/ 1 September 2023

The forgotten people of eSwatini

Assassination: A man pays tribute to eSwatini human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko. He was killed in January this year in front of his wife and two children at his home in Luhelko. (James Wakibia/Getty Images)

It’s been seven months since the killing of eSwatini human rights defender Thulani Maseko, a lawyer and activist who refused to turn a blind eye to injustice. He was dedicated to seeing human rights respected in the country and he spoke for the people who continue to yearn for the respect and fulfilment of their rights. 

One of his acts of standing against injustice was raising concerns in 2014 about judicial independence and integrity in the country. For that, Maseko and journalist Bhekithemba Makhubu were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of contempt of court. The trial that convicted them was grossly unfair and Amnesty International declared them prisoners of conscience. 

At the time of his killing, Maseko chaired the Multi-Stakeholders Forum, a group of political parties and civil society groups calling for democratic reform in the country.

Maseko’s voice was not alone in the call for democratic reform in eSwatini. Since 2018, protests against the lavish lifestyle of King Mswati III — Africa’s last absolute monarch, in power since 1986 — and the widespread misuse of public funds have been brewing across the country. 

All while people get poorer and poorer. In 2022, World Bank figures indicated at least 32% of the population live below the international poverty line of $2.15 a day and 55% live under the lower-middle-income country poverty line of $3.65 a day. When this is compared to the lifestyle of luxury cars, travel abroad and deluxe homes of Mswati and his family, the acuteness of inequality is palpable — fuelling dissent and social tension.

Earlier this year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation published its 2022 Ibrahim Index of African Governance. The index covers all 54 African countries and has been published since 2007. 

It is an important and well-regarded barometer on the performance of African countries on safety and the rule of law; citizen participation and rights, inclusion and equality — including gender equality; the environment for business, labour, government and the rural economy and human development such as health, education, social protection and the climate. 

It includes official and expert data, as well as information focused on public perception. 

A quick look through the 2022 publication may lead one to believe that eSwatini has progressed in delivering overall, properly functioning governmental institutions and providing people with adequate, basic services, such as food, water, housing, education and health. 

Upon closer examination, however, there has been a troublesome decline in eSwatini’s key scores since 2017. The satisfaction of the people of the country with the state and economy has deteriorated, particularly in perceptions of the functioning of the economy, human rights, social inclusion, gender equality and the provision of social services such as health, education, and water and sanitation. 

The index shows a score of zero for things such as accountability and transparency, the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief, digital rights and the representation and access to markets in the rural economy. It reveals that the people of eSwatini are not happy with how their freedoms are unduly limited. 

This is most clearly evident in the heavy restrictions on freedom of association and peaceful assembly in the country — with authorities using the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008 and the outdated colonial-era law, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1938, to silence activists and political opposition. 

An ongoing wave of protests began in June 2021, after the mysterious death of 25-year-old law student Thabani Nkomonye in May of that year. His death was allegedly at the hands of the police. His body was found in a field about 10km outside Manzini, the country’s largest urban centre. 

Thulani Maseko and many others fighting for freedom and rights in the monarchy of Mswati III are persecuted. (Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

Protestors call for political reform but anyone opposing the political dominance of the monarch and the chiefdom system risks being targeted for harassment, arrest, persecution or having to flee the country. 

Two MPs, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, and many other activists in the country, have been prosecuted in retaliation for exercising their human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and are languishing in jail. 

Indeed, many people, including prominent political activists and human rights lawyers such as Maseko, have been subjected to all kinds of human rights violations. Worse, some have died under mysterious circumstances, including Maseko, who was shot dead through the window of his house in Luyengo on 21 January 2023. 

In 2021 alone, more than 80 people were killed for taking part in pro-democracy protests and hundreds of others have been injured or detained. It is difficult to establish the exact number of those who have been killed because there is no transparency or press freedom in the country. 

eSwatini demonstrates perfectly how violations of social and economic rights intertwine with violations of civil and political rights. Because of poverty, lack of jobs, food and adequate housing, the people are demanding change in the country’s governance and leadership. As they express their demands — whether online or on the streets — eSwatini’s authorities brutally try to quell their voices and violate their human rights.

Thulani Maseko spent his life fighting for an eSwatini that respected the human rights of the people in the country. The country is a state party to many international human rights treaties and it has the obligation to ensure that all the rights guaranteed by these are respected, protected and fulfilled. 

Amnesty International is calling on the eSwatini authorities to effectively address poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

And for those who speak out about these issues, the government must respect their right to do so. There should be no more deaths of human rights defenders such as Maseko, whose only dream was for an eSwatini where everyone’s human rights are fulfilled without discrimination.

Joan Stott is Amnesty International’s debt and human rights fellow.