Long Read | eSwatini: the people versus the king

King Mswati III’s forces continue to kill, maim and jail pro-democracy protesters and other innocent citizens, including children and teens, while the international community looks on.

After eSwatini security forces sent many to early graves in late June and much of July, King Mswati III sat on a golden throne in his Lobamba palace on 16 July and declared, “Every person [in this country] is the king’s. Everything in eSwatini is the king’s.” Then he announced the new prime minister would be Cleopas Dlamini.

This move was a snub to the people who have been calling for democratic reforms, specifically the election of a prime minister. 

As the king spoke, many of his supposed subjects were lying in barely functioning hospitals all over the country, shot and beaten by his forces after pro-democracy protests began in May. Soldiers roam the streets and police raid the homes of sympathisers, shooting, maiming and killing. Many emaSwati are still coming to terms with the death of loved ones. Some have lost limbs, others suffer the long-term effects of their wounds. Many are dead.

Injured minors

“I have never seen anything like this since I was born. It is shocking that people are being killed like flies,” says Tryphinia Simelane, 72, a resident of Siphocosini in northwest eSwatini, a highveld area home to subsistence farmers.

The Operational Support Services Unit (OSSU), a force notorious for its brutality, ordered Simelane’s grandchild, Andile Mamba, 15, to vacate the tuckshop Mamba and others had been cleaning on 1 July at around 8am. “One of them just shot at me on the back with one bullet,” Mamba says. “I don’t even know why they shot at me.” He can no longer walk. “I used to play football, but now I am unable to go play,” Mamba says. “He is struggling to even sit on a wheelchair,” adds Simelane. “This child was not even part of those who were protesting.”

10 August 2021: Andile’s family – his grandmother Tryphinia Simelane; his younger sister; his mother, Gcinile Mlotjwa; and his baby sister – has been helping him cope after eSwatini soldiers left him paralysed.

Mamba is just one of the many children and teens whose lives have been destroyed. On a Hlathikhulu Government Hospital bed is Nkosephayo Lukhele, 9, a grade three learner. Police shot him on 29 June. When the bullet pierced Lukhele, he was in school uniform. His mother, Bongekile Gamedze, 28, who sleeps beside him in the hospital, says the bullet struck her son just beneath the left side of the chest. Removing the bullet was so risky, doctors attempted it only a month later. 

Lukhele says he is fine but earlier on he urgently needed blood transfusions. “The doctors said the bullet has caused so much loss of blood due to heavy bleeding.” Gamedze turned to social media to ask for blood donations for her son. She says two people donated on 15 July but it took a long time for her son to receive the blood. “I am torn apart to the point that I wish it was me who was shot, not such an innocent child. So far, the government has said nothing about what happened to my son.”

Murder with impunity

Around the country, even in remote rural areas, the king’s forces have been using live rounds, firing at both protesters and people going about their daily business. Ntokozo Tsabedze, 37, was one of them. 

He was shot in the leg on the afternoon of 29 June near the Calabash Restaurant while he walked with friends towards the Corner Plaza in Ezulwini. “We found the police near a traffic circle by the restaurant and they immediately shot at us. Shots continued to ring and a few of the guys I was with fell too, and I later saw them in hospital,” Tsabedze says. “While I lay there, I continued bleeding profusely and could see that my leg was as good as gone. All you had to do was cut one tendon a bit with a knife and it would all fall off.”

He was treated at the Mbabane Government Hospital. “The doctors gave me two options: they could either try to treat the wound and cover it – chances are that I’d be in pain for a long time and it would rot because of infections. And, eventually, I would die. The second option would lead to pain too, and I would lose a leg. But I would have a chance at healing and would live.

“I told them to cut it.”

3 August 2021: Ntokozo Tsabedze, 37, had his leg amputated after state police shot him. Now he battles to get around and complete even ordinary tasks.

