This past week the international community has received detailed information about the turmoil currently ongoing in South Africa. The former President Jacob Zuma was found guilty of contempt of the Constitutional Court, the highest Court in South Africa, for refusing to testify before a judicial panel. This latest court proceeding involving Zuma, which is in addition to the longstanding and ongoing fraud, corruption and racketeering charges currently being tried, sparked widespread protests, looting and violence, resulting in the death of over 200 people.
Almost overlooked in the international media is South Africa’s much smaller neighbour, Eswatini, which is in the midst of political turmoil of its own. Eswatini is a small nation-State, known as Swaziland until 2018, landlocked by Mozambique and South Africa. It is also the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa. The Head of State, King Mswati III, presides over the legislature, executive and judiciary.
In May 2021, a law student, Thabani Nkomonye, was allegedly killed by Eswatini’s police force members. This incident sparked country-wide youth-led protests calling for political reform, respect for human rights and a reform of the monarchy. These protests have been met with increasing hostility from Government forces. The violence has resulted in at least 70 youth being killed and hundreds injured. Swazi’s, especially the youth, are calling for the establishment of democratic rule.
After becoming independent from the UK in 1968, Eswatini established a political system called the “Tinkhundla System of Governance.” Though the Tinkhundla system requires regular elections to appoint representatives from traditional community and land areas, the King enjoys powers to appoint a Prime Minister and a majority of the Members of the House of Senate.
In 2005 the Swazi constitution was drafted and adopted, reflecting the aspirations for a modern democracy in Eswatini. Despite this, over the years, respect for human rights eroded, along with good governance and the rule of law. Along side this is increasing inequality, as noted by the World Bank.
Although classified as a lower-middle-income country, 63% of Eswatini’s population live on less than US $1 per day, while the King enjoys an extravagant lifestyle supporting his 15 wives. Eswatini has a large youth population with an unemployment rate of 46.2% who often feel alienated from decision-making processes and an absence of opportunities.
Recently, Eswatini has experienced growing levels of violence and police brutality. On 20 June 2021, a series of youth-driven peaceful petitions were led across the country, emphasizing the call for democratic change. In response to the protests, Eswatini has experienced growing levels of violence and police brutality. On 24 June, the Government sought to stifle student organizing by banning petitions to Parliament, ostensibly because of the covid pandemic. On 25 June, the Government instructed the telecommunications service providers to stop internet connectivity intermittently, leaving the country digitally isolated. Two days later, the King instituted martial law, implemented a curfew, and began the ongoing heavy army presence on city streets.
Eswatini has a long history of pride in its culture, respect for its traditions and fierce protection of its own self-determination. It is also a member of the United Nations, the African Union, The Commonwealth and the wider international community. Eswatini shares a colonial history with every Commonwealth member State, including Canada.
Recently at the G7 Summit in Cornwall, Canada, along with its G7 partners, reaffirmed its commitment to strengthening democratic institutions worldwide – acknowledging the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on racialized groups and women. Presumably, this laudable commitment applies to Eswatini.
Amid the civil unrest, there has been little effort toward restoring peace and order. On 4 July 2021, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a body that supports integration in the region built on principles of democracy and equitable and sustainable development, sent a fact-finding mission to Eswatini to focusing on civil unrest. This process was heavily criticized by members of civil society who were excluded from these initial consultations, and the mission stayed in the country for just one day. While SADC has since attempted to deploy another delegation to undertake a second more inclusive fact-finding mission, the Eswatini Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a statement asking that it be delayed due to COVID-19 limitations.
The civil unrest is ongoing. On 16 July, the youth led another protest in Manzini, a key urban centre, in defiance of attendance at the Sibaya, a royal gathering ordered by the King. The protestors were fired on with tear gas, water cannon and bullets. King Mswati III appointed a new Prime Minister to replace the interim Prime Minister, ignoring a key demand made by protestors. Swazi civil society has amplified its call for a mediated political dialogue and catalyzes a transition to meaningful democracy. On 8 July, the United States Embassy in Eswatini shared its view of the situation in Swaziland in an unequivocal statement:
The U.S. Embassy is distressed by the violence, fatalities, human rights violations, and intimidation of journalists that we are witnessing in Eswatini. We call for all incidents to be thoroughly and transparently investigated. All perpetrators, regardless of affiliation, must be held accountable according to the rule of law.
Canada should join the United States in denouncing the violence and pressure King Mswati to restore the democratic principles underlying Eswatini’s constitution.