Eswatini’s Pro-Democracy Movement Isn’t Going Away

Eswatini’s Pro-Democracy Movement Isn’t Going Away
Eswatini’s King Mswati III and his wife attend a welcome ceremony of the Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Oct. 23, 2019 (TASS News Agency pool photo by Valery Sharifulin via AP).
Following the intense pro-democracy protests that rocked Eswatini over the summer, international interest in the small southern African nation has waned. But for proponents of democratic reforms in the continent’s last absolute monarchy—formerly known as Swaziland—the fight is far from over. In mid-October, demonstrations once again intensified, partly to demand the release of two pro-democracy lawmakers who have been detained since July. Security forces loyal to King Mswati III responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, resulting in at least one death and 80 injuries. All told, dozens of people have been killed since protests first began in response to the May death of a law student at the hands of security officers. Despite the regime’s violent crackdown and alleged abuses by security forces—reportedly including torture and disappearances—the unrest has grown into a broad movement calling for political reforms and a higher standard of living. The king’s inability to address economic grievances and his strident opposition to political reform make continued clashes virtually inevitable. More than half of Eswatini’s population lives below the poverty line. The country has a young and dynamic work force, with a median age of 20, but the youth unemployment rate stands at 46 percent. The royal court, however, remains painfully oblivious to these economic woes: The treasury provides Mswati’s household with $60 million annually, and his high-profile spending sprees—such as a 2019 purchase of 19 Rolls-Royces and 120 BMWs—often lead to public outcry. In late October, members of the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union, along with other public sector workers, marched to deliver a petition to Parliament demanding a higher living standard. Police and army officers opened fire on the group, injuring 30 nurses and killing one young bystander in what the union called an “unprecedented show of force.” The response was so severe that the nurses’ union called on its members to not treat wounded security officers out of a fear for their own safety. Protests by students, unions and activist groups receive a similar treatment from security forces. In late October, the Eswatini Commission on Human Rights released a report confirming 46 deaths and hundreds of injuries during civil unrest in the month of June alone. Opposition groups claim the real tallies are significantly higher. The king and his inner circle have so far shown little interest in meaningful reform. After a delegation from the Southern African Development Community visited the country last month to meet with Mswati and representatives of opposition groups, the king offered to host a national dialogue, but on condition that it be held after a traditional festival ending in late January and that protesters respect the rule of law. Even after a Nov. 2 visit by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the only change to Mswati’s public position was that the SADC Secretariat would help draft the terms of reference for the national dialogue. Eswatini’s deputy prime minister, Themba Masuko, admitted on Oct. 30 that the kingdom needed “some changes,” but did not specify what kinds of changes, or if the rest of the Cabinet agreed.

Even if the king manages to quell this wave of unrest, those seeking reform are unlikely to be satisfied until Eswatini undergoes fundamental political change.

As far as the opposition is concerned, calls for a dialogue are a stalling tactic, and the king’s role as head of both the police and army disqualify him from leading any dialogue aimed at peace and reform. “Traditional structures have failed to moderate or call the king to order,” a group of opposition political parties said in a recent joint statement. “It will therefore be futile to resort to these weak structures to manage national dialogue under the chairmanship of the king.” As trust in the regime erodes, the government of Eswatini’s claim that it is already a democracy with an elected Parliament rings hollow. The lower house of Parliament is indeed elected, but candidates cannot join political parties, and legislative dissent is nearly impossible to organize. In addition, Cabinet ministers are appointed by the king. The two pro-democracy MPs who were arrested in July are still being held on charges related to terrorism and contravening COVID-19 restrictions, but their real crime was calling for Parliament to elect the country’s prime minister. Meanwhile, freedom of expression and assembly have been severely curtailed. The government banned protests in late October, and access to Facebook has been suspended. Students, regardless of their involvement in the pro-democracy movement, are being pressured by the government to sign statements promising not to participate in protests. With the king and the opposition at loggerheads, attention has focused on the role the SADC might play in diffusing the situation. The SADC’s mandate to act as a mediator for internal disputes in the region gives it the ability to intervene. But the organization has recently come under fire for its anemic reaction to the ongoing security crisis in northern Mozambique and an initial response to Eswatini’s summer protests that was widely seen as feckless. Ramaphosa, the current chairperson of the SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defense and Security, has an opportunity to score a rare win for the regional bloc by moderating negotiations and guaranteeing the fulfilment of any agreement. Ensuring that the national dialogue happens is a good first step, but the opposition will be seeking an end to the violent suppression of protests and a path to political reforms. Some in the opposition have gone so far as to demand the SADC deploy peacekeepers to separate protesters from security forces, but the regional bloc is unlikely to take such a dramatic step unless the security situation deteriorates further. Even so, it will need to find other ways to pressure the king, given his reluctance thus far to begin a national dialogue. If Mswati refuses to deliver meaningful reforms while continuing to viciously suppress the protests, then it’s hard to see an end to the cycle of protests and crackdowns. A lethargic national dialogue where one side is not committed to addressing grievances will only be met with more frustration. Even if the monarchy manages to quell this wave of unrest, those seeking reform are unlikely to be satisfied until Eswatini undergoes fundamental political change.

Marcel Plichta is a doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of St. Andrews and a former analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has previously written on sub-Saharan African security issues and U.S.-Africa policy for Defense One and Geopolitical Monitor. All views expressed are his own.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review