CIVICUS

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Eswatini

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Last updated on 02.07.2021 at 16:17

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Pro-democracy protest action and internet shutdown in Eswatini

Pro-democracy protest action and internet shutdown in Eswatini

The Kingdom of Eswatini is one of the most unique and controversial states in the SADC Region. The nation’s Constitution gives the king absolute powers, and the monarchy has been in power since 1986. Although the nation holds elections every five years, the exercise of absolute powers by the monarchy has seen recent human rights protests by Eswatini citizens for the government to reform the Constitution. The protest actions began on the 20th of June 2021 in the Manzini region when the nation’s youth took to the streets, demanding the right to democratically elect a prime minister. The pro-democracy protesters defied an overnight curfew to call for constitutional reforms as tensions increased in Africa’s last absolute monarchy. These protests have led to internet shutdowns and the injuring and alleged killing of protestors. Protestors and human rights activists have accused the king of running a repressive government and evading calls for reforms in Eswatini. The king has also been accused of using public coffers to fund a lavish lifestyle off the backs of 1.5 million citizens, most of them subsistence farmers. As a result, the protestors are calling for a democratic government that will serve the people's interests.

Sunday Times/Simphiwe Nkwali via Gallo Images

General Update

The Kingdom of Eswatini is one of the most unique and controversial states in the SADC Region. The nation’s Constitution gives the king absolute powers, and the monarchy has been in power since 1986. Although the nation holds elections every five years, the exercise of absolute powers by the monarchy has seen recent human rights protests by Eswatini citizens for the government to reform the Constitution. The protest actions began on the 20th of June 2021 in the Manzini region when the nation’s youth took to the streets, demanding the right to democratically elect a prime minister. The pro-democracy protesters defied an overnight curfew to call for constitutional reforms as tensions increased in Africa’s last absolute monarchy. These protests have led to internet shutdowns and the injuring and alleged killing of protestors. Protestors and human rights activists have accused the king of running a repressive government and evading calls for reforms in Eswatini. The king has also been accused of using public coffers to fund a lavish lifestyle off the backs of 1.5 million citizens, most of them subsistence farmers. As a result, the protestors are calling for a democratic government that will serve the people's interests.

Peaceful Assembly

Pro-democracy protest action erupts in Manzini and Mbabane

Following the peaceful protest actions on 20thJune 2021, later that week the acting Prime Minister Themba N. Masuku issued an order suspending the delivery of memorandums, which hampers citizens’ freedoms of association and expression around development concerns. Following the circulation of a video from King Mswati’s children mocking the people who were demanding democracy in eSwatini, this became a spark to a fire which had already been set and led to a further series of protests.

“I was kicked all over the body, held by my genitals and bundled into a police van to Siphofaneni police station” - Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, the deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of Swaziland

On 28th June the protesters gathered in the streets of Manzini and Mbabane, carrying pamphlets as well as blocking major roads and burning tyres, while they sang and petitioned for constitutional reforms. The policemen intervened in the protests, firing gunshots and using tear gas on the protesters, leading to severe injuries and fatalities. The peaceful protests led to serious violence when there was an interaction between the protesters and the security forces. Security forces also set up roadblocks to prevent some vehicles from accessing the capital, Mbabane. In the country's townships and rural areas, security forces have reportedly been going from house to house, dragging young people out of their homes and beating them. There was an allegation that King Mswati could not withstand the pressure caused by the uprisings, to the extent of fleeing from the country into South Africa, but the Eswatini government denied these allegations. The Eswatini opposition party explicitly highlighted that at least 21 people have been killed and 250 injuries by the police officials. There has also been a video in circulation showing the military forceing citizens out of their homes and assaulting them after accusing them of being the masterminds behind the protest actions.

“We slept with the sound of gunshots and woke still to gunshots fired…The looting and destruction of property became intense” said Mbongwa Dlamini, head of the Swaziland Teachers’ Association told AFP News Agency

Protestors arrested for protesting

The protest action that unfolded in Siphofaneni in the Lubombo region resulted in protestors and human rights activists being arrested. As a result of this protest action, it is alleged that over 47 protesters were detained by the security officers. The arrests mainly targeted human rights activists and political opposition leaders. Zanele Maseko whom is a vice-secretary of the Women’s League of the People’s United Democratic Movement was one of the political opposition leaders who was arrested during the protest action. The main purpose of the protest was to call for democratic reforms in Eswatini, this includes the demand for citizens to elect a prime minister. The current regime permits King Mswati together with cabinet members to be the only one who are eligible to elect the prime minister.

Activists and CSOs condemn human rights abuses

The government proceeded to introduce a curfew from 6pm to 5am in order to halt the protests, citing rising corona virus cases. Lucky Luckele, a spokesperson for the Swaziland Pro-Democracy Solidarity Network indicated that he witnessed 28 human rights activists being shot dead by police since they proceeded with the protests despite the curfew. A brewery partially owned by King Mswati III and other properties in Mbabane and Manzini were also torched during the series of protest actions.

“I can hear gunshots and smell teargas. I do not know how I will get home, there is nothing in the bus rank, there is a strong presence of riot police and the army” Vusi Madalane, a shop assistant in Mbabane told Reuters Agency

On the 1st of July, the South African government highlighted that it was concerned about the developments in Eswatini and urged the Eswatini security forces to exercise restraint to protect the lives of people as well as property. The Economic Freedom Fighters, one of South Africa’s opposition parties, conducted a solidarity protest by shutting down the South Africa-Eswatini border for the government of Eswatini to promote and protect its citizens’ human rights at the Mananga border post. Furthermore, the African Union has released a statement calling for "immediate steps to protect lives of citizens and their property" in Eswatini.

Expression

Internet shutdown hampers information circulation

Several activists and residents in Mbabane reported that the internet was shut down from about 4:30 p.m. local time on June 29th until around 9 a.m. on June 30th. The reasons for the internet shutdown are not certain, however, activists allege that it is an effort to stop the spread of information about the protest. On 30th June 2021, media groups African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), Panos Institute Southern Africa, and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) sent a joint petition to acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku to ensure that the internet, social media platforms and all other communication channels are open, secure and accessible regardless of the protests currently taking place in Eswatini.

"The government of Eswatini has ordered network providers Eswatini Post and Telecommunications, Eswatini MTN and Eswatini Mobile to turn off internet connectivity as protests continue in the country." Lucky Luckele, Spokesperson for the Swaziland Solidarity Network said on Twitter

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.