On 12 April 1973 a new baby democracy was stillborn by the banning of political parties and the imposition of the “Tikhundla” system. Promoted as representing “African values” and being suitable to the context in Swaziland (now eSwatini), this flew in the face of the aspirations the people and reversed the gains that had been secured in the struggle for independence from colonial rule. Ever since, brave Swazis have been campaigning for their political and civil rights. The most recent protests were triggered by the death of university student Thabani Nkomonye at the hands of the police, and the emergence of the #justiceforThabani movement in his honor.
As they have done throughout the brutal monarchy of King Mswati III, women have played an integral role in this struggle. As so often, they have also suffered more than most. Consider Siphiwe Nkomonye, who had to search for the body of her son to confirm the worst news a parent can receive, and was then subjected to police brutality – including the use of teargas – during his memorial. Consider the women who have suffered gender-based violence only to be systematically failed by a patriarchal government in which only a man can ever rule. Consider the woman who alleges that she was raped by one of the princes of the royal family, but has never seen him arrested. Consider the wife of an exiled journalist who was threatened with death by another prince who was seeking to silence her husband, an exiled journalist critical of the regime.
Yet despite decades of frustration and repression, and pronounced gender inequality, Swazi women continue to speak out. Siphiwe Nkomonye has not lost hope and is still seeking answers about the circumstances surrounding the death of her son. Her strength is inspiring – and she is just the tip of the iceberg. Women have played a key role in educating their communities about their rights and carrying pro-democracy messages into rural areas. They have also organized marches to highlight police brutality, and to call for those accused of carrying out abuses to be prosecuted.
During the recent crisis, the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly has passionately campaigned for the “removal of the security forces from our communities” a “feminist government” and a “new democratic dispensation”. These demands reflect the fact that for women the issue is not just removing an authoritarian regime, but also removing the patriarchal assumptions on which it rests.
The meaning of freedom to rural women is not simply democracy but also the right to land and equal economic opportunities. A society where the voice of women will not be constantly relegated beneath that of men. A conducive environment for girls to grow up and have aspirations other than serving men. The right to lead their people, in a country where women currently comprise less than 10% of all legislators.
At times the campaign for feminist change has proved to be just as dangerous for women as the frontline protests have been for the country’s men. Sibusiso Hlophe, a member of Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly, was attacked for advocating change by a group of people loyal to a member of parliament who wants to maintain the status quo. Siphiwe Nkomonye had her car shot at by police, who were apparently targeting the driver. Zanele Maseko was brutally assaulted and arrested by police for attending a petition delivery demonstration.
These incidents are shocking, but they will not deter us.
The women of eSwatini understand now that wither make sacrifices to drive change or die a slow painful death due to the unliveable economic and political conditions in the country. It is a long struggle ahead, with more heroines and martyrs yet to emerge. But we will prevail if men and women come together and fight side-by-side.
Zakithi Sibandze is a community developer student at the University of Eswatini, a women’s rights activist advocating for a just society which respect women & girls .