King Mswati may have fled Swaziland, but the pro-democracy struggle against monarchy is far from over

While the government has denied reports about the King fleeing from the country, it has not convinced the banned opposition political parties who have been mobilizing over the last couple of weeks in an unprecedented wave of protests against the last absolute monarch in Africa.

June 29, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Residents from Siphofaneni constituency (Lubombo region) march for democracy in Swaziland, defying protests ban by the Mswati autocracy. Photo: CPS

Amidst reports claiming that King Mswati III has fled Swaziland, major cities in the country have come to a halt as many main roads and highways are blocked with burning tires. Businesses owned by the monarch and his associates were torched in at least two towns on the night of June 28, after peaceful protests seeking democratic reforms were banned and repressed with brute force by the police.

According to sources, the army has been deployed across the country to help the police who are raiding the homes of the key organizers of the protests. The Internet has also been blocked, which has raised concerns among human rights organizations that the security forces may commit serious atrocities under the cover of an information blackout.

The government has issued a statement denying the reports about the king having fled and assuring its people and “the international community” that “His Majesty” is in the country. However, this has not convinced the banned, pro-democracy opposition parties, whose cadres are mobilizing communities across the country into an unprecedented wave of protests against the last absolute monarch in Africa.

“The government has not provided any evidence of his presence. Many have seen his private airplane depart from King Mswati international airport last night. So we don’t believe the government until he makes a public appearance,” Pius Vilakati, the international organizer of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), told Peoples Dispatch.

“We confirm that the king has in fact fled the country,” said Brian Sangweni, the national spokesperson of People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), which, founded in 1983, is believed to be the largest of the opposition parties. “Our sources indicate that he is hiding in Mozambique. Or at least he had travelled through Mozambique,” he said.

Late last night, by the time the monarch’s plane took off, many properties owned by himself and his associates – including supermarkets, cars, trucks etc – were set ablaze amidst a riot that had erupted in Matsapha. Crammed with underpaid workers and the unemployed desperately vying for their jobs, this industrial town has long been a boiling pot of anger.

Over the weekend, police had violently cracked down on several peaceful marches intending to deliver petitions to the offices of the members of parliament representing about a dozen of Swaziland’s 59 predominantly rural constituencies. In response, on the evening of June 28, youth took to the streets in Matsapha.

Read more: Pro-democracy protesters arrested by King Mswati’s police in Swaziland

“They set up roadblocks closing down the Mbabane-Manzini highway and began disrupting the industries,” Sangweni explained. Mbabane is the capital city while Manzini city is the economic hub of the country. Most shops and businesses in both these cities have been shut since today. At least 30,000 garment workers were turned away by protesters this morning from the industrial area in Manzini city. “The economy is being brought to a halt in all major cities,” he said.

Economic disruption is one of the primary tactics of the struggle against the King, as he is the sole trustee of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a secretive corporation, unaccountable to the public or the parliament, which owns a majority chunk of the critical sectors of the economy.

These sectors include diamond and coal mining, sugar processing, brick and tile manufacturing, dairy processing, breweries, banking, shipping, shopping malls, supermarkets, housing estates and commercial properties.

However, along with businesses and properties owned by the king, a number of shops and small businesses not connected to the monarch were also attacked and looted, Sangweni regretted. At least one person was killed in the police firing in this town, Vilakati said. The army was reportedly deployed in this area.

Similar incidents of violence were also reported on the night of June 28 in the small town of Siphoweni. A local newspaper described it as a “war zone” on Saturday, after the police attacked a peaceful march by the residents of the constituency, including the villages around this town.

While on their way to deliver a petition to the office of Mduduzi Simelane, one of the very few pro-democracy members in the king’s parliament, the police fired tear gas on his constituents and attacked them with water cannons and batons.

The protesters in turn responded by starting fires to block roads and paralyze the movement of police forces. Other protesters who were forced to disperse under attack regrouped several times in different locations on the surrounding land. Many vehicles and properties were burnt down in the town amidst the clashes that went on late into that night.

The violence that unfolded on the night of June 28 in Siphoweni and Matsapha “might have made the king realize that the anger of the people can no longer be suppressed by crushing protests with brute force; so he seems to have fled,” said Mcolisi Ngcamphalala.

Ngcamphalala, who is the deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) and a prominent leader of the radical Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), is still suffering pain in groin and legs from the two hours of torture he suffered in Siphoweni police station following his arrest on his way to the march on the morning of June 26.

CPS calls for a National Democracy Conference of all anti-monarchist forces

Ngcamphalala said that the CPS is calling on all anti-monarchist forces to come together to hold a National Democracy Conference, in which a common minimum program for the transitional period can be worked out to transform the state from a monarchy into a republic.

Read more: Unprecedented pro-democracy protests in Swaziland rattle the last absolute monarch in Africa

Among the main political parties, all of which have been banned in the country since 1973, are the pan-Africanist Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) and the Swaziland Democratic Party (SDP), and the democratic socialist PUDEMO.

The CPS also calls upon the trade union forces, a considerable section of which is represented by the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), to participate in this conference alongside other civil society and faith-based organizations.

Some opposition forces had previously expressed willingness to settle for a constitutional monarchy with an elected government as a compromise. Now that the monarch himself is said to have fled, Ngcamphalala hopes that other forces will join the CPS in the call for a complete removal of monarchy and prosecution of Mswati for all the crimes committed under his regime.

However, for now, his regime remains in power. The king has not yet abdicated, reminds Vilakati, who maintains that the struggle against the monarchy has not been won yet. “Even during the uprising in April 2011, the king had disappeared from public view until his security forces managed to crush the revolt,” he explained.

But unlike in 2011, the revolt this time is not limited to cities. The revolt has spread across rural Swaziland, and thus suppression of protests by brute force is logistically complicated.

Nevertheless, it seems the king’s security forces will make all attempts to restore his control by crushing the pro-democracy movement, regardless of whether he is currently in Swaziland or hiding abroad.

“It is necessary to stretch the security forces with a spontaneous and sustained uprising across the country to bring about the monarchy’s downfall,” Vilakati maintains.

The CPS in a statement has also called “on the army and police of Swaziland to refrain from all acts of violence and intimidation against our people protesting for freedom, democracy and rights. Swaziland is now at a crucial point in the long struggle to get rid of the autocratic monarchy.”

An anonymous call has been issued to begin Kungahlwa Kwenile, a campaign to systematically attack the properties and business of the king to bleed the monarchy financially. The campaign is set to begin on the night of June 28.