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

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.