One year after a brutal crackdown, the struggle for democracy remains alive in Swaziland

June 29 was observed as a day of commemoration in Swaziland to honor the dozens of people killed by the forces of King Mswati III during the unprecedented anti-monarchist uprising of 2021

July 04, 2022 by Tanupriya Singh
(Photo: Communist Party of Swaziland) 

June 29 marked one year since the brutal crackdown on Swaziland’s anti-monarchist uprising in 2021. The day was observed as a commemoration of the June/July massacre, during which the armed forces of King Mswati III indiscriminately shot and killed dozens of protestors agitating for democracy in the African continent’s last absolute monarchy. 

“[On Wednesday] we saw the people of Swaziland making sure that they commemorate, by celebrating the lives of our fallen soldiers, those who died for our struggle,” stated Simphiwe Dlamini, the National Organizing Secretary of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS). The CPS, which has been a leading force in the struggle for a democratic republic in the country, organized a series of actions including vigils. Public transport was shut down, with local news outlets reporting that businesses had also been shuttered in certain areas. 

The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (a platform of political parties, trade unions, civil society and other groups) had also issued a call for a public holiday on June 29 and urged businesses to remain closed, even as the government maintained that it was to be a regular working day. 

Meanwhile, there was heavy deployment of police and military forces in the streets, especially in the capital city of Mbabane and in Manzini, the country’s economic hub which was one of major sites of unrest in 2021. Stop and search barricades were also set up on the highway connecting the two cities to prevent any planned protest actions. 

While there were no reports of violence on Wednesday, the months leading up to the June 29 commemoration were marked by rising attacks against pro-democracy forces, particularly the CPS. 

On June 28, hundreds of police officers descended on the Mbikwakhe area in Mastapha, where a majority of the party’s members who are students at the University of Swaziland and Gwamile VOCTIM reside. The operation was disguised as a community raid, however, only two houses, which happened to be rented by CPS members, were targeted. Importantly, the space had been used to coordinate the party’s work in the area. 

Over the course of four hours, police ransacked the houses and seized seven laptops, cell phones, and even the students’ food parcels, clothes and personal belongings. Dlamini also stated that the roads leading to the area had been lined by police. However, party members and activists were able to successfully evade arrest. 

The state forces were acting out of fear of the June 29 commemoration, Dlamini explained. “What we saw yesterday [June 29] is a regime in crisis. How so? – by wanting to continue to rule over a people who have declared that enough is enough. Mswati fled the country on June 29, fearing the revolution.” He was not alone, Dlamini added that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister had reportedly also followed suit, “You can see the desperation, their fear of the people.”

Late on Wednesday night, Dlamini stated that people had set up barricades and burned tires in different parts of the country. “If they [the people] take out picket lines, the regime will respond by butchering them, so the people put up barricades”, he stated. “They are denied their right to picket [and protest] by the ruthless regime, so the people put up barricades because they are still wanting to defend themselves.”  

Mswati must fall!: the 2021 uprising for democracy 

In May 2021, protests broke out in Swaziland against the alleged police killing of a young law student, Thabani Nkomonye. After days of official inaction, the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) organized the #JusticeforThabani campaign, mobilizing thousands of young people to demand an inquiry into the case. The police responded with tear gas and bullets. 

In the face of this repression, the movement to demand justice for the slain student morphed into  a massive wave of unrest across the country, demanding an end to the monarchy. Speaking to Peoples Dispatch at the time, Simphiwe stated that Thabani had become “the face” of the ongoing movement against the monarchy because his murder and the subsequent treatment of his family and the protestors was “typical of how the Mswati regime disregards the value of human life” in the country. 

Longstanding anger over Mswati’s extravagant lifestyle, made possible by an iron-fisted control over the economy and the political system, in a country where 70% of the population was languishing in poverty, spilled over. Between May and June, people in over 40 constituencies marched to their Members of Parliament (MPs) and successfully delivered petitions raising their demands, including a push for democratization. 

