eSwatini monarchy must address demands for democratic reform

Africa’s last absolute monarchy must recognize the country’s changing dynamics and calls for democratic reform or face a political stalemate and recurring violence.

Expert comment Published 25 August 2021 3 minute READ

Fundile Maphanga

Member, Common Futures Conversations

Mounting pressures for democratic reform in eSwatini have led to the arrest of two pro-democracy MPs on suppression of terrorism charges and a brutal crackdown by security forces which have left dozens dead. Hopes for an ‘emaSwati spring’ are unlikely to be realized as the country now faces a protracted stalemate between its young urban population and an entrenched absolute monarchy.

Protests began in May following the death of 25-year-old law student Thabani Nkomanye, allegedly at hands of the police. The violence further intensified after the then acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, banned citizens from submitting petitions to MPs calling for reform. Between 21 June and 23 July the country was rocked by unprecedented civil unrest as frustrated citizens took to the streets with a clear set of demands, including lifting the ban on political parties and the ability to elect a prime minister – a position currently appointed by the king.

According to Amnesty International, more than 70 people have been killed by state security forces during the protests and more than 150 people hospitalized. United Nations organs have called for independent investigation into reported human rights abuses, pointing to reports of ‘disproportionate and unnecessary use of force, harassment and intimidation’ by security forces. 

Democratic re-birth

Democracy is not new to eSwatini. Citizens’ rights were enshrined in the 1967 constitution that provided for a constitutional monarchy and an elected bicameral parliament. But in the decades following independence in 1968, the late King Sobhuza gradually dismantled the democratic structures that challenged his authority by dissolving parliament, banning political parties, and formalizing the use of the Tinkhundla system, an amalgamation of non-partisan elected individuals and officials appointed by the monarch to serve in parliament and government – including the prime minister. However, support for the Tinkhundla system has been weakening, even within traditionally conservative rural areas, and opposition groups now appear more united in their demands.

The lavish lifestyle of the royal household stand in sharp contrast with the nation’s faltering economy, where more than 60 per cent of the population live in poverty.

During past protests and calls for reform, the overlap between pro-democracy groups and trade unions has often blurred the lines between democratic and economic grievances, with negotiated wage settlements weakening calls for deeper reform. The 2021 protests marked a sharp change in the pattern of protest in the country. The mobilization started among young people through social media, with a large proportion of rural youth taking part, highlighting the speed of social change in a country with a median age of 20 and a youth unemployment rate of 46 per cent. The protests also point to growing frustration with worsening socio-economic conditions. The lavish lifestyle of the royal household stand in sharp contrast with the nation’s faltering economy, where more than 60 per cent of the population live in poverty.

But while the nature of the protests may have been different, the government’s response was the same as always: to resist change. It implemented an internet shutdown, imposed curfews and deployed armed forces to protect key infrastructure. Protests were disbanded with live ammunition, killing and injuring civilians, and there were reports of South African journalists being abducted and tortured.

Riots in late June caused damages worth an estimated R3 billion (approximately $204,600,00.00). King Mswati III has announced a R500 million fund to aid business recovery, while the young protestors have faced widespread condemnation, not only by the king but also by policymakers and media outlets. This refusal to address the grievances of eSwatini’s youth will lead to further costs which the country’s economy can ill afford. 

Dialogue and recognition

Failure to engage with the country’s changing dynamics could be catastrophic. The first step towards progress is also one of the most important ones – a national dialogue that recognizes opposition groups.

This refusal to address the grievances of eSwatini’s youth will lead to further costs which the country’s economy can ill afford. 

The status of political parties remains undefined. While the 2006 constitution protects the freedom of assembly, the king and those around him have repeatedly asserted that this does not include political parties, some of which are completely outlawed, and all of which are prohibited from taking part in elections.

But a national dialogue on political grievances without involving leading pro-democracy groups would lack credibility. On 4 July, civil society groups hijacked a meeting between ministers from neighbouring countries representing the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and monarchy-approved organizations, and accused SADC officials of purposefully overlooking political actors not aligned to government. A follow-up SADC fact-finding mission did meet a wider range of stakeholders.

Yet, a broad and inclusive dialogue seems unlikely. King Mswati III’s recent appointment of Cleopas Dlamini to replace Themba Masuku as prime minister was widely regarded as a reaction to the latter’s call for inclusive dialogue. The arrest of two pro-democracy MPs, Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, under the country’s Suppression of Terrorism Act further indicates that the ruling elite is unwilling to recognize and engage with opposition leaders. 

As the country’s current economic and social trajectory is unsustainable, the king and his advisers may seek to consider various options for reform. Lesotho and Bhutan could offer lessons of monarchical leadership reforms that would allow eSwatini to retain distinctive cultural institutions and practices, while the monarchy relinquishes executive powers within its political system. 

Failure to recognize the changing dynamics of the country, legitimate economic grievances and the young voices wanting recognition and respect for human rights will not only fail to solve eSwatini’s problems but will compound them. The country is at risk of falling into a protracted stalemate between the monarchy and its young urban population, bringing recurring violence and associated costs to property and investments, alongside accelerating socio-economic deterioration.