Pro-democracy protest action and internet shutdown in Eswatini

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.


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