The youth of eSwatini demand change – and they want it now

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King Mswati III of eSwatini, Africa’s last absolute monarch, is facing growing demands for democracy and rule of law. EPA-EFE:Yeshiel Panchia
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A political crisis has engulfed eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). The trigger for protests against the authoritarian monarchy of Mswati III was the mysterious death of a university student, Thabani Nkomonye, at the alleged hands of the police. This led to a spontaneous uprising that was met with extreme brutality by the security forces. It is believed that over 50 people have died and over 100 have been injured so far. Many of those in the country are too scared to speak out for fear of the consequences.

It is important to realize that these issues are new, however.

Although popular discontent has been stoked by the economic challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, these are old grievances. eSwatini is Africa’s last absolute monarchy and has consistently failed to deliver either democracy or development. Over 60% of its people live in dire poverty driven, in part, by rampant corruption among the royal family.

The youth in particular are demanding reform, knowing that their future depends on a new political system. When the protests started, young Swazis began to reorganize themselves, demanding democratic reforms. The government’s decision to ban political gatherings only further antagonized groups such as the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) – which, according to Secretary General, Bafanabakhe Sacolo, “will fight in every way possible to intensify the struggle”.

Meanwhile, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) has criticized the gross violation of human right, with President Sonke Dube warning that “The massacre makes it difficult for young people to stop now and … the current situation … might escalate into chaos”.

The situation will likely come to a head around the 16 July, when opposition groups have called for national protests, while the King has called a Sibaya – national meeting. Previous episodes demonstrate that the Sibaya is little more than a talking shop designed to distract attention from the real issues. Consequently there is real prospect that there will be demonstrations of mass defiance outside – and potentially even inside – the venue.

Unless meaningful change occurs soon, further blood will be split on Swazi streets.

Mlamuli Gumedze is a youth activist and was formerly the President of the Swaziland National Union of Students.

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