/ 23 July 2021

The youth of Eswatini demand change – and they want it now

Eswatini Politics Unrest
A barricade in the road that is on fire is seen in Mbabane, Eswatini, on June 29, 2021. - Demonstrations escalated radically in Eswatini this week as protesters took to the streets demanding immediate political reforms. Activists say eight people were killed and dozens injured in clashes with police. Internet access has been limited while shops and banks are shuttered, straining communication and limiting access to basic goods under a dawn-to-dusk curfew. (Photo by - / AFP)

A political crisis has engulfed Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). The trigger for protests against the authoritarian monarchy of King Mswati III was the mysterious death of a university student, Thabani Nkomonye, allegedly at the hands of the police. This led to a spontaneous uprising that was met with extreme brutality by the security forces. It is believed that more than 50 people have died and 100 injured so far. Many of those in the country are too scared to speak out for fear of the consequences.

It is important to realise that these issues are not new, however. 

Although popular discontent has been stoked by the economic challenges exacerbated by Covid-19, these are old grievances. Eswatini is Africa’s last absolute monarchy and has consistently failed to deliver either democracy or development. More than 60% of its people live in dire poverty driven, in part, by rampant corruption among the royal family. 

The youth in particular are demanding reform, knowing that their future depends on a new political system. When the protests started, young Swazis began to reorganise themselves, demanding democratic reforms. The government’s decision to ban political gatherings only further antagonised groups such as the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) – which, according to secretary general Bafanabakhe Sacolo, “will fight in every way possible to intensify the struggle”. 

Meanwhile, the Swaziland Youth Congress (Swayoco) has criticised the gross violation of human rights, with its president, Sonke Dube, warning: “The massacre makes it difficult for young people to stop now and … the current situation … might escalate into chaos.”

The situation came to a head on 16 July, when opposition groups called for national protests, while the king called a Sibaya – a national meeting. Previous episodes demonstrate that the Sibaya is little more than a talk shop designed to distract attention from the real issues, and so the move attracted considerable suspicion and anger among opposition and student groups. In the clashes that followed, a number of protestors were beaten, with a further spate of arrests.

Unless meaningful change occurs soon, more blood will be spilt on Swazi streets.