CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Swaziland

Live rating: Repressed

Last updated on 23.10.2019 at 08:26

Swaziland Overview

Civic space in Swaziland is severely restricted, making it one of the most difficult environments for civil society in southern Africa.

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Authorities rein in sustained pro-democracy and cost of living protests

Authorities rein in sustained pro-democracy and cost of living protests

In the last few months, protest actions have escalated as workers, pro-democracy and human rights activists separately decry low wages for workers, high poverty levels in the country and call for an end to the continent’s last absolute monarchy.

Peaceful Assembly

In the last few months, protest actions have escalated as workers, pro-democracy and human rights activists separately decry low wages for workers, high poverty levels in the country and call for an end to the continent’s last absolute monarchy.

On 3rd May 2019, at least three thousand protesters took to the streets to demand political reforms in the country which is ruled under an absolute monarchy by King Mswati III. Political parties have been banned in the country since 1973, and the government has often stifled dissent and demonstrations. According to Mr Wandile Dludlu, one of the protest organisers, "Swazis... want to elect their own government. The current arrangement is not people-driven. It is appointed by the king to serve the king, not the people."

On 18th May 2019, dozens of protesters marched in Malkerns to protest forced evictions last year which left several families homeless. In April 2018 the families, numbering sixty six people, were rendered homeless after their homes were demolished in a privately owned farming area following an eviction order by the Swazi High Court in 2017. According to reports, property ownership is insecure in eSwatini, and forced evictions are common, as farmers have in the past been evicted to expand the monarchy-controlled sugar industry.

On 26th July 2019, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in KwaZulu-Natal led a protest on the South African side of the Eswatini/South African border, calling for democracy and the political and economic isolation of King Mswati’s absolute government. In their statement the protesters said that, contrary to claims of peace and order in Eswatini, basic services are inadequate and characterised by inequality, media freedom is stifled, citizens face exorbitant taxes, women and children face attacks and assault such as rape, and workers are often on strike for wage increases.

On 25th September 2019, it was reported that violent clashes erupted in Eswatini during demonstrations by civil servants who were protesting against low pay and rising living costs. Around three thousand protesters had gathered in the capital city as police lobbed tear gas and used stun grenades and water cannon to disperse the protesters, who responded by pelting police cars and government buildings with rocks. More than three thousand five hundred protesters had marched in Mbabane and the neighbouring city of Manzini two days before. The protests followed a strike by teachers and workers in four major cities in the previous week. During the week, which saw a series of protests, protesters demanded a 7.8% salary adjustment for civil servants in the country, and accused the king of draining public coffers to fund a lavish lifestyle.

On 3rd October 2019, security agents clashed once again with workers, who took to the streets of Manzini to demand the 7.8% salary adjustment. The protest, attended by at least seven to eight thousand protesters had been peaceful until security agents lobbed teargas after the crowd lit a fire in the middle of a street. They also used water cannon and fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, while sources indicate that live ammunition was also used as one union leader was shot in the back with a live bullet. Different sources placed the number of those injured at between ten and seventeen.

The industrial court issued an interim order declaring the march illegal until the matter is heard in court, upon request by the government.

Association in Swaziland

Although civil society organisations and trade unions can be formed, government infiltration and denial of registration, or deregistration, is common. Repressive sedition and anti-terror laws are used to target dissidents and human rights activists.

Although civil society organisations and trade unions can be formed, government infiltration and denial of registration, or deregistration, is common. Repressive sedition and anti-terror laws are used to target dissidents and human rights activists. The constitutionality of these laws is currently being challenged in court by human rights organisations, but the judiciary’s lack of independence from the government is likely to undermine these efforts. Since 2012 the government has refused to recognise the national trade union federation – TUCOSWA – although it was finally registered on 12 May 2016. Moreover, the prime minister threatened to ‘strangle’ or ‘discipline’ – using the siSwati word ‘Abakhanywe’ – the federation’s secretary general Vincent Ncongwane, a prominent civil society activist. The prime minister made the threat after Ncongwane participated in a Swaziland democracy protest outside the White House in Washington DC. Political parties remain banned. The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the main party operating underground, has been proscribed by government, which views it as a terrorist organisation. Several PUDEMO activists are in jail awaiting trial for a range of offences following recent protests. Government officials often vilify civil society groups, and agents of the state actively undermine efforts to unify the democratic movement in Swaziland.

Peaceful Assembly in Swaziland

Although Swaziland’s constitution provides for this right, people are not freely able to gather in public places. Demonstrations in large urban areas and near the main university campus are rarely allowed to proceed.

Although Swaziland’s constitution provides for this right, people are not freely able to gather in public places. Demonstrations in large urban areas and near the main university campus are rarely allowed to proceed. Tight bureaucratic procedures including prior-approval requirements and close police monitoring keep a lid on many planned protests. In 2014 government refused permission for several protests and marches to take place. Police put protest leaders under house arrest before gatherings commenced and set up cordons on the main access routes to towns, thus preventing the arrival of demonstrators. When protests do occur, police are liberal in their use of batons and tear gas. Torture and arbitrary imprisonment of protestors has been well documented.

Expression in Swaziland

There are no independent daily newspapers in Swaziland. The Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers is privately owned but far from independent as it bows to powerful interests. Nor are there any independent television or radio stations.

There are no independent daily newspapers in Swaziland. The Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers is privately owned but far from independent as it bows to powerful interests. Nor are there any independent television or radio stations. There is an independent monthly publication, The Nation, with limited circulation. A number of online blogs post information critical of the government, however few Swazis have access to these. People are not free to express their opinions and, should they choose to do so, they risk being harassed by the police, evicted from their land or denied privileges such as jobs or scholarships for their children. Criticising the King is a serious offence for which citizens and journalists face stiff penalties. Defamation is also a criminal offence in Swaziland and is a charge regularly used to shield powerful public officials from allegations of corruption or wrongdoing. In a widely publicised case in 2014, the government jailed a journalist and editor for two years for contempt of court following an article highlighting judicial corruption. The pair spent over 15 months in prison before being released. Many other activists are forced to live in exile in South Africa having been threatened with jail or death for expressing their views openly. While it is possible to access independent news sources via the Internet in Swaziland, by 2014 less than a third of people were online.