“The level of consciousness of the people at the time had gone up dramatically, but it was generally the demands that the people had been raising since the inception of the monarchy in 1973- that the country needs to return to a multi-party democracy, but also that the economy of the people needs to be used for the development of the people as a whole,” says Pius Vilakati, International Secretary of the CPS. 

Swaziland was put under an absolute monarchy in April 1973, when King Mswati’s father Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution, banned all political parties, and seized executive, legislative, and judicial powers. 

During the protests, there were some sections which were demanding an election for the post of the Prime Minister. However, the CPS’s view was to demand a total unbanning of political parties in order for the country to move towards democracy. “Along those lines we were able to push the uprising to another level, where people did not want some cosmetic changes anymore, an election of the prime minister was not going to change the system. The CPS demanded a total overthrow of the tinkhundla system and the monarchy,” stated Vilakati. 

The 2021 protests were unprecedented in their sheer scope, spreading even to the country’s rural areas. Vilakati argued that this was a crucial mark of the uprising – given that not only did a majority of Swaziland’s population live in those areas, but also that the control of the chiefs, who ruled on behalf of the king, was very strong there. 

“The people no longer wanted the system of the chiefs’ rule, they wanted self-rule. The royal family relied on the rural areas for its propaganda that people were happy with the way things are. The fact is that people had been suppressed, gagged and muzzled, they had been victimized for standing up for themselves. But this time, people removed all the barriers, the regime was now only left with its military to defend itself now. This was also unprecedented,” he added. 

The protests showed no signs of waning, even after King Mswati III imposed a ban on demonstrations on June 24. The next day, the military was deployed into the streets with a sanction to shoot-to-kill. The killings began on June 28 under a widespread internet blackout, amid reports that Mswati had fled the country. By the time things calmed down over the next few days, over 70 people had been killed and nearly 600 had been arrested, according to the CPS. 

Despite the ever present threat of violence in the aftermath, the struggle for democratization remained alive in Swaziland. Sporadic protests gave way to the beginning of another wave of agitations and boycotts in September, led by students across schools and colleges to demand better quality education. Severe police repression pushed the unrest even further, with civil servants, public transport workers, teachers, and nurses also carrying out protests. 

While they were raising distinct demands for better wages and working conditions, these struggles were united in their call for an end to the absolute monarchy. This was precisely because of the extent of control exercised by the King on the economy and its exploitation for the royal family’s private gains. There was a push for people to recognize that “democracy is not helpful in and of itself if you do not also own the economy,” Vilakati stated. 

Building a grassroots democracy 

Under Swaziland’s current political system, the King appoints the Prime Minister and the cabinet, the top jurists, two-thirds of the upper house of parliament, and 12% of the lower house. The remaining members of the legislature are chosen from constituencies, or tinkhundla, each of whom are divided into chiefdoms. Only those candidates who are approved by the chiefs are permitted to contest in the election. As such, the process of determining the tinkhundla MPs is by its very nature undemocratic, states the CPS. 

Vilakati has argued that the tinkhundla elections are used by the Mswati regime to maintain its legitimacy in the international community, particularly in front of the South African Development Community (SADC). Just days after the killings of protestors in 2021, amid growing international scrutiny, the SADC met with the government of Swaziland on July 4. Two days prior, the delegation’s head, President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana, issued a statement saying that at least one protestor had been killed. The major undercount caused outrage, given that the Political Parties Assembly which included PUDEMO had documented the killings of at least 43 people by then. 

Masisi’s statement went further, saying that “disturbances” had resulted in a “widespread destruction of property and injuries to people.” She urged “all stakeholders to channel their grievances through the established national structure.” 

“The role of the SADC, for all intents and purposes, was to help the regime stabilize. They could not even condemn the security forces, or have Mswati account for the deaths, injuries and arrests,” stated Vilakati. “They have not acknowledged our struggle as a just struggle of the people. But of course, what has been inspiring is we have received solidarity and support particularly from the unions, the Communist Party of South Africa, and a huge wave of grounded solidarity actions in the form of border blockades,” he added. 