In an attempt to contain the protests, the government imposed a 6pm curfew and ordered all shops to be closed by 3.30pm. Anyone who moved about after 6pm was shot, even if being outdoors was because of an emergency. The curfew has since been amended to 8pm. Before the protests, the curfew was 9pm.

Ndumiso Dube, 28, was shot near the main station in the waiting rooms in Mvutjini just before curfew. “OSSU officers drove by and started shooting at us right away. I was shot at the back. I fell and could not get up even as I tried,” Dube says. Doctors at the Mbabane Government Hospital had to cut open his stomach to remove the bullet. After spending two weeks in hospital, he is back home recovering under the care of his mother, Thandi Nkambule, 56, who makes a living by selling airtime.

Dube’s younger brother Nhlanhla Dlamini, 23, also got injured on the same day while running from police. Dlamini injured his leg after hitting a roadside guard rail. “He was scared to tell me that he was injured,” says Nkambule. “As soon as I discovered that, I decided to buy him crutches. He was walking with his hands to the toilet. He told me that at the hospital they said he had no fractured bones, and they did not treat his wound even though it was oozing blood.”

Nkambule says witnessing both her sons going through this ordeal was unbearable. “On that night we did not sleep. We called the police and they asked, ‘Why were they there for them to get injured?’ We failed to get hold of an ambulance. When I reflect on the situation, I become scared because both of my children nearly died.”

8 August 2021: Thandi Nkambule feels traumatised by the recent violence.

Beyond statistics

The number of people the king’s armed forces have killed, injured or jailed is constantly going up. Initially, Mswati’s government confirmed at least 27 deaths as a result of the protests. But this number does not come close to the deaths documented by organisations such as the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice (FSEJ), the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and others. According to the FSEJ, the number of people security forces have killed since the protests began exceeds 70 at present but is sure to climb. 

The number of those arrested since the protests began is much higher. As for injuries, figures are hard to come by as many people continue to battle for their lives in hospitals or quietly at home. The figures also could not factor in those kidnapped, missing or long dead and covertly buried.

8 August 2021: Brothers Ndumiso Dube, 28, and Nhlanhla Dlamini, 32, explain how eSwatini police shot at them on their way home. They are two of a long list of people at whom police have shot for no reason.

Thabo Masuku, director of the FSEJ, an umbrella organisation for rights groups and grassroots movements, says the figures “are not just numbers, but the lives of people. Most of the people, we have interacted with them face to face and we know the pain they are going through. We’ve been with those who’ve been arrested and their families, and some of them are breadwinners and have lost jobs. We’ve had families burying their loved ones. It is not just statistics or numbers; it is real people.

“We will continue with our work, both continentally and internationally in terms of holding the government accountable for the atrocities. We will use the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the African Union and other structures. At a local level it will be very difficult to hold the government accountable.”

8 August 2021: From left, Ndumiso Dube, Jabulani Nkambule, Thandi Nkambule and Nhlanhla Dlamini. Police almost killed both Thandi Nkambule’s sons, Dube and Dlamini, on the same day.

Withholding evidence 

Some of the people injured by the king’s forces have been trying to collect evidence, which international and regional legal bodies could use to hold the king accountable. But, according to those who have been shot, the king may have released an order to hospital doctors to prevent people from taking the bullets extracted from their bodies. 

Bhekisisa Ginindza, 34, a father of three from Big Bend, a sugarcane town in the Lubombo region, was shot on 1 July. He went to the main road to wait for a taxi bringing him car parts from Manzini. After waiting for a while near a group of protesters, he saw a taxi arrive and approached it, assuming it was the one he had been looking for. When he got closer, he saw it was full of OSSU officers.They opened fire, shooting him twice in the back. The officers then fled the scene. 

Discharged on 12 July from a hospital in Siteki, Ginindza says when he asked for the bullet the doctors refused, citing a government order not to give patients bullets after operations to remove them. Ginindza is not alone. 

