A wave of pro-democracy demonstrations and violent riots erupted amid Southern Africa’s 2021 winter season. Anti-monarchy protests flared across the kingdom of Eswatini (the continent’s last absolute monarchy). Various news reports described the protest situation as violent, chaotic and deadly. Amid the protest action, government properties were set alight while military forces mercilessly opened fire on unarmed civilians. In addition to the deployment of the military, who were permitted to open fire on civilians, the Eswatini government also responded to the protest actions by imposing a nationwide curfew and shutting down the internet in the country. The strict press censorship in Eswatini made it very difficult for journalists to report reliable news about the country, and journalists from independent newspapers like Swaziland News had to work under complicated circumstances. In an online news report, Zweli Martin Dhlamini, an editor for Swaziland News, exposed the Eswatini police for their role in hiding evidence of murderous crimes against civilians by gathering and then hiding bullets from lifeless bodies (Dhlamini).
In a dissertation titled “Balancing Monarchical Rights and Human Rights in Southern Africa: Experiences from the kingdom of Eswatini”, Gamelihle Ncube from the University of Venda explicitly explains how the government electoral process in Eswatini works. Most notably, the dissertation reveals how roughly 90% of the country’s parliamentarians are appointed by the king, according to Ncube; “the monarch appoints about 20 of the country’s senators out of a total of 30” (3). Ncube also highlighted that; “the parliamentarians are elected by the king. However, they do not have the power to initiate any constitution” (3). As a response to Eswatini’s overtly anti-democratic form of governance, the 2021 pro-democracy movement was initiated with the aid of political activists asking for a constitutional democracy that could rescind the country’s ill-disposed constitutional structure that gave King Mswati III the majority powers in electing and choosing leaders and ministers of government offices. Additionally, the political activists also challenged a 1973 regulation, enforced by Eswatini’s monarchical government, that imposes a ban on all opposition parties.
Although Eswatini has faced increasing demands for democratic reforms, it has long been a reality for the country that; the kingdom of Eswatini does not even come close to meeting the minimum requirements to be classified as any category of democracy. The country’s absolute monarchy government structure and system date far back to colonialism, and therefore any democratic change to the system would be revolutionary. Gamelihle Ncube from the University of Venda explains that: “the kingdom of Eswatini does not constitute a state which is an electoral democracy or a liberal democracy, as the current leader, King Mswati III, wields absolute power and authority over all branches of government” (2). The 2021 anti-monarchy protests demanded an end to this outdated system of governance. More specifically, the desperate outcries from the Swati people were motivated by their demand for the king to step down or at the very least have a lesser say.
According to Ncube, “Eswatini also restricts public demonstrations and campaigning for participation in the electoral proceedings as this is unlawful. Anyone found to be against the king’s word may be charged with treason” (3). Intricately intertwined with this issue is another major controversy that may have contributed further towards the Swati nation’s growing frustration and weariness towards Eswatini ruling authorities, which may have been the ominous death of a local student. Earlier in the year 2021, the death of an Eswatini student named Thabani Nkomonye sparked similar outrage, particularly among the youth, as many accused the police of being involved in Nkomonye’s death. In response, students organized a protest march to the Eswatini Parliament. When youth activists took to the streets to protest and illicit petitions demanding justice against police brutality, things quickly became violent after the Eswatini police intervened. The Swati king’s appointed acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, responded to all of the protest actions by imposing a ban on marches.
In an anonymous news report article published by an online media outlet, founded by the United Nations, called The New Humanitarian, the words of a Southern African youth activist named Nelson Maseko recorded as follows; “We saw we have no outlet to express ourselves. We’re not allowed to protest injustice. We’re not allowed to even dare suggest reforms in petitions.” (anonymous) The youth activist, who was said to have been from the central industrial hub of Matsapha, concluded with a chilling remark saying that “the whole system is set up to make us silent.” (anonymous). The anonymous news report published by The New Humanitarian was written by a journalist in Eswatini whose name was concealed due to security concerns.
