As tension prevails, relatives mourn Eswatini crackdown victims

Africa’s last absolute monarchy has for days been rocked by the largest pro-democracy protests in years.

Firefighters extinguish a fire at a supermarket in Manzini. Demonstrations escalated in Eswatini this week as protesters took to the streets demanding immediate political reforms [AFP]

Khohliwe Mathunjwa is in mourning. She is also stuck.

Her nephew, 35-year-old Sicelo Mathunjwa, was shot in the head on Tuesday evening when police in Eswatini dispersed crowds with gunfire in Matsapha, a small industrial hub about 35km (21 miles) from the capital, Mbabane.

“Sicelo is dead, he died on the spot,” Mathunjwa told Al Jazeera, saying she cannot leave her village of Mazombiswe to head to her nephew’s village of Hosea, some 30km (18 miles) away, and pay her finals respects due to the tensions in the small landlocked country formerly known as Swaziland.

For days, Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has been rocked by the largest pro-democracy protests in years that have seen security forces engage mostly young demonstrators defying an overnight curfew in running street battles.

Mathunjwa said her nephew, a clothes factory worker, was a bystander when police opened fire against protesters who had set fire to a building owned by Eswatini Beverages, a company partly owned by King Mswati III.

“He was near Matsapha brewery that night,” the 59-year-old said in a telephone interview. “My children went to identify the body at the mortuary and they saw a hole in the back of his head.”

Activists from two political movements, the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) and People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), told Al Jazeera at least 40 people have been killed during the crackdown.

But in a statement issued on Thursday, the office of acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku said it was “yet to receive official reports about the alleged deaths. We will investigate the allegations.”

Calls for ‘political plurality, accountability’

While protests demanding political reforms are rare, they are not new in Eswatini.

Tensions have been brewing for months in the mountainous kingdom, where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated socioeconomic grievances and whose monarch and his close circles have been criticised for living opulent lives while most of the country’s population live in grinding poverty.

The current protests were sparked by a June 24 decree by the king banning citizens from sending petitions to parliamentarians to demand democratic reforms. It followed a public outcry against the alleged killing by the police of a law student, Thabani Nkomonye, in May.

Businesses in Matsapha have been looted and torched by protesters, but the presence of security forces on the streets have made citizens vulnerable to the use of force.

“Dangerous civil unrest continues in Eswatini, including the use of deadly force by security forces,” the United States embassy in the country said in a statement this week, noting communications disruptions.

A strict night curfew, meanwhile, has emptied the streets, while the airport and the public transport system have been shut down. The CPS said 13 of its members have been detained.

“We are not surprised by the heavy response of the regime,” Mlungisi Makhanya, leader of PUDEMO, told Al Jazeera. “We, the people, are saying we need to open up the constitutional space … for people to make their own choices on how they want to be governed,” he said.

“We need to transition to a new dispensation where there is political plurality and a leadership that is accountable to its people, not one that hardens hearts against the monarchy,” he told Al Jazeera.

Although the tiny kingdom of 1.2 million people supports monarchical rule, Makhanya warned the continued absolutism of Mswati risked escalating calls for a republic.

Crowned as regent at the age of 18, Mswati inherited the throne from his father, King Sobhuza II, who banned the registration of political parties in 1973.

Instead, the country’s system allows candidates to run individually for parliamentary seats, leaving no room for a political party to hold a majority in parliament. The prime minister is appointed by the king, who holds all executive power.

The king has not addressed the protests throughout the week – a tactic, observers say, that is in line with the monarchy’s modus operandi when there is trouble.

“Pro-democracy sentiments in Eswatini are not something new. They are sentiments that folks have held for decades on end and the monarchy has been able to ride things out through a combination of stick and carrot mechanisms,” Menzi Ndhlovu, senior political and country risk analyst at Signal Risk, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story programme on Thursday.

“In instances of unrest, there is a tendency by the monarchy to keep quiet until things are in order. It is no surprise that the king has kept silent while his generals and his police officials do the work, calm the population, and then when things are a little bit calmer, he’ll probably come out and speak out.”

Earlier this week, Masuku, the acting prime minister, dispelled speculation that Mswati had left the country. He went on to describe the protests as “upsetting and alarming” and told people to “direct their concerns” to the government via email.

He also maintained the deployment of security forces was to ensure order.

“Government has tightened security to regain the rule-of-law, peace and to protect all emaSwati. We will continue not to tolerate the looting, arson, violence, and all other forms of criminality that are directed at businesses and people’s property,” he said in Thursday’s statement.

A fire on a road in Eswatini’s capital, Mbabane, on Tuesday [AFP]

Calls for dialogue

Thabani Maseko, a lawyer and activist, said the growing discontent against Mswati’s clampdown on citizens could spiral into a crisis of legitimacy. During his imprisonment in 2015 for criticising the judicial system, Maseko penned an open letter to former United States President Barack Obama, pleading with him to persuade other world leaders to lobby for constitutional change.

However, Maseko believes the only way out of “total mayhem” is dialogue.

“An attempt is being made to reach out to all stakeholders from civil society, labour unions, youth groups, businesses and churches to meet and find consensus. We’re trying to create a platform for negotiations with the government, but it’s difficult since lines of communication are down and movement is difficult,” he said.

“The only way to end this tension is if government sees dialogue is necessary to work out a way forward,” he said.

However, for politicians living in exile, such as CPS Secretary-General Kenneth Kunene, the first condition of dialogue is “the unbanning of political parties”.

Unable to return to Eswatini for fear of persecution, Kunene and scores of members of his party have found refuge in neighbouring South Africa.

The regional heavyweight, South Africa on Thursday expressed “great concern” over the actions of the security forces and called on them to exercise “total restraint and protect the lives and property of the people”.

“We are particularly concerned by reports of loss of life and destruction of properties,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said.

Back in Mazombiswe, Mathunjwa grieves the loss of her nephew and father of three.

“His father died long ago and he had to take up the role,” she said. “He was the only boy in my brother’s house, he’s the only boy in the homestead, now his sisters will have to look after the family,” added Mathunjwa.

“We will remember him as a loving person and communicator who united the whole family. This is really painful for us.”

Source: Al Jazeera