Pro-democracy protests against Swaziland’s monarch intensify on ‘Independence Day’

The protests held across the 59 constituencies in Swaziland against the rule of the absolute monarchy were successful despite the deployment of security forces to crackdown.

September 07, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Protests were organized across Swaziland

Pro-democracy protests in Swaziland, a small southern African country ruled by the last absolute monarch on the continent, have picked up with the launch of the Global Week of Action on September 6, which is celebrated officially as independence day.

Protesters remember it as the date when King Sobhuza II hijacked the possibility of independence in 1968 by taking reins from the British. The king then proceeded to ban political parties, repeal the constitution, dissolve the parliament, and assume absolute power in 1973.

Over the last months, his successor, the current King, Mswati III, has been facing an unprecedented challenge by pro-democracy forces who have been organizing mass protests since late June to raise demands for multi-party democracy. On September 6, fresh protests were called for in all the 59 constituencies.

While security forces, including the army, were deployed to stop the protests, they were mostly concentrated into towns and cities, where some protests were dispersed and few others were thwarted before they began. In several areas, dispersed youngsters blocked key roads with burning tires.

In most of the constituencies, which are predominantly rural, multiple small protests did take place, and could not be stopped by the deployment that was scattered too thin in these regions. Most of the detained protesters were released by the end of the day, according to sources.

Police kill a cannabis farmer 

On September 5, police shot and killed a suspected cannabis farmer in the southern town of Nhlangano, provoking widespread outrage. On September 6, it was one of the towns where protests continued despite deployment of security forces. For Swazi progressive leaders, the killing is directly connected to the deep economic and political crisis facing the majority in the country.

“People are not able to make ends meet under Mswati’s rule, because the King controls almost all sectors of the economy and runs it for his own profit. So, many resort to cannabis cultivation (which is illegal) to make ends meet,” Sbusiso Syaya, spokesperson of People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), one of the largest of the banned political parties in the pro-democracy movement, told Peoples Dispatch.

“This farmer was killed for finding a way to make a living outside of Mswati’s control. He was not even produced in court,” he said.

When addressing the protest in Nhlangano, Sibongile Mazibuko, the president of Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC, another banned political party), accused the King of trying to grab the cannabis farming business.

The National Secretary of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), Simphiwe Dlamini, told Peoples Dispatch, “in his greed to seize all means of livelihood, the King wants to take even the illegal cannabis farming.” He added that the king “wants to force people into poverty, and ensure that there are no avenues for people to escape it. Ensuring that people are poor and weak is his way of maintaining power.”

However, power is slipping through the King’s hands. Protests in May against police brutality after the killing of a youngster, Thabani Nkomonye, had by June evolved into country-wide anti-monarchist, pro-democracy protests.

For the first time, rural areas, which had for long remained immune to the anti-monarchist sentiments growing in the towns and cities over the decades, saw mass-mobilizations to the offices of the Members of the King’s parliament (MPs) to petition them with the demand to end to the absolute monarchy and make way for a multi-party democracy.

When the security forces unleashed violence on protesters, the means of resistance quickly changed to attacking the infrastructure, factories and businesses owned by the King and his associates. “Sabotage of the economy is a part and parcel of the struggle for democracy” when most of it is owned by the King and operated for his profit, condemning the majority to penury, Dlamini reiterates.

King reported to have fled amidst mass-protests

Amidst this outburst, the King fled Swaziland by the end of June, ordering the army to bring the streets back under his control. After at least 70 people were killed and many more were injured in this crackdown, the King returned on July 16, and called for a public gathering to address all the people of the country and deny that he had ever fled.

“Only 400 turned up. The security forces had to be sent out to bring hundreds more to make it appear as if thousands had come to hear the King. The reality was a boycott,” Dlamini of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) said.

The same was seen during the Umhlanga ceremony, “where our young sisters are paraded half-naked and sexually abused in the name of culture. The ‘culture argument’ was for long accepted by people. But now they are aware,” he said.

After pro-democracy political parties called for a boycott of this ceremony to which tens of thousands used to flock in the previous years, only 200 ‘maidens’ attended the ceremony this year, which concluded on September 5.

Taiwanese backing for Swaziland’s monarchy

As the first protests of the global week of action began on September 6, King Mswati, launched a reconstruction fund of 1 million emalangeni (Swaziland currency) to repair the businesses of himself and his associates that had been attacked during the protests in the last week of June and early July.

In posts on social media announcing the launch of the fund, King Mswati’s government proudly posted that “The Fund has received a E500 million start-up injection from Government” as well as a “contribution from Taiwan worth E330 million”.

According to Communist Party leader Simphiwe Dlamini this is not new, as Swaziland is the last African country to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Dlamini accused that Taiwan has “always been keen on bailing out the monarchy every time it is in trouble.” Taiwanese companies dominate Swaziland’s textile sector run on cheap labor.

While the King launched his fund, Kungahlwa Kwenile – the local term for the sabotage campaign – had already resumed. On Sunday afternoon, an outlet of a hardware company owned by pro-monarchy Minister Jabulani Mabuza was torched. Early on Monday, hours before the announcement of the Reconstruction Fund, trucks of Southern Star company linked to the King were torched.

As the Global Week of Action proceeds, efforts will be organized to reach out to the diaspora and mobilize for solidarity demonstrations, PUDEMO’s spokesperson Sbusiso Syaya said. On Thursday, September 9, four of Swaziland’s border gates with South Africa will be shut, he added.

PUDEMO, CPS and NNLC are among the pro-democracy political parties that will be mobilizing on Swaziland’s side of the border. On the South African side, members of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) will be blockading the gates in solidarity.

In the coming days, “I fully expect the sabotage campaign to intensify,” Dlamini said.