Reflections on the unrest and violence in Eswatini amidst a third wave of the pandemic

For well over a decade, the Kingdom of Eswatini saw continuous and persistent pro-democracy activism taking place in the country. Political parties, trade unions and civil society groups consistently called for democratic reforms due to political restrictions and other human right violations. These pro-democracy protests over the years have been largely peaceful. However, the protests that emerged in the second quarter of 2021 were less peaceful, causing heightened tensions between the citizens, and security agencies, resulting in several incidents of violence, all of which posed a serious threat to Eswatini’s stability. This article reflects on the unrest that unfolded in the country and responses at the national and regional level to mitigate the crisis, and thus possibly restore order.

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ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
References: World Bank and Worldometer

Eswatini’s current political crisis stems from various factors. For instance, the country’s average age is 21, unemployment is at more than 40% and 80% of the population live below the poverty line. Two hundred thousand of its 1.148 million people are living with HIV/AIDS making Eswatini one of the countries with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. Furthermore, multiparty elections are banned in the country, following a 1973 decree that bans political parties. Rights such as freedom of speech and media were further threatened in 2020 when the government proposed a new omnibus cybercrime bill.

In May 2021, pro-democracy movements took to the streets to demand political reforms following the death of a student, allegedly by the police. The protests included the delivery of petitions to Members of Parliament (MPs). The protest manifested when three pro-democracy MPs advocated in parliament for a government of democratic rule, and that the Prime Minister be elected by the people, and not appointed by King Mswati III. Eswatini’s previous Prime Minister, Ambrose Dlamini succumbed to COVID-19 in December 2020. The MPs further called for a system of democracy in which the Monarch would not dominate the political environment. The delivery of petitions gained popularity, as citizens in other constituencies also began urging other MPs to discuss these issues. On 24 June, King Mswati issued a decree stopping the delivery of petitions across the country as pro-democracy protests intensified and spread rapidly to the rural areas.

The decree had the opposite effect. It fuelled protests in the country’s two largest cities of Manzini and Mbabane, with demonstrators now calling for King Mswati to step down and allow for a transition to democracy. Protests turned violent when buildings and infrastructure associated with King Mswati, were reportedly torched by protesters. Amnesty International, reported on 02 July that 20 people were confirmed to be killed by state security forces; and approximately 150 protesters were hospitalized for injuries, including gunshot wounds sustained from live ammunition fired by the police.

At the time of the protests, Eswatini’s COVID-19 regulations included a 23:00-04:00 curfew, as well as limitations on gatherings. Religious and community gatherings, are limited to 100 people outdoors and 50 people indoors, and must not be longer than two and a half hours. Outdoor entertainment is limited to 200 people, while all other social gatherings remained prohibited. On 16 July however, Eswatini authorities tightened COVID-19 restrictions nationwide by increasing the curfew from 18:00-05:00. The spread of the virus remained high in Eswatini with an average of 710 new cases each day. While the regulations have been tightened to curb the spread of the disease, it remains unclear on whether the tightened restrictions are being used more to curb the protests than the disease.

Photo: Jinty Jackson/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Jinty Jackson/AFP via Getty Images

It was observed that the recent protests differed from early episodes of unrest, where unions and other formal organisations played a significant role. Chris Vandome, an expert at London’s Chatham House stated that; “this time it is more organic and less structured. That makes it much harder to control but also harder for the protesters to have a cohesive position on what they want”. By mid-July protests intensified and were now seemingly against King Mswati’s rule, signalling that what began as pro-democracy protests had evolved into anti-monarchical civic action, especially following the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Cleopas Dlamini.

The protests led to calls from the national and regional levels for national dialogue to take place. On 14 July 2021 King Mswati called for Isibaya which is an open forum discussion unique to what Eswatini has called a “monarchical democracy“. This was the first time King Mswati publicly addressed the violent demonstrations that led to an estimated 50 people killed, R3 billion in damage to property, and an estimated 5000 jobs lost. The Isibaya was met with scepticism and many pro-democracy movements decided to boycott it.

At a regional level, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) undertook an intervention by deploying a SADC Troika ministerial fact finding mission to the country on 04 July 2021. The deployment was criticized due to the failure by the SADC team to meet civil society organisations and political parties. A follow up technical fact-finding mission was deployed thereafter to consult extensively with stakeholders from 15 to 22 July 2021. The mission met with members of the government and civil society, to gather perspectives on the conditions that led to days of deadly protests. “SADC urged all individuals, groups, and organisations that have grievances to desist from acts of violence and to do so through established platforms. It also called on the security forces to exercise restraint in their response to restore order”. The Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), H.E Moussa Faki Mahamat also appealed to Eswatini’s national stakeholders to engage in constructive dialogue towards an amicable resolution to the instability of the country; and has committed the AU’s support to the government and people of Eswatini.

Whilst a call for dialogue is the most urgent way forward, efforts need to be directed towards creating dialogue structures at the local and national levels. This will also need to include a very strategic approach to help overcome the divisiveness between the government and the people.

Marisha Ramdeen, Senior Programme Officer at ACCORD.

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