SADC fails the people of eSwatini

The regional body has essentially ignored the plight of emaSwati who continue to suffer under the brutal reign of King Mswati III, activists say.

“This is a regional problem. We have no confidence in any of the African organisations that should be taking a lead in this particular matter. They are turning a blind eye … so we are certainly not happy [with the lack of solidarity]. This is why we are looking at different avenues.”

So says Qhawekazi Khumalo, 37, spokesperson of the United eSwatini Diaspora, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates for democratic governance and human rights in the country. Khumalo, who is a member of the South African chapter of the Swazi Lives Matter global solidarity movement, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) must execute its mandate to protect human rights by taking decisive action against violations taking place in eSwatini. 

Speaking at an eSwatini solidarity march to the UNHCR’s regional office in Pretoria on 13 August, Khumalo said: “No matter how small [eSwatini] is, we are all part of the human family and surely we deserve the same freedom that everybody enjoys.” 

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At a Southern African Development Community (SADC) troika summit of the organ on politics, defence and security cooperation that was held in Lilongwe, Malawi, on 16 August, President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana only afforded two paragraphs to the situation unfolding in eSwatini. He simply said the ministerial and technical fact-finding mission sent on 4 July and again from 15 to 22 July had completed its assignment and the report had been shared with King Mswati III for consideration.

The fact-finding mission, which purported to speak to all “stakeholders”, ignored eSwatini’s banned main opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo). 

Lamenting the lack of time, resources, effort and depth of the mission’s efforts, Khumalo said: “If you are not able to consolidate everybody who speaks on this system and speaks on change, then what’s the point?” 

A boys’ club

Pudemo president Mlungisi Makhanya says the movement has been disappointed by the indifference of the governments in the region as well as SADC.

“What SADC has shown is that it has no interest in the citizens of the region. It is only a boys’ club where the leaders, not the people, are what matters. When they approached the issue of Swaziland, what was foremost on their minds was how to serve Mswati and his murderous regime. They have no interest in the killed people of Swaziland, the multitude of people who continue to lie in hospitals and those who continue to languish in Mswati’s jails. Their interest is regional stability at the expense of the human rights of the people of the region,” he said. 

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), which was present at the march along with shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo and the South African Federation of Trade Unions, called on progressive organisations to support eSwatini’s citizens to achieve their demands in the face of King Mswati’s brutally violent regime. 

“This is another example of how SADC has failed and continues to fail to protect the interests of the masses, not only in the country, but also in the region. SADC has a duty to defend the people, but it is shamelessly protecting the interests of the political elite,” said Numsa spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola.

13 August 2021: Pro-democracy protesters make their demands clear at the march in Pretoria.

Security forces have allegedly killed more than 70 people during recent pro-democracy protests in eSwatini and severely injured or jailed many more. Activists claim that through NGO networks in the country, they have established that more than 800 people have been arrested and at least 500 injured. 

In May, Thabani Nkomonye, a fourth-year law student, was killed, allegedly at the hands of the police. During his memorial service on 21 May, security forces fired rubber bullets at mourners. Nkomonye’s mother was among those hospitalised. His death led to serious protest action and morphed from marches against police violence to calls for the monarchy to end. 

In June, the eSwatini government, citing Covid-19 regulations, banned the submission of petitions to members of Parliament in all 59 constituencies by activists who wanted them to discuss Nkomonye’s death and their pro-democracy appeals. This gave rise to further protests. 

Political parties have been banned since 1973, but those wanting a multiparty democracy in which they can choose who governs them have become increasingly vocal. In the current system, King Mswati III selects who ascends to power, with many positions filled by members of his family.

Citizens still targeted

Makhanya claims that following the protests, many wounded and injured citizens have not gone to hospitals to seek treatment because they need a police report to do so and fear getting arrested when trying to obtain one. He says the police view these emaSwati as “looters” who attacked Mswati-affiliated properties and businesses during the protests.

According to Makhanya, the police and soldiers are “hunting down” every victim of protest shootings because “they used bullets that are not permissible, high-calibre ammunition, bullets that are used in open combat, which explains why most of those who were shot had to [have limbs] amputated”.

What is unfolding is a struggle to ensure “the Swazi nation reigns supreme as opposed to what is happening now, where it is the supremacy of the royal interest. The royal interest supersedes the interest of the nation,” Makhanya added. 

eSwatini-born Mxolisi Ndlovu*, 23, a student currently living in South Africa, says the people of eSwatini need support and solidarity because of the censorship and propaganda circulated in the landlocked country, and because anyone who is pro-democracy or speaks against King Mswati III gets arrested.

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“The people don’t have a voice there. What the people want doesn’t happen. What happens is whatever the king wants to happen … [He is] above the law, according to the law. The very fact of him being above the law means there can’t be freedom [for others]. He abuses that power a lot,” said Ndlovu. 

Twice as a teenager, Ndlovu experienced his family’s house being raided by armed police in the early hours of the morning because they suspected that his father was involved in politics. They didn’t find anything. 

“If they find a T-shirt of a political party, you are arrested for that. A T-shirt! Which doesn’t make any sense. Why should a T-shirt be a threat? How is it an act of terrorism? Who is it threatening?” he asked. “That’s where I realised that all our rights are just privileges that we are allowed to have when it suits whoever is in charge.” 

Lying to the nation

Ndlovu says government propaganda is rife in his country. “The media is controlled … The narrative [citizens] have of countries with a democracy is always one which paints it in a bad light. So they believe democratic countries have war all the time, strikes all the time, because that’s all that’s publicised about them.” 

He says democracy is linked to more opportunities, a better quality of life and human rights that are upheld by the courts. Contrasting his experience of life in eSwatini with that in South Africa, he says: “In South Africa you are free to strike for what you need and want, for rights, without much fear of being killed. In Swaziland that’s not the case. You will disappear [and] it won’t even be reported.” 

Bonginkosi Dlamini, a founding member of Pudemo and convenor of the United eSwatini Diaspora, says SADC – and governments in the rest of the world – have allowed an absolute monarchy to destroy a nation of 1.3 million people.

“They don’t call their fellow leaders to account for their atrocities. We are not happy about SADC. If they think that [eSwatini] is not going to be free because they are not supporting us, they must think again. 

13 August 2021: Protesters march through Pretoria’s central business district in support of the people of eSwatini.

Dlamini wants “no more parasitic family that is feeding off the blood of other families in Swaziland. You can’t kill so many of our people and then think that tomorrow we are going to recognise you as a king.” 

Makhanya says Mswati III no longer has the moral authority to rule and that any engagement about democratic reform must be convened by a credible neutral party. What a democratic dispensation and the transition to it should look like needs to be defined by the people, he says. “Ultimately, what happens in Swaziland is going to be determined by the Swazis themselves, not any particular party.”

Makhanya also acknowledges that Mswati III still has a lot of support among certain sections of the population. “I don’t think that the future of Swaziland can completely exclude a role in some form or shape that [Mswati] may play.” 

*Ndlovu wanted to remain anonymous to avoid trouble at home.

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