17 July 2021: Police officers shot Phiwa Dlamini, 15, with a rubber bullet on 27 June. He was 200m from his home.
17 July 2021: The clothes Phiwa Dlamini was wearing when police officers shot him with rubber bullets at close range on 27 June. He did not run because he knew the officers and thought he had no reason to fear them.
17 July 2021: The police have tried to recover the rubber bullet with which Phiwa Dlamini was shot, but his family have successfully held on to it. They hope to submit it as evidence in court one day.

Soldiers shot Lungelo Andile Msibi, 30, on 30 June in the industrial town of Matsapha. He was walking to the shop to buy airtime at 9.30am when an army truck began to “shoot everything that was in motion. Since they were shooting at innocent people, what would make them want to spare my life? As a result, I ran away because they were aiming for the head when they were shooting,” he says. Bullets whizzed around him as he ran. He recalls seeing many bodies on the ground before a bullet pierced his back. “I tried to wake up, but then I fell again.” When this happened, neither protests nor looting were taking place.

People who knew him tried to rush him to hospital, but soldiers had set up a roadblock. One of the soldiers asked, “Why don’t you just die? Why don’t you just die?” This, Msibi says, confirms soldiers have been instructed to kill innocent people. He was in hospital for a week. Like Ginindza, doctors would not give him the bullet that almost claimed his life. 

“What hurts me even more is that nothing is being said about people who have been injured by the police officers and soldiers. It is as if nothing has ever happened. This really frustrates me a lot. Even the king only spoke on behalf of business owners. All of these things are replaceable, but not a human life,” Msibi says. “All of these things have been causing me some emotional tension.”

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Mzwandile “Gwabha” Dlamini, 28, was shot near his home in St Philips on 30 June – the same day as Msibi and others. “We were going home on a tar road, but the police had closed [it] because of protests in the area,” he says. “I met two police officers who fired teargas at us and I ran away. Then, they shot at me with real bullets while running.” Unlike others, Dlamini managed to get hold of one bullet after he was discharged. Another is still lodged in his chest. Doctors say they cannot remove it. 

Many fear the state will send its “mercenaries” to “finish them off” and then remove the evidence, the bullets. This is partly why the figures of those injured are hard to ascertain.

8 August 2021: Mzwandile Dlamini, 28, in his compound where he lives alone. Police shot him twice. One bullet remains lodged in his lung. Dlamini has been afraid since the shooting, so he opted to look away from the camera.

The people’s march 

The oppression that emaSwati have endured has exposed the extent to which King Mswati III is determined to maintain the status quo. The king appointed the prime minister, making him accountable only to the monarch. If the people had elected a prime minister, there would be accountability in the state for the first time in the history of the country. 

The king called a Sibaya, a traditional assembly held in Lobamba, on the same day a pro-democracy march billed as “the mother of all marches” had been planned in Manzini, essentially testing his popularity against the will of the masses. The turnout at the Sibaya was quite low compared to the people-led march.

The march’s objectives, among others, was to reinstate calls for dialogue and democratic reforms. The march also became necessary to show that the king’s address was not a dialogue. Demonstrators wanted to show the SADC team, then on a fact-finding mission in eSwatini, the extent of the brutality the king’s security officers meted out to ordinary people. 

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During his Sibaya address, the king bragged that the SADC team was in the country at his government’s invitation. They were his guests. A few days later, the team denied Pudemo a chance to make submissions, influenced by the government labelling the party a proscribed organisation.

In a joint statement on 15 July, the European Union delegation to eSwatini, the United States embassy and the United Kingdom consulate endorsed the Sibaya as a site of dialogue, saying “it represents an initial opportunity for citizens to express their views”. But, as is often the case, only the king spoke.

