The South African government is concerned by a possible spill-over of violence and unrest from the Kingdom of eSwatini, after pro-democracy protesters in the monarchy were met with a brutal police crackdown in the beginning of last week.
The government was forced to do damage control to counter allegations that King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, had fled the country after protesters torched public facilities and building housing a brewery run by the royal family.
Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku denied the reports at a virtual press conference on Tuesday that the king had fled as reported, but promised to address the political situation.
“His Majesty King Mswati III is in the country and continues to lead in working with the government to advance the kingdom’s goals,” Masuku told a virtual press conference.
“The government will update the nation on interventions on the current situation as the day progresses.”
What Masuku referred to, it turned out, was the deployment of security forces, an imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, internet shut down and a violent crushing of unarmed protesters. The king is yet to address the kingdom and his whereabouts remain unknown but the PM cited Covid-19, not political unrest, in issuing the restrictions.
On Wednesday, the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) and the Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco), a pro-democracy lobby, confirmed several people had been killed by the country’s security forces during protests.
On Thursday, Pretoria said it was concerned with the manner in which security forces had reacted to unarmed protesters, as political movements in South Africa joined the calls for more civil liberties in eSwatini.
“We are particularly concerned by reports of loss of life and destruction of property. The right to peaceful protest is universally recognised,” said a statement from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesman Clayson Monyela.
The South African government called on the security forces to exercise total restraint and protect the lives and property of the people, in keeping with the country’s constitutional provisions and laws.
“In addition, South Africa urges all political actors and civil society to engage in meaningful dialogue in order to resolve the current political challenges facing the country,” reads the statement.
Pretoria’s calls raised possibility that the entire Southern Africa Development Cooperation bloc [SADC] may be involved. Some activists and political movements both in South Africa and eSwatini have supported calls for the reinstatement of political parties which the kingdom banned in April 1973.
King Mswati III, exercises absolute control on the government including the appointment of Cabinet members, judges and top civil servants. With political parties banned, citizens have often presented their grievances through petitions.
The protests, in which a leading chain store OK Foods was looted and torched, flared up several days ago after the government issued a decree banning the delivery of petitions, which called for democratic reforms.
In eSwatini, given the lack of political freedoms, citizens usually present grievances through petitions to their MPs. A ban on that channel elicited anger and protesters have been voicing displeasure since mid-June, demanding an elected Premier and reinstatement of political parties.
On Monday, the army was deployed to areas of unrest after trucks – some of them belonging to South African companies – were torched over the weekend and shops were looted in the rural town of Siphofaneni.
The Economic Freedom Fighters [Eswatini], which borrows the name from the South African political party of Julius Malema, condemned the deployment “to unleash violence towards innocent citizens.”
The protests escalated after dozens of students marched to eSwatini's Parliament to demand justice for a law student believed to have been killed by the police.
Thabani Nkomonye's body was recently found in a field in Nhlambeni, about 10km outside Manzini. Colani Khulekani Maseko, the president of the Swaziland National Students' Union, said they were demanding the end of police brutality and a multi-party democracy "in which the police are accountable to the people and not only to the kin."
Given the way SADC has handled previous crises in Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique; it was unlikely the bloc will react with any decisive moves. The bloc had yet to issue a public comment on the situation in the Kingdom. And South Africa itself, the biggest economy in the bloc, often refrained from intervening in troubled neighbours.
Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat said he was concerned by the latest political and security situation in the kingdom.
“The chairperson condemns in the strongest terms possible the incidents of violence that have led to the loss of life, looting and destruction of public and private property,” the AU said in a statement on Thursday, calling for necessary steps to protect civilian life and property and urged security forces to stop crushing the unarmed protesters.
“The chairperson appeals to all national stakeholders to display leadership and engage in constructive dialogue towards the amicable resolution of issues in the national interest of peace and stability of eSwatini.” Business eSwatini, an organisation that represents the business community in the small mountainous kingdom, called for restraint.
“Admittedly, the business community has borne the brunt of the riots on the streets. The business community is taking a heavy pounding out there and it is taking its toll already,” a statement read.
“We call for restraint on all sides as attempts to engage one another hopefully get underway.”
With the Kingdom almost entirely reliant on economic ties with South Africa, it is no wonder that the events have attracted interests from Pretoria’s non-state actors.
On Wednesday, Vuyani Pambo, the Spokesperson for the Economic Freedom Fighters, the party of Julius Malema asked the people in the Kingdom to continue fighting for their freedom.
“Only the masses can break themselves free from the chain of oppression.
“The police and army of the King have everything to gain from this popular revolution and accordingly, they have a responsibility to join the people’s front in the street battles to overthrow the arrogant traditional leader who is self-serving in the midst of a pandemic and poverty.”
The EFF, whose name has been borrowed by another movement in eSwatini, called on political groups to unite.
It also attracted the attention of South Africa’s activists. The South Africa’s civil rights movement #NotInMyName called on Pretoria to condemn what it called the “barbaric actions” of the eSwatini regime.
“Furthermore the embassy of eSwatini must be closed with immediate effect. We cannot sit still and watch emaSwati die. The struggle is no longer theirs alone. The monarch must stop eating his own,” #NotInMyName secretary general Themba Masango said.