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The roots of protests in Eswatini



Eswatini recently experienced popular protests in large part because of political power structures and corresponding public wealth distribution arrangements that were established during colonial rule, and after the country’s independence, in September 1968. Under British colonial rule, Eswatini was part of a threesome (known as BLS) of Southern African High Commission Territories, with Botswana and Lesotho. Although the British started arrangements for granting independence to the three territories at around the same time, Eswatini received its independence two years after the other two, which received their independence within the same week — Botswana on 30 September, 1966, and Lesotho four days later, on 4 October, 1966. An important part of the explanation for the delay in Eswatini’s gaining of independence was that there was no agreement between the British government on the one hand and Paramount Chief (as he was styled under colonial rule) Sobhuza II on the other regarding a political system by which Eswatini would be ruled after independence. Put simply, the British wanted independent Swaziland to be a constitutional monarchy, while Sobhuza II wanted independent Swaziland to be an executive monarchy. It was the king’s digging of his hills to achieve this that delayed Swaziland’s independence by two years. In the end, Sobhuza II largely succeeded, aided by two factors, in particular. Firstly, the fact that he had managed during colonial rule to assimilate traditional power structures and Swazi culture into the system of government. Secondly, Sobhuza II had remained popular during colonial rule and headed a deeply conservative chieftainship and society — partly, a result of the fact that colonial rule in Swaziland had been brief (60 years, compared to Lesotho’s over 90 years, when negotiations for independence began), and the Paramount Chief and the chiefs had been little bastardised by colonial influences. In his demands for a post-colonial dispensation that rested power in his hands, Sobhuza II appears to have been driven by a seemingly sincerely-held totalitarian and paternalistic vision in which everything had to be done according to Swazi culture, which put all power – ritual, political, spiritual and economic — into his hands. Britain’s opposition to Sobhuza II and the colonial master’s attempts to institute a constitutional monarchy for Swaziland enjoyed support of the territory’s small middle class politicians and small working class. The groundwork that Sobhuza II had laid during colonial rule was too strong, however, for the British to shut Sobhuza II out of power completely. Accordingly, the country’s independence constitution was a compromise that allowed for multi-party democracy, while at the same time reserving executive powers for the king in a number of areas. Matters did not end there: Sobhuza II also countered, and undermined, multi-party democracy by establishing his own political party. A political theoretical examination of documents that explain the political system King Sobhuza II wanted would reveal a much more dangerously authoritarian rule than was established, in fact. In 1973, King Sobhuza II removed multi-party constitutional arrangements by suspending the Constitution, and issued a decree which gave him all power in Eswatini society. This is the dispensation that King Mswati III inherited when he ascended the throne in 1986 following his father’s death in 1982. Since coming to power, King Mswati has instituted changes in the country’s constitutional arrangements but these have been largely cosmetic and intended to make absolute monarchical rule less unappealing to the eye and ear — with phrases such as ‘monarchical democracy’ — and otherwise intended to entrench the king’s power even further. Wealth distribution is heavily skewed in favour of a very few among the traditional and modern elites. In September, 2019, BusinessTec put Eswatini at the top of a list of countries considered the most unequal in the world; this portrayed Eswatini as being more unequal, even, than South Africa which often occupies top spot by some reckonings. Some measurements estimate poverty in the rural areas at 70 percent, and extreme poverty at 25 percent, only 5 percent less than Lesotho’s extreme poverty, at 30 percent. Based on the two countries’ GDPs, Eswatini’s economy is almost twice (1.88 times) larger than Lesotho’s. Accordingly, extreme poverty in Eswatini ought to be 15 percent. Indeed, all forms and levels of poverty ought not to exist at all. Politically, with the exception of a very few among the ruling group, all social groups chafe under a most pervasive oppression. Challenges to the oppression have occurred, led by various organisations, and supported, mainly, by the working class since 1986. The state has reacted to all of them with unrestrained brutality intended not only to punish specific individuals and organisations deemed responsible but also to secure the seemingly near-total acquiescence in much of society. According to sources, the origins of the current protests lie in the kingdom’s financial crisis which has meant, for example, that the government is unable to pay public sector wages. Politically, the unrest is a result of the oppression described above. It is not spontaneous but has been building-up over the years. Where the current unrest will lead to is unclear. Popular demands in current protests range and have oscillated between the establishment of a constitutional monarchy at their most moderate and the stepping down of the king at their most radical. As always, it is possible that for some the payment of wages would be considered adequate and enough response by the king; with that done such groups would be happy to have things continue as they have been before the uprising. Possibilities for divisions exist within groups that want moderate change. The king’s hold on power is so all-encompassing and pervasive that he has at his disposal choice of many meaningless concessions that he can make and which some among moderates might consider enough basis to call-off the protests. For those seeking more radical change the king’s abdication is unlikely and groups who seek change along those lines might differ in methods of achieving the goal and in the length of time they are prepared to hold-out for such reform. The longer this demand goes unfulfilled, the more likely divisions may appear in this group. As a 19th century revolutionary put it many years ago, chances for change happening in societies such as Eswatini increase tremendously when some among the ruling group (i.e. beneficiaries of existing socio-economic system) themselves begin to question such a system. That is to say, when such members of the ruling group realise that the nature and extent of reigning political oppression and economic exploitation need to change in order for their own privilege to continue. It is a difficult proposition with serious implications and one which cannot be avoided when its time has come. We have to hope that the people of Eswatini achieve changes and a future which they want. All must call for army and police brutality must stop. Our condolences, thoughts and prayers go to the wives, husbands, children, friends and relatives of those killed in the protests. Motlatsi Thabane

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