On 2 November it was announced that eSwatini would work towards the establishment of a national dialogue to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis. This followed a one-day meeting between eSwatini King Mswati III and South African President and Chair of the South African Development Community (SADC) Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa was in eSwatini in his capacity as SADC chair seeking to calm the tensions and civil unrest which have engulfed the country since June.
Political tensions, which had been building in eSwatini for years, erupted into civil unrest on 26 June when around 500 youth demonstrators protested in Manzini district demanding an end to the Tinkhundla political system including an end to the ban on opposition parties and the right for the prime minister to be elected rather than appointed by the monarch. Security forces responded to this protest violently, including with live ammunition. This sparked protests across the country leading the state to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew, block the internet, and deploy the army on 29 June. These repressive measures have failed to quell the unrest but instead fuelled further anger towards Mswati’s regime, begetting more protests. The unrest has led to sustained calls from opposition forces for major democratic reforms and even the abolition of the monarchy.
Mswati had clearly hoped that the repressive tactics which have served his regime in the past would eventually end the crisis and allow for the resumption of the status quo. However, this has not realised and ongoing protests and clashes now threaten to destabilise the county, and with it his position as monarch. It is this fear which has driven Mswati to accept mediation by SADC.
Ramaphosa initially sent South Africa’s former justice minister Jeff Radebe to lead a SADC delegation to eSwatini in October. This delegation comprised representatives from South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. This was the second attempt by SADC after its initial envoy sent in July failed to meet with any of the pro-democracy protest leaders or civil society figures.
Yet despite this July failure, Ramaphosa and SADC are still not engaging properly with opposition and civil society leaders and as a result, the proposed national dialogue is expected to be a non-starter. Notably, Ramaphosa has gone ahead and announced preparations for the dialogue would begin despite the fact that leading opposition actors, including eSwatini’s largest opposition party ‒ the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) ‒ rejected the proposed national dialogue on 25 October when it was first suggested after Radebe’s visit. Pudemo dismissed the gesture as an effort by Mswati to play for time and trick protesters into losing their current momentum. Pudemo and other activists have vowed to continue protesting until Mswati and the eSwatini government agree to meaningful democratic reforms.
The opposition’s intransigence is well-founded. Mswati has shown himself unwilling to cede power and truly views eSwatini as his property. This is underscored by the fact that he is insisting that the national dialogue take the form of a “Sibaya”. This is a traditional Swazi gathering called by a king to consult his subjects. Such an event would be unequal in both structure and format and begins with the assumption that true democratic reforms are not being considered.
Mswati still wants to crush the protests and the opposition movement. Rumours have emerged that he has even approached Mozambique to request a security force deployment to bolster eSwatini’s forces’ efforts to repress the demonstrations. However, it is highly unlikely that this request will be granted as Mozambique’s own forces are over-stretched combatting the Islamist insurgency in that country’s Cabo Delgado province. Further, Mozambique would also be unlikely to unilaterally send troops to a fellow SADC nation. Such deployments are processed through SADC to ensure legitimacy and regional stability. Such a SADC-led deployment would also not give Mswati his desired result. A SADC peacekeeping mission would be mandated to prevent violence and not stop the demonstrations. In fact, such a deployment would end up being more focused on containing eSwatini security forces than the demonstrators themselves. In addition, as witnessed by the SADC intervention in Lesotho’s 2014 political crisis, such a deployment often results in democratic and institutional reforms being forced upon a country. Something Mswati is desperate to avoid.
That being said, Mswati’s aims are somewhat aligned with SADC’s. The regional bloc is desperate for the eSwatini situation to calm. SADC’s members are still reeling from the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the bloc’s security structures are preoccupied with the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) currently combatting the Cabo Delgado insurgents. The regional bloc has no interest in addressing another crisis, especially one that requires a costly security force intervention. Hence SADC’s push to hold a national dialogue, hoping that by starting negotiations the violence in eSwatini will stop and a modicum of democratic progress could be made which the bloc can hold up as a success.
This is likely a case of too little too late. Such a national dialogue during which minor political concessions would be made would have been more successful in June or July. The violent tactics deployed by Mswati’s forces against protesters have hardened positions and increased demands for more wholesale reform. An estimated 30 protesters have been killed by security forces since June, this has created martyrs and increased the pressure on the movement’s leaders to achieve real gains.
If SADC and Ramaphosa really want to resolve the ongoing crisis in eSwatini, the proposed national dialogue will need to take the form of real political negotiations which do not privilege Mswati. In addition, the eSwatini government will have to make it clear from the start what democratic concessions it is willing to make before the protest leaders can even agree to participate in such an event. In the meantime, the crisis is expected to continue destabilising eSwatini and threatening Mswati’s future atop the throne.