/ 5 December 2022

Poverty in eSwatini has bred unapologetic freedom fighters

Change: Mass protests calling for democracy broke out in eSwatini

At what point is a civil war declared? Anyone watching from the outside would be hard-pressed to believe that there is a civil war in small, peaceful eSwatini, especially as King Mswati III and his large entourage are gallivanting around the world, sweet talking investors to invest in his fiefdom

Yet, every day, even the main state-owned and controlled media report on the increasing incidents of politically motivated killings and bombings. There are reports that members of the Swaziland Royal Police and the army are under attack by pro-democracy activists, and that many police officers are attempting to resign, but their resignations are being denied by the king’s government. Unorganised Swazis are acting to remove the absolute monarch in the hopes that democracy will free them from poverty.

Organic change, uprisings and revolutions are ignited uniquely in each country. In 2010, when the Arab Spring saw a change of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, there was hope that the same spirit of democratic change would make its way across sub-Saharan Africa, but this did not happen. The time was not ripe. Is it now ripe in eSwatini, ruled by the last absolute monarch in Africa?

And while the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union and most of the world have seemingly not paid much mind to the daily political bombings, violence and deaths in eSwatini, and have continued to give support to the absolute monarchy, the country is a good case study on how sustained poverty and oppression eventually breed generations who feel they have everything to gain by fighting for change. 

It can be argued that most of Africa is not governed by the will of the people, but the will of the people will eventually define itself; the people will find their voice and their power. 

Nobody could have predicted the ignition of what now seems clearly to be an unstoppable call for change in the Kingdom of eSwatini. The calls for democracy have been rumbling since the 1970s, and have gained momentum since the early 2000s as King Mswati III took over more of the economy, hoarding riches while sinking more of the population into unbearable poverty.

Since mid-2021, when mass protests calling for democracy broke out in the small country of 1.2 million people, Mswati has not had a night of peace. The protests of 2021 surprised all in eSwatini in the midst of Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions. They caught the royal regime, its government and political parties unawares. 

For years, those calling for democracy in and outside eSwatini have been hoping for such a response. For decades, the call for democracy was more robust outside the country; for the first time this has changed. It is clear that the protests will continue, even without outside assistance and support. When the time for an idea has come, it is unstoppable.

I remember speaking to my grandmother in the late 1990s. I would ask her why Swazis were not pushing for democracy, did they not want it?  I was in my late teens, naïve in my belief that true democracy is easy to attain.  At the time, I was hopeful that democracy would end poverty and inequality in South Africa; the euphoria of Thabo Mbeki’s “African Renaissance” truly had me in its thrall. 

My grandmother would say to me that democracy brings war and instability. This is a view that state-owned media — the only kind of media permitted in eSwatini — has drilled into the consciousness of the people, such that the majority has rejected democracy. Mswati and his propaganda machine did a good job of making people believe that the high rates of crime and violence in South Africa are the result of democracy.  Mswati and his regime did not foresee that generations born into abject poverty  would differ from the generations before; generations that bought into the narrative of elevating false peace over total freedom. 

From colonial times, Queen Gwamile and thereafter King Sobhuza II navigated the hostile political terrain, avoiding costly wars, and maintaining as peaceful a state as they could and preventing eSwatini from being usurped into apartheid South Africa. eSwatini fancied itself as the “Switzerland of Africa”, but there has always been a false peace here. 

King Mswati III knows that the only way to keep people subdued in the long term is to do so by using the military. He has used culture, religion and the economy as tools of oppression, and they have worked well on generations past, but clearly, no longer. 

He has used the military from time to time to quell protests, but he cannot use the military outright now, because to the rest of the world, he still pretends that eSwatini is a democracy. eSwatini is far from being a democracy. So there is a war raging in eSwatini, while the rest of the world pretends it is not so, and because Mswati continues to deny this fact. And yet even his state-controlled media has to report the daily violence.  

For the first time Mswati’s police and soldiers fear the people, because the people are bombing the homes and assets of any police and army person, regardless of whether that police officer or soldier has participated in stopping pro-democracy protests.

Over the past two decades, Mswati has been bold in his taking over the entire economy of eSwatini. It has one of the harshest tax regimes on its subjects, supposed to be its citizens. Mswati taxes Swazi businesses before they even break even, and yet he offers huge tax breaks to foreign companies, in which he is always a shareholder. 

The number of foreign-owned businesses has increased tenfold in the past two decades, but they do not benefit the people — they ill-treat and underpay workers, and are protected by the government.  It is a despicable situation, meant to keep Swazis out of economic activity, clearly with the thinking that economic suppression maintains Mswati’s greedy grip on power. And yet this has been the ignition for the change that is coming.

eSwatini has been classified as a middle-income country, yet the high levels of lived poverty experienced by the majority of the population contradict this. Most of the income goes into the coffers of the monarch, while public purse and public services receive none of that income, resulting in the current situation where public healthcare, social services and education are struggling. 

Hospitals have gone for years without adequate funding, even for basic medicines like paracetamol. Social and public services such as health and welfare rely heavily on donor funding, and Mswati pockets huge amounts he does not have to account for.  

Younger generations, whose psyche is shaped differently from older generations, who are not going to tolerate designed poverty, increasing inequality and lack of access to basic public goods and services, will become violent in their fight for freedom, equality and equal access.  

Perhaps this is what will move multinational organisations, including the SADC and the AU, to act more decisively in advancing democracy and prosperity for all, by at least denying membership to countries and regimes that are corrupt and undemocratic.  

Calls for the SADC and the AU to act against Mswati have come from all corners of the world, and have gone unheeded. Mswati has been aided in his corruption, oppression and absolutism.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.