Pro-Democracy Protests Are Rocking Africa's Last Absolute Monarchy

A student’s unexplained death has triggered rare protests and a deadly police crackdown in Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland.
July 2, 2021, 3:50pm
A burnt truck is seen on the side of the road in Manzini, Eswatini.
A burnt truck is seen on the side of the road in Manzini, Eswatini. Photo via Getty Images

Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets across Eswatini – formerly known as Swaziland – in one of the biggest ever challenges to the rule of the continent’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III. 

The protests were sparked by the unexplained death of 25-year-old student Thabani Nkomoye in May,  and have dramatically intensified into violent clashes between protesters and police after government forces began firing tear gas and live ammunition at crowds. The street protests represent the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations witnessed during King Mswati III’s 35-year rule of the small southern African country. As tensions escalated, eSwatini’s acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, ordered the closure of schools, shut down internet connectivity, and imposed a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew with immediate effect. 

“We've never seen unrest of this scale before,” Sean Mbingo, a Swazi activist, told VICE World News. “For years, pro-democracy movements here in eSwatini have been calling for democratic reforms that would create governance that serves the interests of the people. People have been calling for political parties and elections, which have been banned since 1973, to be unbanned so that we elect our prime minister and cabinet ministers. We have been calling for a system where merit is the only yardstick and we want leaders who are accountable and will listen to our grievances. But never have we seen protests reach the scale we are seeing now.”

Although some members of eSwatini’s parliament are elected, a majority of members of the country’s  House of Assembly and Senate remain personally appointed by the monarch and his advisers. King Mswati III has not been seen or heard from since the protests started. A report by South Africa’s public broadcaster, SABC, fuelled rumours that the monarch had fled. However, Masuku quickly denied the claims, saying in a statement that King Mswati III is “in the country” and leading work to “achieve the Kingdom’s goals.”

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“Our country has plunged into unrest,” Mbingo continued. “Widespread looting and arson have left shops empty or destroyed. People are now beginning to run short on food, there's little-to-no-electricity, there's no network, there’s a shortage of fuel, and public transport has been suspended which has left many stranded and unable to get home or contact their loved ones.”

“When protests erupted on Tuesday, I frantically tried to reach my family in eSwatini,” Ziyanda Khathwane, a young Swazi currently living in the US, told VICE World News over the phone. “When I finally got through, I got news that my uncle had been shot in the ankle by government forces,” Khathwane said. He, like many others in hospital, was nursing gunshot wounds to the foot. The similarity in gunshot injuries has led nursing staff to suspect forces deliberately firing at feet with their aim being not to kill but to deter people from taking to the street. We are lucky he is alive, but the situation is quite bad, and chances are we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg due to the internet shutdown.

Although the government is yet to announce an official death toll, the Swaziland Youth Congress, eSwatini’s biggest youth movement for democracy and human rights, claims that at least 21 protesters have died, and dozens injured. And as security alerts begin to warn of martial law, Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, told VICE World News that casualties are likely to rise. 

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“We have seen an extremely violent and disproportionate response from the state: People are being arrested without warrants, there have been reports of abductions, and although it's difficult to verify casualties, there have been reports of numerous deaths, the true extent of which we expect to become clearer once the internet ban is lifted and we have better contact with those on the ground,” Coltart said. “We have also seen strong video evidence of citizens being assaulted by soldiers - atrocities which are most certainly illegal, contrary to the rule of Swazi and international law, and gross violations of human rights.”

Civil unrest started in May 2021 as students from the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) peacefully marched to eSwatini’s parliament in protest following Thabani Nkomoyet’s death. Nkomoyet, a final-year law student at UNESWA, was found dead in a shrub in the central Manzini district, on the 13th of May. eSwatini Police claim that Thabani was killed in a car accident which “flung” him out of his Mazda sedan. But his family have found a number of inconsistencies in the police’s version of events. 

“If [Thabani] died as a result of the accident, why is there not even a single bloodstain or trace in the car or on the scene, particularly where he was found?,” the Nhlambeni family said in a statement. “What explanation do the police have about the bullet hole [on the rear bumper], [and] why did they tamper with the bullet hole after our questions?” the family continued. “Why have the police, who allegedly attended the scene, not issued a report or even a statement as to the occurrence of the accident?... [and] What brought our Son a few meters to the ‘accident scene’ after [previous] searches by the police and the public revealed he had not been there?.” 

Suspicions of a police cover-up catapulted Thabani’s story into national attention. #JusticeforThabani began to trend on social media as Swazis rallied behind the Nhlambeni family in pursuit of justice: the momentum unearthing a slew of incidents of police brutality and impunity. By the 26th of June, public outrage at institutional lack of accountability snowballed into wider long-standing grievances towards the lack of democracy in the Kingdom. This momentum also revived renewed frustrations towards King Mswati III, as citizens accuse him of using public funds to fund his polygamous and immensely luxurious lifestyle whilst 58.9 percent of the eSwatini’s rural population live on less than $2 a day. 

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Hundreds of people across Eswatini marched to their local members of parliament to hand-deliver parliamentary petitions calling for democratic reforms and increased institutional accountability. But before all petitions could be delivered, acting PM Masuku abruptly announced a decree banning the delivery of petitions before declaring a state of emergency, sparking Amnesty International to call on Eswatini’s government to “respect the rights to freedom of expression”. Masuku defended his actions, claiming it was a “decision to maintain the rule of law and de-escalate tension[s].”

In response to the escalating situation, South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), released a statement 

expressing deep concern about the “strikes, riots and growing instability in eSwatini”.

“The use of security forces to quell political dissent and the failure to address legitimate civilian concerns complicates the conflict and adds fuel to the fire,” the statement said. “We call on the government to heed away this urgent call by moving [from] autocracy, strong-handed crisis management and brutal repression.. before it escalates beyond control.”

Coltart, the Zimbabwean lawyer, called the ANC’s intervention a “positive step.”

“If we see more of that pressure from the region, and the continent, as well as maintained pressure from citizens on the ground and online, then I do believe constitutional reform for Eswatini is on the horizon.”