As the protests and repression in eSwatini intensify, so must our solidarity

Since protests broke out in June, the police, military and security forces in eSwatini have killed at least 70 protesters and injured many more. This brutal crackdown is the latest and bloodiest act of repression in this small, southern African country, where democracy was suspended nearly half a century ago, and replaced by a monolithic, defective democracy and feudal system of Tinkhundla that entrenched itself on 7 August 1977.

eSwatini is the last feudal dictatorship in Africa, a system described by the current king, 53-year-old Mswati III, as a monarchical democracy, giving prominence to the monarchy and all power vested on him and his parasitic family. The trade union movement in eSwatini, the Trades Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) is a leading part of the struggle for democracy, and has in the past seen its leaders jailed, its unions deregistered, its members immiserated by the rapacious demands of the King and the industries he owns or controls. eSwatini is classified under category 5 of the ITUC’s (International Trade Union Confederation) recently released 2021 Global Rights Index – a country with ‘no guarantee of rights’.

With his flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle, King Mswati III and his family continue to squander taxpayers money on luxurious goods, and on vanity projects, for example, an airport used mostly by the king’s private jets. He also happens to have one of the largest military and security operations on the continent, while the people of eSwatini live in abject poverty, with little or no social protection, a nation that continues to record the highest rate of HIV-AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

But things took a sudden turn.

The death of 25-year-old law student Thabani Nkomonye in May (traditionally the month begun by International Workers’ Day protests that have been viciously repressed in the past), resulted in tertiary education students calling for the arrest of those involved in the murder – with the police as the prime suspects, as it has been the norm in past occasions. Tensions have been mounting.

Three members of parliament took up the issue of judicial killings and raised them in parliament. They escalated their demands into political reforms. In response to a motion for the introduction of an elected prime minister, the then acting prime minister cast aspersions on the mandate of the three MPs. His argument was that the MPs were not mandated by their constituents to challenge the powers of the king in parliament. He further demanded minutes of the meetings of the constituencies. This insistence of questioning the mandate of the MPs prompted the general public, especially the youth, to petition their MPs with demands, which also called for the unbanning of political parties and the right to democratically elect a prime minister, rather than have one directly appointed by the king, as is currently the case.

Out of 59 constituencies in eSwatini, 51 submitted such petitions in towns across the country but the government felt intimidated by the numbers and the uniformity of the demands and consequently banned the petition deliveries on the basis that they were hijacked by unnamed individuals. The banning of petition deliveries caused mayhem from 25-30 June.

The government then unleashed the security forces on the unarmed protesters. It has been reported that at least 71 have died so far, and nurses have also reported to their unions that many more are critically ill and hospitalised, with no provision for their treatment because of the impoverished state of the social protection system. Hundreds of people are in jail, reportedly being tortured. The army is raiding homesteads in the rural areas and in towns indiscriminately assaulting mainly the youth.

A battle for the future of eSwatini

The country is in a very volatile security situation and there is a curfew from 6pm to 5am. Workers on night shifts are being assaulted despite them proving sufficiently to the army that they were destined to or from work. Many other workers have been laid off because of the security situation and, again, the social protection system is unable to help.

The battle for the future of eSwatini currently underway is going to be won on the ground and it will be bloody on the ground. The Swazis want to intensify their protests and call for democracy. So our solidarity needs to intensify too. The struggle needs to be kept alive so media and propaganda is critical.

But solidarity needs to move decisively beyond statements. We need to put pressure on key actors (states, multilateral institutions and corporations) to isolate King Mswati III along with his cronies and their unregulated capitalism, and expose them. Companies that have colluded with the king’s economic paradigm need to be isolated too.

Practical solidarity can save lives.

We will start off on the eve of the anniversary of the establishment of the Tinkhundla system, with a global day of action on Friday 6 August 2021. Unions around the world will be asked to approach their eSwatini embassy, high commission or consulate to register our support for five key demands being made by the people of eSwatini:
• An end to the ongoing intimidation, threats of arrest, raids, and brutal beatings of pro-democracy campaigners by all agents of the government.
• The release of all protestors detained by the army and the police.
• An independent, UN-supervised investigation into the violence, murders and detentions.
• The unbanning of political parties as a first step to a negotiated, political settlement.
• A signed formal commitment by the government to a negotiated political reform process with eSwatini trade unions, civil society and political parties.

In their collective solidarity action, trade unions globally while raising the issues above, also strongly condemn the appalling repression being meted out by the eSwatini police, military and security forces. They will voice this censure with their own respective governments to encourage them to also speak against the ills of eSwatini government. In Commonwealth countries, we will also be raising the call for eSwatini to be suspended for its persistent and egregious breaches of the Commonwealth Charter.

In Southern Africa, we will be putting pressure not only on eSwatini representatives and our own governments, but the Southern Africa Development Council (SADC) and, more widely, the African Union. This is an opportunity for the regional trade union movement of SATUCC, as well as the global, Commonwealth and African trade union movements to show what we can do.

We’re calling out the last feudal dictatorship in Africa. It’s #TimeUp4Tinkhundla!