eSwatini has been engulfed in escalating civil unrest and protest for the past six months. At least 46 people have died and many more injured as security forces have used live ammunition to quell the protests.
In the most recent spate in October, one person was reported killed and hundreds injured as pupils and teachers protested against the continued incarceration of civil society and opposition leaders from the June-July unrest.
The excesses and opulence of the king and his family amid abject poverty are spurring on citizens’ demands for democratisation, civil liberties and greater participation in economic and political affairs of the kingdom.
With the situation deteriorating, and parties and civil society movements such as the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and Swaziland Multi-Stakeholders’ Forum (MSF) continuing to support pro-democracy demonstrations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has had to intervene. SADC’s efforts have however yielded little. King Mswati III hasn’t shown a genuine interest to engage with his aggrieved citizens, and the pro-democracy forces are yet to consolidate and present a unified voice.
On 2 November SADC’s chairperson of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, SA’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, travelled to eSwatini to engage directly with the king. He’d sent an envoy to talk with the eSwatini government in October. The envoy accepted the king’s call to dialogue after the failed July Sibaya, a customary dialogue forum, that turned into a monologue by the king.
The anticipation was that Ramaphosa would indulge no nonsense from the king on his November visit and return with a clear roadmap for national dialogue. It was expected that the king would have made clear concessions pointing to his readiness to engage in genuine talks.
The only significant outcome of Ramaphosa’s visit however was that the king agreed that the SADC Secretariat ‘would work closely with the Government of eSwatini to draft the terms of reference for the national dialogue.’ This is an important initial step in setting the tone of a genuine process of dialogue that isn’t dictated by the king. The dialogue process would also be broadened to include the Parliament, Ramaphosa said.
Notwithstanding, much more needs to be done and the king doesn’t seem to be willing to concede further than this. Neither do the pro-democracy forces. The MSF in a detailed press statement dismisses both the Sibaya and the Parliament as appendages to the king. They say none of these platforms are credible enough for a genuine dialogue towards democracy.
They also want to see the army removed from the streets and for two jailed parliamentarians to be set free.
The king’s stance on national dialogue hasn’t really moved since his earlier pronouncement on the issue. He is still very much bent on setting the tone and character of the dialogue that he wants.
This doesn’t engender trust and confidence in the national dialogue process on the part of the various pro-democracy movements in eSwatini. Given that civil unrest has been ongoing in eSwatini for over two decades, SADC should be taking a clear, assertive stance to define the pathway to resolve the impasse between the king and the country’s citizens.
Some seasoned diplomats in the region argue that allowing the king to set his own timelines without questioning them only encourages him and shows SADC to be in a weak position. Given the gravity of the unrest and the unpredictability of events in eSwatini, SADC should insist that the dialogue takes place immediately.
Without taking this firm position, the king will probably believe he has Ramaphosa’s support, and when he returns from his planned three-month retreat next year, he’ll think he’s off the hook. ‘We can’t wait for January because the king will feel emboldened,’ says a former diplomat who requested anonymity.
PUDEMO, who has mounted spirited campaigns against the monarch for over two decades, decries the lack of urgency with which SADC is treating the unrest. The party has vowed to maintain momentum with the street protests and civil unrest, expressing anger at SADC’s lack of decisiveness.
The king’s insistence that national dialogue takes the form of the traditional Sibaya doesn’t create a conducive political context for national dialogue. The Sibaya is structured in a way that reinforces the king as the sovereign and the citizens as his subjects. Those wishing to speak up during Sibaya sessions are often scared of being targeted for doing so.
The opposition rejects this approach. The core of the pro-democracy movement in eSwatini is to redefine the relations between the king and the citizens from being subjects of the monarch to active rights-holding and -claiming citizens.
Presently the king is doing everything to emphasise his position as absolute sovereign, and SADC is tacitly complicit in this. SADC has been losing credibility with the way it’s been handling conflicts and crises in the region. While the principle of sovereignty seems to reign supreme among heads of state, the regional bloc continues to create a gap between itself and the aspirations of the region’s citizenry.
The current situation in eSwatini requires SADC to be seen as an honest broker. This entails activating and setting in motion its own mechanisms created for this purpose, such as the SADC Mediation Support Unit for eSwatini. The bloc must be assertive with the king and actively participate in creating a conducive platform for national dialogue.
A credible broker who has the respect of the king would need to facilitate the mediation process. All parties must agree on clear milestones, outcomes, and success factors in a collaborative and consultative process. ‘Nothing should be left to chance,’ says the former diplomat.
Every detail should be thought through and clearly set down – from the venue to the agenda – with emphasis on neutrality and acceptability to all parties without giving in to the whims of any one. A comprehensive and well-planned dialogue that’s seen as credible by all parties in the country is the only way out of the current impasse.