from SAMBULO DLAMINI in Mbabane, Eswatini
MBABANE, (CAJ News) – FOR most of his 35-year reign, which began when he was 18, Makhosetive Dlamini has run Eswatini as his personal fiefdom.
Largely thanks to a population immersed in tradition, the monarch known as King Mswati III has governed without accountability, also thanks to a stifled media, opposition largely banned and the constitution suspended by his predecessor, and father, King Sobhuza II, in 1973.
He, and the expansive royal family, are an island of wealth in a sea of poverty.
His luxurious lifestyle is a spit in the face of his poor compatriots who have to contend with grinding poverty, hunger and one of the world’s highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS. (27 percent of adults are living with HIV).
Mswati’s extravagant regime plunged to an all-time low in 2019 when at the height of the economic downturn, he splurged more than US$ 24 million on some 19 Rolls Royce for the royal family, including his then 15 wives.
This added to his luxury fleet that also includes limited editions of Mercedes and BMW, said to number more than 20.
The king of the former Swaziland also has a couple of private jets for his personal use along with his own airport.
The opposition only raising concern, at the media barred from photographing the vehicles.
In the name of tradition, the majority in this country of more than 1 million people never raised objection.
A majority of Emaswati are youth and bear the brunt of unemployment. Young girls, perhaps this being the only way out of poverty, would even queue up in their hundreds, in an annual ceremony, to be the next wife of the king.
Oblivious of the frustrations among the hapless youth, things ran business as usual, but eventually the divide between the elite and the impoverished would degenerate into a rift that has left bloodshed and left Africa’s last absolute monarchy teetering on the brink of collapse.
The killing in May of a 25-year-old law student, Thabani Nkomonye, has torched a crisis that has cast the spotlight on a country that only grabs international headlines at the release of HIV/AIDS statistics or the royal family’s spending.
Led by youths hapless at the future, civilians have taken to the streets to demand political reforms, including that Mswati cedes power and make way for a democratically-elected government.
Security forces have responded with fatal force.
The Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) reported at least 21 people has been killed in the protests that have been concentrated in Manzini, the central region that is the country’s largest urban centre ahead of the capital, Mbabane.
The United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) put the number of casualties at 40. It reported “hundreds” had been reported missing by their families.
“This is clearly unacceptable. We call for those who responsible for issuing and executing these genocidal acts to be arrested, prosecuted and punished,” Mlungisi Makhanya, PUDEMO President, stated.
The government on Wednesday, after increasing the presence of the military on the streets, and shutting down the internet, announced a curfew between 18h00 and 05h00.
“This is a conscious decision to maintain the rule of law and de-escalate tension that had turned this exercise into violence and disorder,” Acting Prime Minister, Themba Masuku, declared.
He has been addressing the nation through statements in the wake of the lack of clarity on the whereabouts of the king.
Reports initially suggested he was in South Africa but it was later speculated he was in Mozambique or Zimbabwe.
As Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, noted, this storm has brewing for some years, and the chickens have come home to roost.
“The protests unfolding across Eswatini are a result of years of denial of political, economic and social right to the people, including young people, and recent escalation of suppression of dissent by the authorities,” Muchena said.
The activist spoke as the protests turned violent as rampant demonstrators destroyed property, targeting mostly business linked to King Mswati.
The protests are at a larger scale than the ones experienced in the 1990s when student and union leaders protested for reforms or ten years ago when civil society organisations and trade unions demonstrated against the economic crisis.
While the security forces on these occasions brought the situation under control, this time the prevailing sentiment among civilians is that “enough is enough.”
“We are not our parents, who were cowed into silence,” vowed a protester, Sandile Mambe (26) in Mbabane.
“The decent life the king’s children, we also deserve. All we ask for is the creation of employment to map our future.”
A university student, who declined to be named, was hopeful the government will give in to demands but warned there would be further bloodbath.
“The cruelty displayed by the soldiers is just the last kicks of a dying horse. This monarch is on its last legs,” he said.
In neighbouring South Africa, the opposition Democratic Alliance called on the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to initiate a process of pro-democracy talks in Eswatini.
“It is critical that the South African government and SADC reach out and offer immediate mediation between the monarchy and the leaders of the protest,” said Darren Bergman, DA Shadow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.
The government urged all political actors and civil society to engage in dialogue in order to resolve the impasse.
“The South African Government calls on the security forces to exercise total restraint and protect the lives and property of the people, in keeping with the country’s constitutional provisions and laws,” .Clayson Monyela, spokesperson of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said.
– CAJ News