King Mswati III still shying away from pro-democracy talks

The emotional and physical scarring of the torture and intimidation that students endured at the hands of security forces in eSwatini hadn’t healed when King Mswati III preached about peace and the need for dialogue. Mswati, in the official opening of the fourth session of the country’s 11th Parliament, claimed to “discourage the use of force and violence to influence change as we all deserve to live in peace”.

These words, uttered on Friday 4 February, came on the day that Colani Maseko, a student at the Southern Africa Nazarene University and president of the Swaziland National Union of Students, was released on R15 000 bail. He had been arrested and charged with sedition for protesting and calling for democracy. The king’s forces had, in the week leading to the opening of Parliament, assaulted student leaders amid flare-ups of pro-democracy protests.

It’s against this background that Mswati’s call for peace is viewed as nothing more than grandstanding with no intention to honour his words. He followed his call for peace by claiming that “it is not a crime to have diverging views, but engaging in dialogue creates a better outcome for all, as every person needs advice from time to time”. 

But the dialogue he wants to happen, prompted by the 2021 intervention of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) following months of pro-democracy protests in which the country’s security forces killed dozens and injured scores, will occur under his own terms if it is to go ahead. 

Mswati told the SADC envoy that he would convene talks in 2022 once he was done with his Incwala activities (a kingship festival marked by dances and rituals). The government announced at a press conference that the talks the king had accepted would be “a process of national dialogue through [a] Sibaya”.

While the country’s mass democratic movement – political parties, the labour movement and other pro-democracy groups – bemoaned Mswati’s lack of urgency and rejected the Sibaya as a site of dialogue, it nevertheless welcomed the government’s professed commitment to talks.

The Incwala ceremony ended on 8 January. Instead of mentioning talks when he addressed the nation, Mswati lambasted pro-democracy activists, calling them names. He also repeated his August 2021 statement that everything in eSwatini is his.

His latest utterances at the opening of Parliament are the first official word from him about the anticipated dialogue. 

Preparing in good faith

Despite this, pro-democracy activists, in anticipation of a good-faith negotiation process, never stopped preparing. From 3 to 5 December, the Letfu Sonkhe Institute for Strategic Thinking and Development, a think-tank, brought together members of the eSwatini mass democratic movement at a conference in Boksburg, Gauteng. Deliberations were chaired by the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a body loosely representing pro-democracy organisations, and the Political Party Assembly, which represents political parties.

They agreed on seven action points, four of which require some kind of action from the government. One point involves the case of two pro-democracy members of Parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who have been in jail since they were detained on 25 July 2021. One other member of Parliament, Mduduzi Simelane, had to flee to neighbouring South Africa to avoid capture and jail time. These politicians are charged under the Suppression Of Terrorism Act, a piece of legislation that has been routinely used to silence individuals and organisations calling for reforms.

The mass democratic movement contends that these charges are political and that, for the dialogue to go ahead, these politicians ought to be freed. However, the government appears determined not to free them, opposing every bail application they have lodged. 

The movement also demanded that “the military and all armed security forces be unconditionally withdrawn from the streets and end the atrocities and human rights violations”. The government has ignored this demand too. The arrest and torture of student leaders in the first week of February are evidence of that. 

Moreover, in recognition of the people who were killed by the security forces in June and July 2021, the movement called for 29 June to be declared a public holiday. And while negotiations for a democratic future continue, they called for a constitution of a “transitional authority to take care of the affairs of the state”. Meanwhile, the government’s armed forces never admitted to killing and crippling people, and there has been no process started to bring those involved to book. 

The Boksburg decisions were not new ideas. The Multi-Stakeholder Forum published a dossier in July already containing many of the resolutions adopted at the conference. The most significant point the body raised was that, for a proper dialogue to take place, eSwatini’s Constitution must be repealed and a transitional government installed.

But the government would not hear any of this. At a press conference on 27 October, Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini said: “May I remind the nation that the Constitution is still effective and operative in the kingdom. Therefore, it will neither be suspended nor set aside even as the dialogue process begins.” 

Creating the right environment

Apart from the seven action points, the Boksburg delegation also worked on some terms of reference for the anticipated dialogue. Crucial among them was a call for deliberations between the government and the pro-democracy movement before the national dialogue begins. These deliberations would “ensure the creation of an environment conducive for national dialogue”.

The mass democratic movement then advanced 12 issues for deliberation, one of which is the demand for state-owned media houses to ensure fair reporting of the national dialogue. But both the eSwatini Broadcasting and Information Services and eSwatini TV continue to carry only the government’s official narrative.

The movement also called for repealing laws that make genuine freedom of expression, assembly and association impossible. Laws mentioned include a 1973 decree by King Sobhuza II that effectively banned political parties from participating in the country’s political processes, the Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Public Order Act, under which many pro-democracy campaigners are routinely held or prosecuted.

Political parties remain on the sidelines while some, like the People’s United Democratic Movement, are labelled terrorist organisations and proscribed. Delegates in Boksburg held that for a dialogue to take place, political parties, including those banned, should be fully included.

At present, pro-democracy groups are adamant that they will not take part in a process held at the king’s Sibaya, even if it is billed as a dialogue. They ask that the talks be held “in an environment that is acceptable to the [negotiating] partners – neutral, safe and [one that] assures equal participation between parties”. 

Thulani Maseko, a prominent voice in the mass democratic movement and chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, said: “There are no signs yet that the dialogue is going to take place. If so, under what conditions. How and where? There is no communication from the government. All we have heard is that they are thinking of hosting a national Sibaya dialogue.”

The movement expects SADC to play a big role in the process, especially in ensuring that an independent mediator chairs the talks and that they are held at a venue other than the king’s Sibaya. Maseko says the movement has “written to [SADC] several times” and has not received any formal communication “except being told that they are working on it”. 

“But we respect the process; we respect the protocol. We are hoping that at an appropriate time they will reach out … and advise us on how the process is going to be conducted and on when it is going to start,” said Maseko. 

SADC had not responded to questions sent to it by the time of publishing.

Even though many doubt that a free and fair dialogue will take place, they nevertheless consider it a possible solution to eSwatini’s political problems. The Communist Party of Swaziland does not hold that view. Pius Rinto, the party’s international secretary, said: “As things stand, we think that we need to unite. Not for a dialogue. The unity of the forces must not be aimed at creating some majority for a dialogue.”

Rinto, who is exiled in South Africa, has for years been critical of the eSwatini government. He says the mass democratic movement should unite “in order to fight and remove the dictatorship. And that would be the basic thing that would help to normalise the situation and guarantee the [safe] return of exiles.”

Delegates in Boksburg said that the monarchy should be retained as it is “the shared heritage of the Swazi nation”. But it would be subject to a “democratic constitution and the will of the people”. Again, Rinto disagrees: “We do not necessarily need to preserve any aspect of culture which is, in this case, practised by the Dlamini dynasty. So, our stance is the total removal of the monarchy [to] replace it with a democratic republic.”

Cyprian Magagula, a retired University of eSwatini political science academic, called the Sibaya an “outdated feudal institution” and said it had been an ineffective way to change things in the country in the post-colonial period.

This article was first published on New Frame

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Cebelihle Mbuyisa
Cebelihle Mbuyisa is a subeditor and writer from eSwatini. He reports on land reform, public schooling, immigration and other human rights concerns.

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