Shameful complicity in the name of ‘human rights’

As eSwatini’s armed forces continue killing and crippling pro-democracy protesters and ordinary citizens, powerful actors muddy the waters.

Shortly after King Mswati III’s forces murdered and crippled pro-democracy protesters in eSwatini in June and July, a number of globally powerful countries and regions, through their embassies and consulates, released statements.

The European Union (EU), the United Kingdom and the United States missions in eSwatini released a joint statement on 1 July urging the government to exercise restraint and respect human rights. They further called on “both sides to refrain from violence”.

Then on 4 July, the missions, now joined by Taiwan, released another statement encouraging “all parties to engage fully in dialogue”. This came after the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ for Politics, Defence and Security, which is managed on a troika basis, arrived in the country and was allowed to meet only the king’s government.

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On 8 July, as many of the then close to 80 people murdered by Mswati’s forces lay in mortuaries awaiting burial, the US embassy condemned “in the strongest terms possible” the inappropriate use of force and urged all sides “to exercise restraint and to respect human rights”. It further called for all perpetrators to be held accountable according to the rule of law, “regardless of affiliation”.

When the government announced there would be a Sibaya, a platform where the king usually delivers a monologue, the US, UK and EU released another joint statement describing it as a site for an inclusive dialogue and calling on “all parties” to participate and to “refrain from violence and to seek a peaceful and speedy resolution”.

The United Nations released a statement too, saying: “The secretary general continues to follow developments in the Kingdom of eSwatini with increasing concern, notably clashes between security forces and demonstrators that have led to deaths and injuries. The secretary general reiterates his call on all stakeholders to refrain from violence and address their differences through inclusive and meaningful dialogue.”

Behind the ambiguity

In the language of all these statements it is assumed there are two parties – Mswati’s forces and pro-democracy protesters – that are both responsible for the violence and must both exercise restraint. This sleight of hand apportions blame equally and masks the evident fact that a violent dictatorship is assaulting, torturing, maiming and murdering its citizens to suppress a peaceful movement for democracy.

Marching for democracy with his comrades in Mbabane, political activist Madzabudzabu Kunene was shot in the leg, which had to be amputated. Did he have to exercise the same level of restraint as the king’s armed forces that pulled the trigger and crippled him?

In Ngculwini, pensioner Vincent Bhembe was shot dead by the security forces as he stood by the side of the road. Did he have to exercise restraint too?

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Msimisi “Sdzwiri” Mkhwanazi’s head was cracked open by a soldier’s bullet as he and fellow unemployed boys manned a roadblock at Ngwenya as part of pro-democracy protests. Did he also have to exercise restraint?

On 17 May, when students and members of the public marched from Sigodvweni police station to Manzini town to demand justice for Thabani Nkomonye (allegedly killed by the police), did they have to exercise restraint too, even as the police’s operation service support unit sprayed tear gas and stung them with high-pressure water from their cannons? These young people did nothing but run.

And how about the people at Nkomonye’s memorial service? As they mourned, the police barged in and sprayed them with tear gas. What restraint could they possibly have exercised?

How about all those primary and high school pupils who, in September and October, were caned, punched and shot at for demanding better schools and the release of the two jailed pro-democracy members of Parliament?

More than 80 people were dead and scores severely injured when the dust settled in mid-July. They were all defenceless and unarmed when they were attacked. Did they have to exercise restraint as they were shot at, whipped with sjamboks and kicked by heavily armed soldiers and police officers wearing boots and hard parabellum shoes?

Empty words 

The US embassy joined the eSwatini government at the fifth National Health Research Conference on 26 August. Ambassador Jeanne Maloney only spoke tentatively about the importance of democracy for eSwatini while bemoaning the “unrest and violence that have stunned the nation and drawn attention and concern from across the globe”. 

As soon as the protests showed signs of slowing down, the UK’s new high commissioner to eSwatini, Simon Boyden, presented his letters of credence to the king. In a small ceremony at Lozitha Palace, their elbows touched as they smiled behind their masks. 

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On 28 September, Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini, the king’s appointee, received a courtesy call from the UK Minister for Africa Vicky Ford at the Cabinet offices in Mbabane. Ford later saw Mswati and “expressed her excitement at being in eSwatini and assured [the king] that [the UK government] looks forward to expanding and deepening the UK-eSwatini links”.