Thulani Maseko, coordinator of the Political Party Assembly (PPA) and a prominent human rights lawyer, called the king’s assembly “a joke”. “We dismiss Sibaya with the contempt that it deserves as a process that is meant to mislead and misinform the SADC process. As if this is meant to attend to the issues. It will never do that; it has failed before. If the king were to speak tomorrow, at the very least, we expect him to declare … that going forward there will be a process outside Sibaya, which shall involve all stakeholders – with a view to unban political parties in this country, with a view to set up a clear programme and process that will lead to the adoption of a new democratic constitution.”

As Mswati spoke at his poorly attended assembly, his armed forces hit out at protesters who attended the march in Manzini and stopped leaders from attending the march using roadblocks set up specifically for that purpose. 

Attacking activists

The march was led by the youths of progressive formations such as Pudemo’s youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress, the Economic Freedom Fighters of eSwatini and the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress. The PPA, which is a union of all the political parties, endorsed it. 

Mciniseli Nkanyezi Vilakati, known as Nkalivasi and one of the organisers of the 16 July march, was severely tortured. Nkalivasi blew a whistle calling for protesters to gather in the President Centre, close to the Manzini market zone. “I made about five blows,” he says. “Then about five men carrying rifles appeared and approached me. One strangled me. Another one held me up in my arms. I started to resist as I was being taken into the car. They kicked me while others closed my nose. As they were kicking me, I was overpowered and, by now, was bleeding heavily. My jacket was soaked in blood and I thought I’d die.”

This was just the beginning of the torture. After being taken to the Manzini police station, Nkalivasi says one officer compressed his head on the bench with his boot, while another went for his face, slamming it against the edge of a car. Someone squeezed his genitals. “I think there is a point whereby I collapsed. And there is a point where I felt like they were burning in my legs and thighs. I have a scar in my back, and I can still feel the pain.”

4 August 2021: Mciniseli Nkanyezi Vilakati, 31, is part of the People’s United Democratic Movement. State police captured him after he helped organise a march in opposition to the king’s Sibaya (gathering).

At the police station, the officers accused him of defying the king by boycotting the Sibaya. “The officers told me that they’d still continue to ‘work’ on me. I got more scared and worried that they were not satisfied to beat me up. Another officer in the Crime Intelligence Division came with a stick and beat me … on my knee and arms,” he says. Officers then said they were ready to knock off but had to finish “dealing” with him first. “I knew that there was no way I could escape holding cells. I lied and said I couldn’t breathe, and I want to be taken to a hospital.”

They escorted him to the Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Manzini. The doctor asked the officers to uncuff him. The first systolic reading for his blood pressure was above 150. (A normal systolic blood pressure reading ranges from 90 to 120.) “The doctor told the officers that my heart could stop at any time,” he says. An hour later, the reading had dropped to only 148. The doctors warned the officers that Nkalivasi was on the brink of death, which saved his life. 

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Torture will not deter Nkalivasi and his comrades. “We are planning for a direct confrontation where the king resides. In the entire history of the country, we’ve never pushed to the point where we mobilise to where the king resides, and we are coming,” he says.

The protests have shown that, first, the spirit of revolt in eSwatini has been brewing for decades; second, emaSwati will no longer bear the king’s oppression; and third, the international community sustains and supports the king’s government, directly and indirectly, by merely condemning atrocities in carefully worded statements. 

Two pro-democracy members of Parliament, Mduduzi Mabuza of Hosea and Mthandeni Dube of Ngwempisi, have been charged under the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act. A warrant of arrest is out for another, Mduduzi Simelane of Siphofaneni, who is in hiding.

When the two members of Parliament appeared in the high court in Mbabane on 29 July, a crowd gathered in the central business district in support. The police quickly moved in, throwing teargas canisters and shooting live ammunition at the people. Two men were severely injured, one of whom is likely to undergo an amputation, says the FSEJ’s Masuku.

“No matter how much armed the forces are, when the time for change has come there is no army that can stand in the way of the people. Even if it can be delayed for now, the same government would need the people to go to elections after this coming year. These people will not go to the elections in a manner that the government wants, they will go to elections that they want, [and] that is multi-party and democratic elections,” Masuku says.

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