On June 30, South Africa’s National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEWAHU) led a picket outside the Swazi High Commission in Pretoria to protest the “Mswati autocracy”. 

Watch: Picket at the Swazi High Commission in Pretoria

Protestors also gathered outside the embassy of Zimbabwe for a solidarity demonstration, demanding an end to the persecution and brutalization of workers by the government. 

The CPS has condemned the role of imperialists and international players in protecting the regime, including the US, European Union, India, and Taiwan. The party argues that international players have used their friendship with Mswati to exploit Swazi workers in factories, paying them wages that are not even sufficient for survival. (Swaziland happens to be the only country on the African continent which has diplomatic ties with Taiwan).  

In this context, the CPS is focusing its efforts on the upcoming tinkhundla elections in 2023.“We need to unite and use our collective energy to render the country ungovernable. Among the things we need to do is to ensure that the regime is unable to even run its elections,” stated Vilakati. The CPS is gearing towards a Boycott and Disrupt campaign, its objectives being to weaken the tinkhundla system and to intensify the party’s own political and ideological struggle. 

A key strategy has been the organization of “sunset rallies” which take place at night “to mobilize communities for the total dismantling of the tinkhundla system,” Vilakati explains. Their purpose is to “awaken the people, but also to be part and parcel with the people in the formation of Community Councils which would form a grassroots level democracy from where people can not only wage their struggle, but also defend themselves.” Dlamini also emphasized that the rallies were aimed at taking the struggle to the people, calling upon them to form local welfare and security councils to test how the people might govern themselves. 

During one such sunset rally held in the Mahwalala community on June 26, 2022 the regime’s forces shot live bullets at CPS members and activists. It was the second such rally held that weekend, following one in the Msunduza township in Mbabane on June 25. CPS announced that its activists and the community were able to fight off the police, and that all people were safe and uninjured. 

“We have put the tinkhundla regime on the defensive. Our goal now is to make this state permanent,” stated Dlamini. The CPS is mobilizing around key issues including the unbanning of all political parties, the release of political prisoners, and the safe return of political exiles including senior leaders of the CPS – its General Secretary, International Secretary, and Chairperson. Others are on the run, Dlamini said. 

The party is also pushing to secure freedom of association, speech, and assembly. In terms of the economy, it has stressed that key industries must be owned by the people, and that properties and investments must be returned to them. 

“Our struggle took a turn when the masses stood up and said that now it is us who will fight for our liberation. It was because of the questions that were raised through political schools focusing on the youth and the students. The students made a stand that they want liberation,” Dlamini stated. “The regime has responded by shutting down schools. As we speak [on June 30], the schools in the country have been shut down. And that is because the students have stood up and assumed their role in the revolution,” he added. 

The student movement has been a key force of unity in the struggle for freedom, especially the SNUS, which has gone beyond just organizing students to also getting workers to come together and get involved. The union and its leadership have been repeatedly targeted and arrested on trumped-up charges. On June 28, SNUS members Bafanabakhe Sacolo and Siphosethu Mavimbela had their cases dismissed from the judicial roll. 

The two had been charged for allegedly burning down a police post and holding police officers hostage in May 2021, the same day they attended the memorial service for Thabani Nkomonye. On Tuesday, the matter was removed from the Manzini Magistrate Court’s  roll “until the Crown had put its house in order.”

The CPS is now urging workers to join the forefront of the struggle. Dlamini stated that the party understood that there was a role in the struggle for people across all sectors: “The people in the countryside, the peasants, have said that they cannot be ruled by the monarchy anymore. The urban poor living near towns have said ‘enough is enough’!” 

He stressed that the commemoration on June 29 was to galvanize the people to continue the fight. “Our road to socialism is only through a democratic republic,” Dlamini said, and “We will continue organizing and fighting till Mswati surrenders and we are able to achieve democracy on our own terms.”