The EU’s new ambassador to the country, Dessy Choumelova, also presented her credentials to the king on 27 September and “highlighted the enduring partnership between eSwatini and the EU rooted in shared values of democracy, rule of law and human rights”.

It would, it was clear, be business as usual.

Second wave, new statements

But emaSwati are back in the streets. In terms of scale, these new protests might be bigger than those in June and July. It was high school and primary school pupils who took to the streets first. Recently, public transport workers parked their buses and taxis and took to the streets too. And the call is the same: release the two pro-democracy members of Parliament in jail. 

Again protesters were shot at. Many are injured. Some are dead. The number of injured is still being counted.

And now there are new statements.

The UN condemned “all acts of violence and [urged] all parties and the media to refrain from disinformation, hate speech and incitement”.

The German embassy to South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini also issued a statement, saying: “We urge all parties to refrain from violence. Human rights have to be upheld at all times. We call on all parties to do everything in their power to find a peaceful resolution.”

The spurious claim that “all parties” are responsible for the violence and should exercise restraint is presented as concern for “human rights” when, in fact, it is plainly an alibi for a ruthless dictatorship. 

20 October 2021: A man is carried away on a stretcher after allegedly being shot by the Royal eSwatini Police Service’s operation service support unit in Mbabane.

As the protests go on, the same question arises again and again.

On 20 October, two buses ferrying people to a march for workers in Mbabane were stopped by operation service support unit officers near one of the king’s palaces in Nkoyoyo. The officers threw tear gas canisters in the buses and closed the doors, forcing many to escape through windows. They then proceeded to shoot at the protesters with rubber bullets at close range, severely injuring many. 

In Manzini, Mbabane, Piggs Peak, Nhlangano, Siteki and many other towns, protesters were dispersed with tear gas, assaulted, taken into custody and shot as they protested. The secretary general of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, Sikelela Dlamini, said it had “30 comrades that were shot. Some were operated on and bullets were removed from their bodies. But others still have their bodies lodged with bullets. Some are in intensive care.”

Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union general secretary Mayibongwe Masangane said the police badly beat nurses and shot at them as they gathered at Coronation Park in Mbabane. Two nurses, shot around the chest, lost a lot of blood and had to be taken to intensive care. And Nathi Dlamini, a nurse from Hlathikhulu Government Hospital, was “shot on the right lower quadrant region affecting the lower lobe of the right lung”.

As security officers pursued fleeing protesters and bystanders all over the country, shooting at will, mobile network operators suspended access to Facebook and other social media applications.

How could all these people, peacefully protesting and carrying no arms, have exercised restraint?

Word from SADC, again

After the current protests made the news, President Cyril Ramaphosa, as head of the SADC troika, sent an envoy “to engage with His Majesty King Mswati III of the Kingdom of eSwatini on security and political developments in the kingdom”. The team is led by former Cabinet minister Jeff Radebe.

SADC engagements in July proved a disappointment. Interviewed on Newzroom Africa about the troika’s fact-finding mission, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor said: “I was quite disappointed. We were on a fact-finding mission and what we found in Swaziland [eSwatini] was that our colleagues in government essentially wanted the government to brief us, [whereas] we wanted a wider set of briefing as we wished to speak to the broader stakeholder, including non-government stakeholders.”

The team eventually met with groups outside of government, but a report of their fact-finding mission is yet to be published. It remains to be seen if the Radebe-led envoy team will make a difference. Will they also speak as if there are two warring factions, both armed to the teeth and both having to exercise restraint?

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The people of eSwatini have shown their resolve and they will eventually attain their freedom. As with all struggles, solidarity will quicken and ease the path. But as the US and the European powers, as well as the UN, speak of “human rights”, they actively mask the realities of the situation, providing ideological cover for Mswati and the state he runs. It seems that they prefer the status quo: the Mswati dictatorship regime they have done business with for a long time, a devil they know. 

It is alarming that in South Africa, where those who protested against the apartheid regime were painted as terrorists, the state is also part of the “all parties” brigade when it’s clear there is one murderous side doing all it can to extinguish the flames of democracy. 

Here it is grassroots activists, trade unions and the South African Communist Party that have come out clearly against the dictatorship and for the courageous struggle for democracy being waged by emaSwati. But until this kind of principled solidarity achieves the sort of critical mass that will ensure the safety of the people on the streets of eSwatini, the king will continue to preside over a murderous state.

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