In Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a protest movement arises

In Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a protest movement arises

Craig Ruttle/AP/File

On Sept. 25, 2019, Eswatini’s King Mswati III addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In response to a month of anti-regime protests this year, the king has said that the demonstrations are taking the country backward.

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July 22, 2021

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For the past month, demonstrations have upended daily life in the small southern African kingdom of Eswatini. Young protesters are demanding jobs and political reform in a country that is poor and unequal, ruled by a wealthy monarch who seems impervious to public opinion. 

The demonstrations in Eswatini echo other youth-led movements across Africa that have erupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, from Nigeria to Uganda to South Africa. The pandemic and measures to curb it, experts say, have exacerbated preexisting tensions over poverty, inequality, unemployment, and police brutality, bringing young people with few other choices out into the streets.

Why We Wrote This

A growing protest movement in Eswatini echoes the social uprisings seen in other African countries during the pandemic, revealing the depths of social tensions and inequities that predated COVID-19.

The protests in Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, have grown in size and become more diffuse; organized marches are happening as well as more chaotic outpouring of frustration and the looting of stores. In neighboring South Africa, the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma has sparked mass unrest and widespread looting that led to the deployment of troops there. While both social movements had a specific casus belli, they also fed on long-standing frustrations. 

Previous protests in Eswatini “were very organized, undertaken by a specific union or cause. It was very discernible who was in the march and who was outside of it,” says Venitia Govender, a South African rights activist. “But this one was just a public outcry.”

Johannesburg

For 37 years, Sibongile Mazibuko stood in front of her high school students in Africa’s last absolute monarchy and made them a promise.

Get an education and your life will be better. Get an education and doors will open in Eswatini.

“What a lie that was,” says Ms. Mazibuko, who now works full time as a pro-democracy activist. For the past two months, this country of 1.2 million next to South Africa has been roiled by the biggest anti-regime protest movement in its history, led and fueled mostly by young people like Ms. Mazibuko’s former students, who live in poverty in the shadow of an opulent dictator.

Why We Wrote This

A growing protest movement in Eswatini echoes the social uprisings seen in other African countries during the pandemic, revealing the depths of social tensions and inequities that predated COVID-19.

“This scenario is like grass that you have sprinkled petrol on,” Ms. Mazibuko says. “The only thing left was to find a match to light everything.”

That match took the form of the unexplained death of a law student in early May. The demonstrations that followed in Eswatini echo youth-led movements that have swept other African countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, from Nigeria to Uganda to South Africa. The pandemic and measures to curb it, experts say, have sharply turned up the dial on existing anger about poverty, inequality, unemployment, and police brutality, bringing young people with few other choices out into the streets.

“Young people are saying – blind loyalty isn’t going to work for us anymore,” says Qhawekazi Khumalo, a South Africa-based activist with the Free eSwatini Diaspora campaign. “They want government to be accountable. That loyalty their parents may have felt [to liberation leaders] isn’t there.”

The protests in Eswatini began in May after Thabani Nkomonye, a law student, was found dead in circumstances that pointed to police involvement. Students were the first in the streets, but others followed to express frustration after a ban was imposed on citizens petitioning King Mswati III, one of the few ways that Swazis can register an official complaint.


When a Nobel Peace Prize winner wages war, who loses?

Swazis have lived under an absolute monarchy since 1973, when King Sobhuza II revoked then-Swaziland’s post-independence constitution and declared himself the country’s absolute authority. In 2018 the country’s name was changed to Eswatini.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File

In what was then known as Swaziland, King Mswati III attends the annual Umhlanga ceremony at the Ludzidzini Royal Village on Sept. 2, 2013, in Lobamba.

“We had faith in this king because he helped free us from colonialism,” Ms. Mazibuko says of Sobhuza. “We were proud for him to be recognized as a king, like they had in England, and not only a chief like the English called African rulers.”

But under both Sobhuza and his son, Mswati III, Swazis have watched their rulers amass large fortunes – the current king had an estimated worth of $50 million in 2014 – while most Swazis remained desperately poor. Nearly two-thirds live below the poverty line of $3.20 a day, according to the World Bank, and the country has the highest rate of HIV prevalence in the world. Youth unemployment is around 50%.  

The king, meanwhile, is the sole trustee of an untaxed sovereign wealth fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which grew out of savings pooled by Swazis in the 1960s to buy back their land from British colonizers.

Diffuse protests test a regime

Since June, protests in the country, which is slightly larger than Connecticut, have become widespread and diffuse, including both organized marches and more ad hoc acts like the looting of shops.

“When you look at previous rounds of protest in [Eswatini], they were very organized, undertaken by a specific union or cause. It was very discernible who was in the march and who was outside of it,” says Venitia Govender, a South African human rights activist who has worked extensively on pro-democracy issues in Eswatini. “But this one was just a public outcry.”

Eswatini is far from the only African country where youth-led protests have exploded amid soaring unemployment and pandemic lockdowns enforced by heavy-handed police forces.

In October 2020, demonstrations against police brutality swept Nigerian cities, becoming one of the biggest social movements in decades. Young Ugandans turned out by the tens of thousands in March to protest the disputed results of a presidential election won by Yoweri Museveni, who has held power for the last 36 years.

And in South Africa this month, groups of mostly young people looted shops and burned businesses across the country in an outpouring of rage and helplessness triggered by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma, though many here say the unrest ultimately stems from South Africa’s rampant inequality and youth unemployment.

“COVID has really raised the urgency of these demands,” Ms. Govender says. “People choose protests as their means of fighting when they don’t feel they’ll be listened to by any other means.”

So far, the Swazi monarchy has made few concessions. The king has called the protests “satanic” and said they are taking the country backward. Last week, he named a new prime minister to replace the one who died in December, snubbing protesters’ calls for the head of government to be elected, not appointed.

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Police have quelled demonstrations with live ammunition, and 50 demonstrators have reportedly died. But Zakithi Sibandze, a student and activist in Manzini, says it is too late for protesters to back down.

“We are carrying too much in this country,” she says. “And now every day we wake up imagining a new country. We are imagining what it would be like to be free.”

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Mark Sappenfield
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