For many years in Eswatini, the monarchical government was able to censor media in the country, according to Ncube; “There is also lack of freedom of expression, as the media is tightly controlled with both television and radio broadcasting being monitored by the government”(4). Despite this, with the modern emergence of independent media, the monarchical government had less control over online media (Dhlamini). Naturally, it became progressively difficult for the monarchy government to censor online media. As a result of having less censored access to online media, the people of Eswatini increasingly became more aware (and even more empowered) of how restrictive and oppressive the Eswatini monarchy constitutional government was.
A valid point worth considering is the issue that; “there are a lot of irregularities that come as a result of having a monarchical government, especially in a highly globalized and modernized 21st century” (Ncube 74). The fact that the kingdom of Eswatini is an absolute monarchy automatically means that it exists incongruently to other 21st-century political government constitutions that generally operate more democratically. Undeniably, democracy is generally more favourable for any country existing within the contemporary global economic system. In the case of Eswatini, a transition from an absolute monarchy to a more democratic constitutional governance would be outstanding for many reasons. Most obviously, it would be a win for humanity because it could lead to the initiation of a government that recognizes and prioritizes the rights of the people first over the rights of a monarchy.
In a comparative research study on monarchical rights relative to human rights, Gamelihle Ncube singled out the kingdom of Eswatini, highlighting how problematic the country’s monarchy state of governance was for its people. According to Ncube, the tiny African monarchy is often a focal point of discussion for many human rights pressure groups, naming it; “one of the worst human rights violators on the African continent” (1). Moreover, the kingdom of Eswatini is said to have one of the worst-performing economies in its region. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Eswatini especially cannot afford the protest actions and civil unrest faced by it, as this could quickly destroy the economy of the already severely struggling country.
In Eswatini, the unemployment rates are astronomically high and, a great majority of citizens live in poverty and are malnourished. According to findings from The New Humanitarian, roughly two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, and the country depends on international donors and donor applications to assist the largely famished population. The report from The New Humanitarian also exposed how lavish the Swati monarch’s lifestyle is in comparison to that of his ‘subjects’ and also despite the country’s severely struggling economy;
“the treasury still finds the money to fund royal initiatives: a $2 billion International Convention Centre and five-star hotel now under construction in the upscale community of Ezulwini; the purchase of an Airbus A340-300 passenger plane for King Mswati; and the extravagant lifestyle of the rest of the royal Dlamini family.”
(“Weeks Of Rioting Fail To Force Reform In Eswatini”).
The country’s unwillingness to implement constitutional reforms only further reflects how much the kingdom of Eswatini prioritizes the security of its regime, even if it is at the expense of the safety of its people. (Ncube 77). For many years, in Eswatini, the rights of the monarchy have been positioned as unimpeachable, and this has been something that the government has been strictly unwilling to compromise on. Expectedly, the absolute monarchy of Eswatini will not go down without a hard fight.
Allison, Simon. “Q&A: What’S Driving The Protests In Eswatini? – The Mail & Guardian”. Mail&Guardian, 2021, www.google.com/amp/s/mg.co.za/africa/2021-07-01-qa-whats-driving-the-protests-in-eswatini/%3famp. Accessed 19 July 2021.
Anonymous. “Weeks Of Rioting Fail To Force Reform In Eswatini”. The New Humanitarian, 2021, www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/7/13/weeks-of-rioting-fails-to-force-reform-in-eswatini. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Dlamini, Zweli. “TROUBLED KINGDOM: OP-ED: Mswati’s Iron Fists And Hollow Handshakes Mask Moves To Conceal Crimes Against A Mourning Nation”. Daily Maverick, 2021, www.google.com/amp/s/www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-07-14-mswatis-iron-fists-and-hollow-handshakes-mask-moves-to-conceal-crimes-against-a-mourning-nation/amp/. Accessed 21 July 2021.
Ncube, Gamelihle. Balancing monarchical and human rights in Southern Africa: experiences from the kingdom of Eswatini. Diss. 2019.
“Weeks Of Rioting Fail To Force Reform In Eswatini”. The New Humanitarian, 2021, www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/7/13/weeks-of-rioting-fails-to-force-reform-in-eswatini. Accessed 21 July 2021.