and outcome, said Maseko.
“We cannot be subjected to an activity where one of the players, one of the key actors, would want to dominate the process – it can’t work like that. So, Sibaya is convened by the king, as the regional authority. We want to go to a process where we can have an independent impartial chairperson, who commands the respect of all sides,” he said.
Both Maseko and Dlamini would like to see world leaders in the SADC and the European Union bringing targeted sanctions against King Mswati III and his ministers, in order to push them to engage in proper dialogue. The longer it takes for the government to embrace negotiations, the higher the probability of violence in the country, said Maseko.
“The appeal that we make [is] let’s all do all we can to bring pressure on His Majesty [Mswati III] to embrace dialogue, when the time still permits him to do so,” said Maseko.
“Because otherwise, we are at the narrow time in terms of ensuring that people continue to behave in a peaceful manner. And then, if violence is the order of the day, we will lose this beautiful country through havoc, and we don’t want to get to that stage.”