Attacks and targeting of pro-democracy activists continue
August 2022 – June 2023
In January 2023, Heads of States of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held an extraordinary Summit in Windhoek, Namibia, to discuss the political and security situation in the region.
King Mswati III was not in attendance, and instead sent the Kingdom's Prime Minister, Cleopas Sipho Dlamini, who delivered a report on the security situation. The extraordinary meeting was held a week after the assassination of Swazi human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko.
The escalating political tensions in Eswatini were one of the priorities on the agenda. In the final communiqué, the Summit urged the government of the Kingdom of Eswatini to urgently initiate the process of the National Dialogue, and condemned the killings and damage to property, including the killing of leading human rights lawyer and political activist Thulani Rudolf Maseko.
Since the protests that erupted in June 2021, King Mswati promised to engage in dialogue to end the political crisis in the Kingdom. However, no progress has been made, with the King also showing reluctance to having Eswatini discussed on the SADC agenda during Summits.
Comrade Thulani Maseko was killed for being a human rights activist. pic.twitter.com/YLboFBvOVD— eSwatini Solidarity (@eSwatiniSolida1) January 24, 2023
Prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko assassinated
On the evening of 21st January 2023, a gunman fired shots through the window of prominent human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, while he was sitting at home with his wife and minor children. Maseko, who died on the scene, was assassinated a few hours after King Mswati III issued ‘stern warnings’ to those calling for democratic reforms in the country, and issued threats that his hired mercenaries would deal with them.
At the time of his death, Maseko was a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, and chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a convergence of various stakeholders calling for constitutional reforms in Eswatini.
Shortly after his assassination, the government of Eswatini issued a statement warning “against speculations and insinuations peddled particularly on social media platforms in instances like these..”
SADC issued a statement and called for the government of Eswatini “to ensure that the killing of Mr. Maseko is swiftly, transparently and comprehensively investigated”. The international community also widely condemned the killing of Maseko, and called for impartial investigations into his murder and reiterated the need for a peaceful resolution to the political and security challenges facing the country. His killers remain at large at the time of writing this update.
King Mswati warns pro-democracy activists
In January 2023, King Mswati warned pro-democracy activists in the country “not to shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them”. This was not the first time King Mswati had issued a stern warning against dissenting voices in the country.
Hours after the King’s warning, Thulani Maseko, a prominent human rights lawyer, was assassinated at his home in front of his wife and children.
Human rights lawyer survives attempted assassination
In early December 2022, defence attorney Maxwell Nkambule survived an assassination attempt. Nkambule is the attorney representing the pro-democracy activists charged with murdering State police officers and setting fire to buildings. Maxwell Nkambule was travelling along the Big Bend–Siteki route when a passenger in a white Corolla that was following him suddenly opened fire on his car. Nkambule was forced into exile and is unable to represent any of the detained activists.
Detained MPs convicted
On 1st June 2023, Eswatini Members of Parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who have been behind bars or more than two years, were found guilty of terrorism, sedition and murder. As previously documented, the two MPs were arrested in July 2021 for calling for pro-democracy political reforms. Since their arrest, and prior to the start of their trial, the MPs were denied bail on numerous occasions.
In late August 2022, Sicelo Mngomezulu, a South African lawyer representing the two MPs, was barred from entering Eswatini after he called on Swazi maidens to boycott the annual traditional Reed Dance. Mngomezulu however denied calling for the boycott and attributed his entry restrictions to his work representing the pro-democracy MPs.
Eswatini continues its crackdown on dissent. MPs Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza & Mthandeni Dube have been found guilty of contravening section 5(1) of the suppression of Terrorism Act 2008 amongst other charges. pic.twitter.com/Td2BI1sJl2— AmnestySouthernAfrica (@AmnestySARO) June 1, 2023
In late September 2022 and shortly after barring Mngomezulu from entering the country, reports also emerged that the two MPs had been violently attacked, allegedly by members of prison security forces.
Supreme Court orders review of decision to deny registration of LGBTQI+ CSO
The Supreme Court in June 2023 nullified the High Court’s April 2022 judgment which had affirmed a decision by the registrar of companies to decline registration of the Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM) as a legal entity for promoting ‘unlawful’ objectives. In the appeal brought by ESGM, the Supreme court found that the registrar’s decision to decline registration was tainted by the fact that in arriving at his decision the registrar had referred the matter to the Attorney General and the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, contrary to the law. The court referred the matter to the Minister of Industry and Commerce for fresh consideration of ESGM’s application within sixty days of the judgment.
Protests held against King Mswati’s mercenaries
In early February 2023, the United Eswatini Diaspora (UED), political parties in Eswatini and other foreign allies marched to the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) to demand the arrest of alleged South African mercenaries who are said to be working with King Mswati in targeting HRDs and pro-democracy activists in Eswatini.
In a memorandum that was handed down to DIRCO, the protesters argued that “It has come to our attention that there are South African citizens who may be providing mercenary or military services to the King of Eswatini and his government. Unfortunately, as expected of all mercenary activities, innocent people are being killed in Eswatini. We hereby bring to the attention of the SA government the Mercenaries Act 27 of 2006. This act prohibits mercenary activities by South African citizens.”
In connection to this, Arno Pienaar, the founder of Bastion Security who was working for the South African apartheid military, had allegedly confirmed to the British newspaper The Times having signed a security contract with the Swazi regime, but he denies being the source of any abuses.
Union denied permit to hold peaceful march
In September 2022, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) was denied permission to hold protests to demand free primary education, and a review of the cash benefits scheme for the elderly and orphaned and vulnerable children.
Earlier in July 2022, TUCOSWA was also denied permission to hold a march in Manzini against Gender Based Violence. In a letter from the Chief Executive Officer of the municipality, the reasons given for denying permission were maintenance of public order under the Public Order Act. The letter said that the Act permitted the national commissioner to prohibit gatherings and marches where he has reasons to believe that the march would endanger public order.
Supreme Court ruling threatens reinstatement of sedition laws
In late September 2022, the Eswatini Supreme Court issued a judgment allowing an appeal by the government against a 2016 High Court decision that found that certain sections of the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act No. 46 of 1938 and the Suppression of Terrorism Act 3 of 2008 infringed the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association guaranteed by the Constitution.
The protracted legal battle began in 2008, after a bomb went off close to King Mswati's palaces in Lozitha on the Mbabane-Manzini highway. Musa John Dlamini, a Swazi, and Jack Govender, a South African, died in the explosion. Their accomplice, Amos Mbedzi, also a South African, was arrested, charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, tried, convicted and sentenced to 85 years in prison. He died in June 2022 after having been transferred to a South African prison where he fell ill.
Activist and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was then charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act after he called them heroes because he believed that “the government had compelled them to use other means of expression”. Later, other activists were charged together with him, and these included Bheki Makhubu, Mlungisi Makhanya, Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini.
Supporting three respondents in the case, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) had emphasised that allowing the appeal to continue and not dismissing it on the basis of civil procedure posed a threat to the rule of law and the defence of human rights. SALC also state it is concerning the Court has shown a “disregard for the rule of law and the rules of procedure to accommodate and facilitate what appears to be a political agenda”.