/ 1 July 2021

Q&A: What’s driving the protests in Eswatini?

Africa’s last absolute monarchy is experiencing its worst unrest in years

Protests against the king of Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarch, turned violent this week. Some buildings connected to King Mswati III were torched by protesters, and police have reportedly been assaulting and arresting political opponents. Activists say that at least eight people have been killed and dozens more injured and detained. The government has shut down the internet — with the compliance of mobile providers MTN and Eswatini Mobile — which makes it difficult to access reliable news from the country.

To understand what’s going on, the Mail & Guardian spoke to Martin Zweli Dlamini, the editor-in-chief of Swazi News, an online news site. Dlamini has himself been persecuted by the Eswatini government for his reporting, and has twice had to flee into exile in neighbouring South Africa.

There were reports earlier this week that King Mswati III had fled the country. Is this true?

We received those reports. But the government later released a statement that the king had not fled the country. But by now the king should have addressed the country to prove that he is here. Instead, we saw his first-born daughter [Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini] addressing the country, which raises questions. We had expected the government to ask the king to address the nation if it is true that he is in the country.

Can you describe the protests that are happening now?

The protests are somehow chaotic. We are seeing the burning of government properties, and properties of companies associated with the king. The king holds shares in big companies in Eswatini, so protesters seem to be targeting those properties. We are seeing soldiers unleashed on unarmed civilians: they are going round the rural areas beating citizens in their homes.

What’s driving the protest movement?

The protest manifested after three pro-democracy MPs advocated in parliament that this country should be ruled under a democratic government. These MPs asked the government that they at least elect their own prime minister [currently, the prime minister is appointed by the king]. They were suggesting a constitutional democracy, in which the king would be outside politics.

After those submissions in parliament, citizens in other constituencies started delivering petitions around the country, urging other MPs to discuss these issues. After seeing that the momentum was growing, parliament banned the delivery of petitions. So, somehow, they were banning freedom of expression, and then that manifested into chaos.

The monarchy has overcome protests movements before. Is this time different?

This time is different. What is happening right now [is that] we have about 80% of the population living below the poverty line. In the midst of that unfortunate situation, the king is living an extravagant lifestyle. People now understand that their problems are caused by the king and his government. So people are demanding that the king step aside. And this time the protesters seem to mean business.

The king has always lived an extravagant lifestyle. What’s changed?

What actually happened is with the emergence of independent media. In 2017, the government began shutting down newspapers that were critical of the king’s government. But with the emergence of independent online media, it is becoming impossible for the government to censor information online. As Swaziland News, we are able to give people as much information as possible with regard to what’s happening with those in power. So people are informed. They discuss the news. And now they are holding the powerful to account — that’s what we see is happening now. These people are now empowered in terms of information.

How are you able to do your job as a journalist with the internet shut down?

It’s extremely difficult, because we use the internet to connect with our sources, and communicate through secure platforms. Now you are forced to call the direct line, which is not safe, considering that some governments, especially the Eswatini government, trace who you are speaking to. [It is] particularly [unsafe] because we rely on sources to do our job. But we are trying, because this is not a normal situation: we need to produce information in the midst of this chaos.

What’s going to happen next?

I think the decision by the government to shut down the internet and ban the delivery of petitions will escalate the protests. These decisions confirm to the people that it is an oppressive government.

But we appeal to the international community to assist the people of Eswatini at this time. As we speak now, we might see a situation in which people will be starving because trucks are being blocked from delivering goods to Eswatini. We are seeing a situation in which people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.