/ 13 November 2021

‘Gross human rights abuses’ in Eswatini

Topshot Eswatini Politics Unrest
Graveyard: Wreckage of cars burned by protesters in Eswatini’s unrest in July. A preliminary inquiry has put the number of people killed at 46 but others say that at least 70 people died. (Michele Spatari/AFP)

Even after a preliminary investigation into the extent of the violence meted out to the people of Eswatini by the troops of King Mswati III, the total death toll has still not been confirmed. 

At the end of June, protests against Africa’s last absolute monarch turned violent. Protesters torched buildings connected to the king, and police reportedly assaulted and arrested political opponents. The protest manifested after three pro-democracy MPs advocated in parliament that a democratic government should rule the country.

Two weeks ago, the Human Rights Commission released a preliminary report suggesting 46 people were killed, and 245 were injured during the June 2021 political unrest.

But the report has been vigorously criticised by political parties and civil society because it downplayed the number of civilians killed.

Wandile Dludlu, the People’s United Democratic Movement secretary general, told the Swaziland News that they had verified figures suggesting that Mswati’s forces killed more than 70 people during the political unrest.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Sabelo Masuku, the commissioner of the Human Rights Commission, clarified that the findings were merely a preliminary verification to establish facts on what happened and was not necessarily a full report.

“We did a preliminary verification to establish if indeed people were shot or not and the findings suggest that people were shot. We wanted to have verified data on the ground after so many different claims on who was arrested, injured, and died.”

Emmanuel Ndlangamandla, the executive director of the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations, said they were lobbying for an international investigation into the shooting and killing of civilians in Eswatini.

Speaking to the M&G on Wednesday, the director said Eswatini would never be the same after the political unrest and how the state responded. He said that in as much as an investigation was a necessity, it was important for all stakeholders to establish systems that sought to promote accountability in the coming new democratic government.

“We are expecting a lot of changes in our system, particularly ushering a new order in terms of how we govern the country, in making sure that we have an accountable system. To ensure that we have a government that is elected by the people and accountable to the people,” said Ndlangamandla.

Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s former public protector and now the Law Trust chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University said what was happening in Swaziland was a gross violation of human rights. 

Speaking to the M&G a few days before the United eSwatini Diaspora dialogues, Madonsela said there has to be some kind of truth and reconciliation commission in Eswatini “because police and the army that behaved like this are likely to repeat this. So there has to be a reset in terms of the mindset of the people who behaved the way they did.”

She added that although some of the protestors looted, the response from the security forces was grossly excessive, adding that some of the people killed were not even involved in what was happening.

The Human Rights Commission’s report also states that women and children were casualties.

Sakhile Dlamini, the communications officer of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, said they condemned any form of abuse, especially by the security forces.

“The violence unleashed by forces during the ongoing political unrest on civilians is wrong and unjust. The state of perpetual fear and violence experienced by emaSwati has led to deep distrust of the forces and an overall lack of security. Especially people that have lost their lives and others who have either experienced or witnessed the abuse — beatings, shootings and killings — of friends and relatives, while others lost limbs due to shootings,” she said.

In August, the M&G reported how Sergeant Cebile Shongwe resigned from the Eswatini police service, saying she was tired of serving a government that oppresses and kills innocent civilians.

The resignation of the policewoman, who was based at Malkerns police station, comes amid calls among civil society organisations and political parties that the International Criminal Court must charge Mswati for crimes against humanity.

After Shongwe’s resignation, the online news site Swaziland News released evidence in which army commander Jeffrey Tshabalala revealed state secrets regarding the killing of civilians and assassination plots on pro-democracy MPs and the newspaper’s editor.

Tshabalala was recorded by Shongwe, the whistleblower, who told Swaziland News that she decided to resign and skip the country to provide more evidence to the international community.

“I cannot continue working for a government that kills people. The national commissioner claims that just over 30 people died when the number is over 100. The truth is being hidden. 

“A soldier allegedly threw 14 protesters into a fire, alive, at Matsapha Brewery during the protest,” said the police officer, who resigned on 13 August. 

Shongwe’s testimony was corroborated by another police officer, who cannot be named for safety reasons, but who was at the scene during the night of the killings at the end of June. 

The officer agreed to record an interview because the audio would not be released until he, like Shongwe, had skipped the country.