Can eSwatini’s monarchy recover from the ongoing crisis?

Unprecedented state violence against protesters is making royal rule increasingly unpopular in eSwatini.

King Mswati III of eSwatini has been in power since 1986 [File: Reuers/Carlo Allegri]

Over the past few months, the Kingdom of eSwatini has experienced its worst bout of political violence in its postcolonial history. The unrest in the small southern African country, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, started in May, when protesters took to the streets to denounce police brutality in the aftermath of the death of 25-year-old university student Thabani Nkomonye, widely believed to have been killed by traffic police officers.

Soon the unrest spread to the rural areas, which caught the royal regime unprepared. As demonstrators started to demand a wide range of political and economic reforms, the government refused to engage in dialogue. Confrontations with the police escalated, and the army was brought in to quash the ensuing riots. According to activists’ reports, close to 70 people were killed, while many shops, commercial properties, and farms were looted.

The unrest poses a major challenge to King Mswati III who has shown no willingness to respond to the demands of his people. This intransigence could deepen the crisis and lead to further violence.

Absolute rule

King Mswati III has ruled eSwatini since 1986 under the banner of Swati custom. Parliament is partly appointed by the king and partly elected through popular vote, but those who run as MPs cannot represent any political party. The king appoints the prime minister and holds considerable influence on all executive and legislative decisions. He is also the commander-in-chief of the army and the police.

As protesters’ demands evolved over the past few months, people started demanding changes to this political set-up. Thousands of emaSwati delivered petitions for political and economic reforms to their Tinkhundla, the siSwati name for local constituencies.

The main demand was to allow for the popular election of the prime minister. A variety of social and economic issues were also raised, including demands for jobs, university scholarships, better infrastructure and better healthcare.

The protests saw a strong presence of rural youth, a highly disenfranchised group with little voice in the political arena. Social media played an important role in mobilising people across urban and rural areas and creating a shared platform. One new organisation, in particular, was pivotal in connecting activists and concerns across the country: the Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland (EFFSWA), which is the eSwatini affiliate of the EFF in South Africa.

Headed by Julius Malema, the South African EFF, which has several regional branches, has been challenging the political hegemony of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and is at the forefront of many popular struggles affecting young people and the working classes in the region. The party has also been vocal against the excesses of the Swati monarchy.

The style and tactics of social media messaging and mobilisation show that Swati activists have learned from their colleagues in South Africa, and have been able to successfully organise and channel people’s frustrations and anger at the dire economic and political situation in the country.

An economic crisis of massive proportions

The riots and looting involved people from a variety of backgrounds, including the young and not so young, workers and the unemployed. The choice of targets was driven by the protesters’ understanding of the economic inequalities in the country.

Businesses known to be closely associated with the monarchy were targeted, alongside retail shops owned by South Asians. The attacks on the latter reflect years of xenophobic incitement by key figures in government and parliament who have been scapegoating the South Asian community for eSwatini’s economic troubles.

But the country’s economic woes have to do with resource capture by the ruling family and its cronies, not the presence of an immigrant community. eSwatini’s economy is closely integrated with South African and other foreign capital, and is run by a small elite of royally connected Black emaSwati and a small but very wealthy local white community.

The main economic activities in the formal sector include sugar production and processing, timber, textile manufacturing, and a service and retail sector dominated by branches of South African companies. Key economic players are locked into often secretive partnerships with the king and his family, with a considerable amount of public resources diverted for private gain, including for example the use of public pension funds to inject liquidity in businesses close to the king’s interests.

All that is left for the vast majority of people, who are not connected to royalty and lack white privilege, is precarious employment with appallingly low wages and harsh working conditions – if they are lucky. In 2019, official statistics put the general unemployment rate at 22 percent, while youth unemployment was at 46 percent. The latest available data on poverty levels showed that 72 percent of the population earned $5.50 a day or less in 2016. The situation is likely much worse today due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under Swati tradition, all Swati citizens are eligible to receive a piece of land in rural areas by paying tribute to a chief. But over the years, this system of customary land tenure has also deteriorated. Today, many emaSwati cannot claim this right because of the increasing marketisation of land distribution.

Chiefs who used to ask for nominal fees now charge hefty sums well beyond the means of most young people and a market has developed where informal sales of plots have grown, favouring wealthier people who can buy out poorer households. Large tracts of land are held by royal members, or given in concession to royally connected businesses, further aggravating land scarcity.

Prospects for change

Such entrenched levels of poverty and inequality can only be remedied with bold economic and political reforms. The king and his clique, however, have demonstrated that they would not negotiate with those demanding change. At the same time, the ritual and institutional checks and balances provided by custom to curb the powers of the king, so that he does not turn into a ruthless dictator, have also failed.

At his first public appearance since the riots, on July 16, King Mswati III skirted the issue of gross human rights violations against protesters, dismissed his critics as “marijuana smokers”, and showed no willingness to engage in a serious national dialogue with the opposition.

After criticising the government, he replaced acting prime minister Themba Masuku with Cleopas Dlamini, the former CEO of the same public pension fund that was heavily investing workers’ money in private businesses benefitting royal interests.

On July 25, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, two pro-democracy MPs involved in the protests, were arrested on trumped-up charges under the infamous Suppression of Terrorism Act, which has often been used to target regime dissidents.

If the Swati ruling elites have much to lose from regime change, the dispossessed masses have much less. This could result in an explosive situation where desperate emaSwati continue to take to the streets while the king and the elite deploy ever more brutal force to quash discontent.

Before the killings, protesters’ demands for political reforms were framed within a vision of a multi-party democratic dispensation that includes a constitutional monarchy with ceremonial status but no executive powers. Traumatised and angered, many are now calling for the wholesale dismantling of the monarchy.

The king and his allies have accumulated so much wealth that they have too much at stake to peacefully exit power. They will not go without sustained external pressure so it is now up to neighbouring South Africa, the Southern African Development Community and the international community at large to act.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.