AFRICA NEWS: Swaziland: What is the Secret Behind Uprisings In eSwatini – The Unfinished Business of Democratic Reform

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The Kingdom Of Eswatini is a small, landlocked country in southern Africa that shares borders with South Africa, Mozambique and South Africa. It has been in turmoil since May . This country is Africa’s last true monarchy.

The death of Thabani Nkomonye, a 25-year-old University of Eswatini law student, at the hands of the police in early May sparked the latest uprisings against the monarchy.

Soon after the incident, calls to political and constitutional reforms began to circulate on different platforms in Eswatini. Petitions were delivered to various tinkhundla (local government) constituency centres, mostly by youth to their members of parliament, calling for reforms. People can contest their constituencies’ elections on a non-party basis under the tinkhundla scheme.

Three members of parliament – Bacede Mabuza, Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Simelane – joined the #justiceforThabani movement’s call for constitutional and political reforms. On 24 June, acting prime minister Themba Masuku banned the delivery of further petitions. The police stopped protestors from delivering petitions. The protests became violent.

Several lives were lost. The king subsequently ordered that schools be shut in June 2021.

The deteriorating situation prompted regional leaders to intervene in a bid to restore peace and stability. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, as head of the Southern African Development Community Organ on Defence, Politics and Security Cooperation, sent a special envoy on a fact finding mission to Eswatini in October.

He visited King Mswati III in November to discuss the political and security developments. They agreed to work closely to establish a National Dialogue Forum to resolve the intensifying problems.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Secretariat has been mandated to work with the Eswatini government to draft the terms of reference for the forum. Preparations for the forum were scheduled to take place from November 2021 to January 2022 while the king was in his “annual, mandatory” retreat.

Underlying causes

I am a historian who focuses on the constitutional history and the governance of public spaces in eSwatini. Three main reasons are my opinion that explain the upheavals.

First, they speak to the unfinished business of constitution-making that started in the 1960s.

Second, they are a pure “youthquake” – a dramatic surge in youth participation in the fight for political change. Young people organize the uprising on social media platforms.

Third, the protesters have been emboldened by the pronouncements of western diplomatic missions, especially the United States embassy in Eswatini and the European Union, calling for freedom of political expression in the kingdom.

The crisis is basically about the struggle to reduce the monarch’s absolute powers, and to negotiate a democratic model of governance. As the Institute For Peace And Security Studies has observed, the 2005 constitution:

While the Constitution provides for a Bill of Rights in Section 25 including that ‘a person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association’, political parties remain banned and cannot participate in elections. The king is still the highest authority, with the power to dissolve an elected parliament or veto bills.

Unfinished constitution-making

The period when the independence constitution was being formulated in the 1960s was marked by a battle of conflicting ideologies. On one side were conservative monarchists in the Eswatini National Council (which advises the king on all matters regulated by culture and traditions). On the other were progressive forces represented by civil society and nascent political parties (p.44-55).

The conservatives argued for a constitution that upheld traditional royal absolutism. Progressives desired that the monarch would have a ceremonial role. The country was unable to declare its independence from Britain due to these deadlocks.

The British broke the stalemate by imposing a constitutional monarchical regime on Eswatini in 1968. The independence of the kingdom gave King Sobhuza II the freedom to alter the constitution.

He scrapped the independence constitution and multipartyism in 1973 and ruled by decree. The Tinkhundla governance system, which was instituted in 1978, upheld the rejection of multipartyism. It was a fatal blow to the progressive forces hoping to reemerge as political parties.

The opportunity to revive multipartyism in Eswatini came with the third wave of democracy in Africa in the 1990s. It didn’t happen.

This was thanks to the political acumen of King Mswati III, who succeeded his father in 1986. Eswatini finally got a new constitution in 2005, sans multipartyism.

Disenchanted youth

Eswatini’s 2021 uprisings are a typical “youthquake” – the rapid mobilisation of youth for political events through social media, akin to the 2010 Arab Spring. This could be linked to the high unemployment rate in Eswatini. Unemployment rose by 1. 16% from 2019 to 23. 40% in 2020. Many graduates are unable to find work. COVID has also taken a heavy toll on Eswatini, fuelling frustrations.

Amid the mood of anger following Nkomonye’s death, the three MPs took up the issue of police killings in parliament. They demanded democratic reforms including the election by the voters of the prime minister. The prime minister is appointed by the monarch.

This message resonated with young people.

Dube and Mabuza were arrested in July and charged with terrorism and breaching COVID regulations. The state alleged that they had incited a revolt against the constitutionally established government. Simelane is currently on the run.

Western influence

Eswatini is a member of the African Union and SADC and has enjoyed their support. It is also a beneficiary of the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act and has received generous financial assistance from the EU.

The start of the riots in May 2021 strained relations with its international partners. The arrest of two pro-democracy lawmakers was condemned by the European Union. It said the two represented the voice of the people who elected them to parliament.

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The US embassy in the administrative capital, Mbabane, was especially vocal in its condemnation of the monarchy and support for the protesters. It has criticised the extravagance of the royal family and has called for the repeal of the 1973 decree that turned Eswatini into an absolute monarchy. It pointed out that the king’s appointment of Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini violated the 2005 constitution as Dlamini was not an elected MP.

The nation’s civil society and the protesters could be heard echoing the concerns of the US embassy during the uprisings.

Looking to the future

The uprising is essentially against royal absolutism, which is seen as undemocratic. It is becoming difficult to keep absolute monarchism in place with a critical mass, rising unemployment and a growing number of educated graduates.

The youth movement and the criticism by the international community are clear indications of an urgent need to address the fundamental problems that cause political discord in Eswatini.

A lot hangs on the upcoming National Dialogue Forum. The promise of an inclusive forum and supervision by SADC are its greatest strengths. It is not clear if it will bring about the fundamental changes necessary to place the country on the path of lasting peace, and social change.

Dr Hlengiwe Portia Dlamini, Historian, University of Eswatini

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