Sibaya is no platform for a dialogue, say emaSwati

Pro-democracy campaigners in eSwatini are united in rejecting the so-called People’s Parliament because it is not a neutral venue for a national conversation about the country’s future.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, as chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, issued a statement on 23 October appealing for calm because “King Mswati III has accepted the need for [a] national dialogue”.

Mere minutes before the statement, the eSwatini government announced in a press conference that the king had decided that a national dialogue will be held “through [a] Sibaya” and only “after the Incwala ceremony”, which is scheduled for late December and usually ends in January.

A Sibaya is an annual meeting of the nation, billed by the government as the “People’s Parliament”, that is held in the royal kraal at one of Mswati’s residences. Incwala, on the other hand, is a festival led by the king and defined by rituals, dances and other activities.

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Pro-democracy protesters – through their political parties, the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (a body loosely representing political parties, businesses, the church, students, youth groups and others) and civic organisations – have completely rejected the Sibaya. They say the one-sided event cannot be a platform for dialogue and that, by delaying talks until after the Incwala ceremony, Mswati is not treating people’s demands with the urgency and respect they deserve. 

The positioning of the king’s Sibaya as a site of dialogue is not new. In July, after the armed forces had killed about 80 people and injured hundreds more, the government quickly called a Sibaya. Globally powerful countries like the United States, United Kingdom and others welcomed the Sibaya because it “allows King Mswati III to address his people, and represents an initial opportunity for citizens to express their views”.

At the Sibaya, Mswati delivered a monologue in which he mocked pro-democracy protesters, calling them marijuana smokers, and announced that he was appointing Cleopas Dlamini as the new prime minister. No one else was given an opportunity to speak. There was no dialogue.

Fruitless exercise

While almost all political parties rejected the announcement of a new Sibaya, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) was quick to say why. In a virtual press conference held on 24 October, Pudemo president Mlungisi Makhanya said the mere mention of a Sibaya brings back bad memories. The political party, formed in 1983 and now proscribed under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, has in the past taken part in SADC-led political interventions in eSwatini, and all were utter failures.

“People will remember that the first South African leader who attempted to rein in Mswati to dialogue with us as emaSwati was the late president Nelson Mandela in 1996,” said Makhanya.

In 1996, Pudemo supported the mass stay-away organised by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions. Apart from better rights and pay for workers, it demanded the repeal of King Sobhuza II’s 1973 decree that outlawed multiparty democracy and made the king the head of all branches of government.

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“If I am not mistaken, I think it was president [Quett] Masire from Botswana who came down at the request of president Mandela when he was heading SADC at the time. We engaged in that process and nothing came out of it.

“Again, in 2001, there was another attempt to engage through that platform. And, again, it proved to be a dismal failure,” said Makhanya.

Furthermore, though touted by Mswati’s government as a site of dialogue and written into the 2005 Constitution as “an annual general meeting of the nation”, the Sibaya is often without an agenda. And the government can simply decide who gets to make submissions. In the 25 October 2018 Sibaya, for example, only senators, members of Parliament and a select few individuals close to the king were allowed to speak.

Reprisals for speaking out

In the past, people who have made submissions deemed to be an attack on the person of the king have been harassed and even arrested.

“So, Sibaya has never been a platform,” said Makhanya. “More than the fact that it is not helpful, it has provided a necessary platform for Mswati to then unleash his security forces on those who speak against what he wants to hear at Sibaya. 

“You will remember, not so long ago, the old man Mr Mkhaliphi, who after making presentations at Sibaya, the police attacked him and his family. And up to date he still lives in fear in Vuvulane, having had all his items, including livestock, taken away by the king.” 

In a 2016 Sibaya session, Mkhaliphi stood up at Sibaya and criticised the king for having grabbed smallholder farmers’ land in Vuvulane, forcing them out of homes and fields that some had worked and owned since 1962.

Makhanya also talked about the issue of representation in the Sibaya. “One will remember that when you attend Sibaya, you are said to be attending in your individual capacity as LiSwati, not in any representative capacity. So people, when they speak at Sibaya, they represent their individual views.” 

