Eswatini started 2023 at the forefront of the world’s attention following the death of human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko. His death saw the world turn their gaze on the current situation in Eswatini in a conflict that had, hitherto, not captured attention outside of the Southern African region. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has continued to grapple with the situation, but their interventions have not progressed. Aside from the additional interest that the Kingdom received following Maseko’s death, Eswatini is set to host elections in 2023, an occasion that is sure to change the current balance of forces in the country.
On 21 January, prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was gunned down in his house. Maseko was an outspoken opponent of the current political system in the country, and the Chairperson of the Swaziland Multi Stakeholder Forum (MSF). The MSF is a forum of political parties in Eswatini that has been leading the calls for democratic reform in the Kingdom. The MSF and other opponents of the monarchy have claimed that Maseko was assassinated by the government who wanted to silence one of their most prominent opponents. Indeed, a spokesperson for Thulani Maseko’s family has also indicated that they suspect state involvement in his assassination.
The government has denied any involvement in Maseko’s death and has indicated that they will not rest until the perpetrators have been bought to book. However, the government’s denial of any involvement is undermined by the comments that King Mswati made only a few hours before Maseko’s murder, when he said activists should not “shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them.” Some activists, such as the Swazi Solidarity Network, have alleged that South African mercenaries carried out the hit on Maseko on behalf of the government. The Solidarity Network claims that the government have hired mercenaries from South Africa, the Middle East and Asia to carry out assassinations and torture. The government has denied that there are any mercenaries operating in Eswatini, but they did indicate that the government has engaged the services of security experts to assist with security issues that the Kingdom faces.
For now, there seems to be no clear evidence that mercenaries acting on behalf of the state carried out a hit on Maseko and as of yet, no one has been arrested for his death. Human Rights Watch has called for an independent, impartial, and transparent investigation into Maseko’s death and have also called on South Africa to launch their own investigation into the allegation of South African mercenary activity in Eswatini. Human Rights Watch were not the only international voice to address Maseko’s death. The African Union (AU) also called for an independent inquiry to investigate the murder, while the European Union (EU) called Maseko’s death a brutal assassination and called for the launch of the delayed national dialogue. In addition, the United Nations (UN), United States and United Kingdom all condemned Maseko’s killing and along with the EU, sent delegates to his memorial service.
Thulani Maseko’s murder has made it harder to ignore the tensions currently playing out in the Kingdom and has opened the monarchy and the government up to renewed criticism. It remains to be seen whether the death of a prominent opponent of the state provides greater emphasis to finding a solution to the ongoing tensions.
Thulani Maseko’s murder has made it harder to ignore the tensions currently playing out in Eswatini and has opened the monarchy and the government up to renewed criticismTweet
Nine days after the murder of Thulani Maseko, SADC convened their extraordinary organ troika summit in Namibia. SADC condemned the killings and damage to property that has taken place in Eswatini, urged the government to urgently initiate the national dialogue processes and called for a transparent investigation into the murder of Thulani Maseko. The chair of the organ, Namibian President Geingob, did acknowledge that there has been an increase in tensions in Eswatini, indicated that the incidents were regrettable and called for peaceful solutions to the challenges that Eswatini faces.
However, the presentations made by Eswatini to the organ do not point to a national dialogue taking place soon. A government spokesperson indicated the government’s reticence to engage with pro-democracy stakeholders that the government alleges have threated to kill and destroy the homes of people who do not share their pro-democracy sentiment. The spokesperson also indicated that the government was undertaking the preparations for iSibya, but that the outbreak of violence delayed those processes. The government position is that they are prepared to go to a national dialogue, but that the pro-democracy stakeholders are the ones delaying the dialogue. However, comments from the government that they believe pro-democracy stakeholders are threatening them does not inspire confidence that the government is prepared to sit around the table with these stakeholders. The national dialogue is the intervention proposed and supported by SADC. However, a year after it should have taken place, Eswatini appears to be no closer to holding the dialogue. A time will come for SADC to either propose a new solution to the challenges in Eswatini, or intervene more directly to ensure that the national dialogue does take place.
In addition, 2023 is an election year in Eswatini. Eswatini is an absolute monarchy, but does have a unique electoral system, known as the Tinkhundla system, to conduct elections. The House of Assembly is made up of 66 seats, where 55 are elected via elections, 10 are appointed by the King and the remaining seat is given to the speaker of parliament who is chosen from outside of parliament.
The Senate on the other hand is made up of 31 members, 10 of whom are selected by the House of Assembly and 20 of whom are selected by the King. Under the Tinkhundla system, Eswatini is divided up into constituencies known as inkhudla (Tinkhundla in plural). The Tinkhundla are then divided up into smaller chiefdoms, where the first phase of elections takes place. Nominations for candidates to the legislature is done at the community level and in the open, where a person’s name is called out and by a show of hands the community indicates if they nominate that person of not. The nominee then either accepts or rejects the nomination. A chiefdom must have at least three nominees, but no more than 20.
Following the nomination process, primary elections take place in the chiefdom via secret ballot. The primary elections must produce one candidate to contest the secondary elections. Between the primary and secondary elections the candidates have an opportunity to campaign for votes. However, since political parties are banned in Eswatini, candidates must campaign on a non-partisan basis. The secondary elections take place at the Inkhudla level to decide on the candidates who will represent the Inkundla at the national level.
These scheduled elections are a key event in Eswatini. Elections have the potential in any country to heighten tensions and Eswatini may prove to be no different, especially as tensions are already raised. Elections are also proving to be a point of contention amongst pro-democracy parties, as opinions are divided on whether or not to compete in the elections. Elections do provide an opportunity to get pro-democracy candidates into the national legislature, but an argument against competing in elections is that participation may be interpreted as condoning the current system of elections.
Eswatini is an absolute monarchy, but it does have a unique electoral system, known as the Tinkhundla system, under which elections is scheduled to be held in 2023Tweet
Having pro-democracy members of parliament could be beneficial to the advancing the argument for democratic reforms in the Kingdom. A strong performance from pro-democracy candidates in the elections would undermine the argument from the monarchy that pro-democracy activists are in the minority in the Kingdom and that the majority supports the status quo. Alternatively, a strong performance from pro-monarchy candidates would strengthen the position of the monarchy and the argument that the monarchy enjoys the support of the majority of the population.
The elections have the potential to escalate the current tensions in Eswatini. As such, the build-up to the elections, the elections themselves and the post-election period should also be observed closely.
Katharine Bebington is a programme officer in the research unit at ACCORD.