Tony Karumba/AFP

Eswatini’s democratic reform process in jeopardy

Fifteen months after the murder of political activist Thulani Maseko, the political reform movement he ably led also seems to have died.

If it were purely a matter of motive, there would be little doubt who should be held responsible for killing human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko – Eswatini’s leading political activist – on 21 January last year.

Maseko was shot dead through a window of his home near Mbabane in front of his wife, Tanele, and two young sons.

Since then Eswatini’s opposition and the country’s democratic reform momentum both seem to have collapsed, leaving King Mswati III high and dry and apparently unassailable – an island of absolute monarchy in a regional sea of supposed democracies.

At the time of Maseko’s murder – most call it an assassination – Eswatini was still officially on the agenda of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The latter had persuaded the king to embark on a course of democratic reform in response to the surge of deadly violence that shook the country in June 2021.

Eswatini was still officially on SADC's agenda for democratic reform

Maseko then chaired the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), which brought together all the main political and civil society pro-democracy groups under a rare common umbrella, articulating the demands for a real and inclusive national democratic dialogue.

But it became clear after his death that he was holding the MSF together largely by the force of his intellect and personality because, since then, it has essentially disintegrated. One of the principal divisive forces was Mswati’s decision to call parliamentary elections on 29 September last year. Though Swazi elections are essentially meaningless as members of Parliament exercise no real power, some members of the democratic opposition still opted to support them. Most chose to boycott, believing elections should be postponed until after a legitimate reform process had been conducted.

The divisions over the election fractured the opposition to Mswati’s autocratic rule.

And SADC was ineffectual, failing to follow through on its promising intervention after South African President Cyril Ramaphosa travelled to Eswatini to meet Mswati in November 2021. Then, the chair of SADC’s organ on politics, defence and security, Ramaphosa persuaded him to launch a national dialogue on democratic reform.

After 15 months, no visible progress has been made in investigating Maseko's death

The Swazi government stalled and stonewalled, partly by insisting that the proposed national dialogue should take place in the format of the Sibaya, the traditional meeting of the monarch and his people. This supposed dialogue has always been a top-down monologue where the king talks and the people listen in silence. Quite literally top-down, as the king sits on a chair (throne) while his subjects sit on the ground in the royal kraal. At the time, Maseko said this couldn’t logically be the format for a dialogue of equals.

In any case, Mswati kept stalling. Ramaphosa passed on the chair of the security organ to the late Namibian president Hage Geingob, and eventually, Eswatini slid off the organ’s agenda. To add to SADC’s abdication, its electoral observation mission issued a bland non-committal report on the parliamentary poll.

As Piers Pigou, head of the Institute for Security Studies’ Southern Africa programme, put it: ‘Essentially, Swaziland has successfully got itself off the naughty chair and SADC has allowed the domestic process to take its course.’ SADC has done that by default, one should add, rather than by any deliberate decision, as far as one can tell by public statements at least.

What is that domestic process though? After the election, Mswati summoned his ‘subjects’ to the royal kraal for an unusually long two-week Sibaya (national meeting) inviting them to express their grievances. Some politely did, for example complaining about corruption and problems with health services. Needless to say, no one dared complain about the country’s glaring democracy deficit. At the end of the Sibaya, Mswati announced a new Prime Minister – Russell Mmiso Dlamini – and ordered him to address the people’s complaints.

That, several local observers noted, was the national dialogue. ‘Nothing really changed. He just hit the reset button – back to 2021,’ (before the violent protests) one observer told ISS Today.

Eswatini’s democratic impulse may have sunk underground, but it could surface again

Meanwhile, Mswati’s lieutenants seem to be doing their best to muddy the waters around Maseko’s murder. For 15 months there’s been no visible progress in investigating his death, but now the police and other law enforcement authorities are suggesting that Maseko’s widow is a suspect.

On her return to Eswatini last week, she was detained by police at the border and taken to a police station for questioning about the murder on the ostensible grounds that she was the only adult witness to the crime.

The police confiscated her cell phone and passport and tried to question her about the murder, claiming she’d refused to do so since it happened. But she’s said all along that she won’t speak to them without her lawyers present. Maseko stuck to that position in two subsequent meetings since her detention, and so, though her phone and passport have been returned and she’s free, police have still not questioned her.

Her advisers aren’t sure whether the police really intend to pursue her for complicity in her husband’s murder or whether this is a social smokescreen for their own involvement. Or perhaps they may be seeking revenge, as she’s been going abroad and embarrassing the government by making public statements in which, for instance, she accuses ‘the dictatorship’ of killing him.

But the smokescreening is seemingly working. Social media has responded to her supposed refusal to speak to the police as an indication that she has something to hide.

However, some Swazi activists have come to her defence. Vongai Chikwanda, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director, East and Southern Africa, issued a statement last week saying: ‘Instead of using the criminal justice system to target, intimidate and harass Tanele Maseko, Eswatini authorities should focus on promptly, thoroughly, independently, impartially, transparently and effectively investigating Thulani Maseko’s murder and bringing to justice those suspected to be responsible.’

Where this goes from here is unclear. Pigou says, ‘It looks like Mswati is, or at least thinks he is, in the driver’s seat’ – not least, he says, because the economy is doing relatively well, so that and the splintered opposition appear to have muted dissent. Another local observer agrees, saying Mswati ‘is feeling on top of his game. I don’t think SADC can handle him going forward. Thulani’s death changed everything.’

Needless to say, even if the democratic impulse has sunk underground for a while, this doesn’t mean it couldn’t surface again, and possibly violently, as it did almost three years ago. When SADC, Rip van Winkle-like, no doubt awakes again from its long slumber and takes official notice.

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