16 July 2021: King Mswati III addresses the nation at a Sibaya held at the Ludzidzini Royal Village in Lubamba, eSwatini. (Screengrab via Eswatini TV)

Pudemo also said it is important for eSwatini citizens to ask who the king represents in this dialogue. “Because the dialogue that we are talking about is a dialogue between us as emaSwati. And what would happen is that he would be subjected to the decisions that would come out from that dialogue. 

“If we decide from that dialogue that the royal family ought to be represented, we will leave it to the royal family to decide who must represent or constitute its delegation. The biggest mistake that many people make is to think that the king owns this country, or even owns us as citizens of this country, to a point where if we want to [have a] dialogue amongst ourselves to find the best way forward, that dialogue must be a dialogue with the king.

“We want to make it clear as a movement that the king does not own the country. His role as a monarch – if there will still be a role for a monarch in a future dispensation – will be determined by the people of eSwatini in that binding dialogue. It is not something that will be an outcome of what we would have discussed with him,” said Makhanya.

Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, a political party formed in 1963, said the Sibaya is not a democratic forum. “It has been used before, but it has never worked for emaSwati except to victimise them. The aftermath is very sad for many people, especially those who will talk against the king. Plus, there is no report compiled. [Even with] resolutions taken, if you try to demand implementation, you are victimised.

“A member of Parliament, for example, who raised a motion at a Sibaya in 2012 was made to pay a fine in the form of five cows,” said Mazibuko.

A lack of urgency

When Ramaphosa’s special envoy to eSwatini, Jeff Radebe, and the rest of the SADC delegation met with Mswati on the night of 22 October, he reportedly told them that he would convene a Sibaya and that it would constitute a national dialogue. However, he would attend to the matter only after the Incwala ceremony.

“We made it clear once again that Incwala is nothing but a family ritual,” Makhanya said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the nation. It is something that is practised by the king and the royal family there in their palaces. When it comes to the nation, it is life and business as usual.

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“So, we cannot stop the issue of attending to these pressing, urgent matters that are engulfing us as a country because one family is still going to practise its own ritual.” 

On 25 October, the Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland released a statement rejecting Mswati’s plans to convene the Sibaya as a site of dialogue. 

“He [the king] will never take any matter raised by the people urgently and with the dignity it deserves. That is why he prefers his ritual called Incwala to dialoguing with the people.”

Planning for democracy

The pro-democracy protesters have had a clear plan for a dialogue for almost as long as they have been protesting and getting killed. The Multi-Stakeholder Forum presented a long-term stability plan to the first SADC troika mission in July. Its chairperson, Thulani Maseko, speaking on 19 October, a day before a planned march for workers in Mbabane, again highlighted a five-point plan that will “ensure a just transition to democracy”.

“In the five-point plan, we have said and agreed that the government of this country must accept and agree to a table of negotiations where, number one, we start a process that is inclusive of negotiations, where all of us can sit down together and chart the way forward for Swaziland. Number two, there must be a total unbanning of political parties so they can make submissions during negotiations. 

27 October 2021: eSwatini’s parliament building in Lobamba, where pro-democracy campaigners are planning to deliver a petition in support of their demands. (Photograph by Nkosinathi Masuku)

“Number three, we emphasise that the time has come for the setting-up of an interim government which will comprise elements of the current government and representatives from the Multi-Stakeholder Forum. It has to be a government that commands the Swazi nation’s support. We say this because the current government has too much blood on its hands to continue governing emaSwati… We already lost about 80 or more than 80 Swazis who, though innocent, were shot and killed at the order of his majesty. Therefore, this government is no longer credible, is no longer legitimate, is no longer fit to govern this innocent nation…

“Number four, as talks continue, the ultimate goal should be to come up with a new democratic constitution where no one in the country will be above the law… We must all be subject and accountable to the law as a people.

“And, number five, the new constitution must result in the creation of a new dispensation under a multiparty dispensation,” said Maseko.  

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