The small African kingdom of Eswatini, Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy, has been racked with protests in the past week, as its citizens demand democracy and an end to corruption. Since June 26, people have taken to the streets, burning tyres and looting shops. Meanwhile, a curfew has been announced and the military has been deployed to quash demonstrations, using teargas and live bullets.
Formerly known as Swaziland, Eswatini is a small, landlocked country in southern Africa. Its leader, King Mswati III, has ruled for 35 years by decree. Now, longstanding criticisms of the monarchy, combined with concerns of police brutality have inflamed protests. In May, the death of young law student, Thabani Nkomonye, was blamed on police who in turn said he was the victim of a car accident. Demonstrations and an online movement with the hashtag #JusticeforThabani have been raging ever since.
The movement escalated and transformed into a call for democracy in late June when authorities took a hard stance against the ongoing protests and collective petitions for reform.
Much of the unrest has centered on the city of Manzini, Eswatini’s largest city, where Thabani Nkomonye died, but protests have spread across the country. Videos posted on social media have shown protesters mobilising in the streets, setting fire to tyres and buildings, and looting shops and trucks.
— Mweli Masilela (@mwelimasilela) June 29, 2021
— Meluleki Simelane 🇸🇿 (@IamSluga) June 29, 2021
‘The police are beating people every day: it’s a norm’
Siyabonga (not his real name), a protester in Manzini who agreed to speak to the FRANCE 24 Observers on condition of anonymity, described the scene:
People were looting stores, people were burning tyres, people were causing destruction. Traffic stopped and people looted trucks that were carrying sugar, alcohol or basic home needs. Some people started burning other shops, but shops that are affiliated with the government. If they know a shop is owned by a minister, they burn that shop. It’s hectic and it’s getting worse day by day. The strike is all over the country, everywhere in Swaziland. It’s frightening. You can’t travel on the roads because there are fires burning everywhere. Fields are burning everywhere.
The soldiers started arriving last night [June 28]. They are hitting the people who are looting. The police are beating people every day: it’s a norm. There are lots and lots of soldiers out there, trying to control the situation. Some are in vehicles and some are in helicopters. I’ve witnessed police brutality and the military, we see it first hand. Today [June 29], the military was busy going into houses, but they are targeting the houses that are owned by women.
— Sbonelo Radebe (@Starmthimkhulu) June 30, 2021
Amateur footage documents shooting
Police and military forces have responded to protesters by firing teargas and live ammunition to quell the unrest. A spokesperson from pro-democracy group Swaziland Solidarity Network told AFP on June 30 that “eight activists were shot dead overnight” in Manzini alone. Meanwhile, the Swaziland Youth Congress, a youth movement for democracy, asserted that 21 protesters had been killed by security forces as of June 30.
In a video posted on Twitter on June 30, we can see security forces in formation approaching protesters on Ngwane Street, in central Manzini. Six seconds into the video, a shot can be heard, though it is not clear who fired it. Protesters can be seen running away from the officers in the background.
Armed forces shooting civilians in Manzini. pic.twitter.com/POYBvjfWCv
— Swazi News (@SwaziNews) June 30, 2021
The evening of Tuesday, June 29, the country’s prime minister announced a nationwide curfew from 6 pm to 5 am and closed schools, citing concerns about the propagation of Covid-19. The government has also reportedly called for several major network providers to shut down internet connections.
Although internet outages have not been confirmed by independent watchdogs such as Netblocks, our Observers have reported significant problems with WiFi and mobile data across the country.
‘We want someone who is going to be elected by the people and work for the people’
According to Siyabonga, the intensified protest efforts are a result of ongoing discontent with the leadership in Eswatini:
Last week the government issued an order that we should stop delivering petitions, and people got angry. We want to deliver petitions to our MPs. We should be in charge of them, we should be able to talk to them at any given time. When they told us we couldn’t do this anymore, that’s when everything became a mess.
We want an elected prime minister. We want someone we can hold accountable for everything that is happening in the country. We want to control ourselves, we don’t want the king to be in charge. The king is leading a lavish lifestyle while most of the people in the country are poor. People don’t have jobs, but then there’s a guy who has all the money and owns all the big companies [Editor’s note: King Mswati III owns shares and earns income from various companies in the hotel, sugar, telecommunications and beverage industries]. The people are tired. They’ve been patient for so long. But now they are tired of the king, his government and his family.
On the throne since 1986, King Mswati III has 15 wives and more than 25 children. He has been accused of using state funds to fund a luxurious lifestyle for himself and his family. Reports circulated that the king fled to Johannesburg, South Africa after protests escalated on Monday, June 28, which the country’s prime minister has denied.
According to the World Bank, more than 58% of Eswatini’s population was living below the poverty line in 2016, and the 2020 unemployment rate was around 23%.
Amnesty International, on June 29, called for the right to protest in Eswatini to be respected, blaming the unrest on “years of denial of political, economic and social rights to the people, including young people, and recent escalation of suppression of dissent by the authorities.”