King Mswati III in do or die
Maseru – The protests in eSwatini could be major turning point for Africa’s last absolute monarchy, with King Mswati III facing the choice of digging in or loosening the royal household’s grip on political and economic affairs.
What started as student protests over alleged police brutality three weeks ago appear to have been latched onto by the king’s opponents, and there are indications that “moderate” legislators and sections of the military – deployed to contain protestors – are sympathetic to the cause, potentially upping pressure for the monarch to institute reforms.
Early this week, there were reports that King Mswati (53) had fled the country for either South Africa or Zimbabwe, but the government quickly moved to dispel rumours that the man who has ruled eSwatini for more than 30 years had abdicated.
On Tuesday, there were reports that “moderate” legislators and sections of the military – deployed to contain protestors – were sympathetic with the cause, potentially upping pressure for the monarch to institute reforms.
The government called for calm as protestors burnt and looted property despite a curfew, and analysts who spoke to The Southern Times suggested it could be best for King Mswati to quickly move towards a modern constitutional democracy, such as the one in fellow SADC member Lesotho.
King Mswati has the power to appoint a prime minister, ministers, judges and senior civil servants.
In Lesotho, King Letsie III is the Head of State but is not the Head of Government and is not directly involved in political activities. A prime minister heads Lesotho’s government and has executive powers.
In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch shares power with an elected government. The monarch is de facto head of state or a purely ceremonial leader.
A liSwati academic at a South African university, who spoke to The Southern Times on condition of anonymity, said eSwatini’s best foot forward was a constitutional monarchy.
“The protests in eSwatini are symptomatic of a system that is nearing collapse,” he said. “It is clear that things are falling apart and the centre can no longer hold. It’s imperative now more than ever, for eSwatini to transition into a constitutional monarchy like Lesotho.
“Of course, Lesotho has its own problems, but power (in that country) does not reside in one person. There is an executive which is accountable to the people. It is dangerous for one person to wield all the power.”
In eSwatini, protests are rare and political parties were banned in 1973, and analysts posit that the time has come for the royal house to ease its grip.
“It’s 2021 and we cannot continue perpetuating practices that are counter-productive like an absolute monarchy. The whole world is preaching democracy and eSwatini cannot be left behind.
“The king has too much power and he lives a lavish life … That cannot continue happening in this modern day. While King Mswati III is touted as an emblem of preservation of cultural heritage, he can also be viewed by some as a symbol of oppression, for women in particular. His practice of marrying a new wife every year cannot continue in a progressive world,” the SA-based analyst said.
Another academic, based in Lesotho, said the role of monarchs in modern polities had long diminished. Instead of having absolute power over their subjects, she said monarchies should now be more of “symbols of unity and hope”.
“I worry most about the welfare of the people. The eSwatini King has a private jet when his subjects cannot afford even the basics. He marries a new wife whenever he wants and that perpetuates the belief that women are commodities.
“While the king must be taken care of by the state coffers, ideally, his welfare must not be a burden on the country when there are other competing expenses like healthcare, which the ordinary man cannot afford. That must change,” she said.
Student Protest Roots
From the time he ascended to the throne 1986 when he had just turned 18, the young monarch did not move to decentralise powers that his father, King Sobhuza II, had vested in the monarchy.
With political parties banned and the king responsible for selecting the government, citizens do not elect legislators.
However, the protests in eSwatini were not directly triggered by these issues, which are now dominating their demands.
The unrest started three weeks ago when a group of about 500 youths took to the streets in Manzini to protest police brutality after the death of Law student Thabani Nkomonye in early June.
Mr Colani Khulekani Maseko, the president of the Swaziland National Students’ Union, alleged Nkomonye (25) was killed by police, who he claimed tried to conceal the death and tamper with evidence.
An SA-based opponent of the king, Mr Lucky Lukhele, added: “The protests were sparked by a few MPs who are moderate. They called for an elected prime minister and the youth picked up the baton stick and started marching. The government would often say ‘you are allowed to go to the constituency offices’. So, they decided to use the constituency offices to register their displeasure. Some of those constituency offices, are in deep rural areas.”
From there things snowballed, and Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku two weeks ago announced a decree from the king banning all marches. That served to pour fuel on the flames and there have been reports of clashes between protestors and law enforcement officials.
Indications are Internet access has been seriously curtailed, a restriction that came with the announcement of curfew this week.
Acting PM Masuku said, “Government has been following these protests & we want to assure the Nation that these concerns have reached our ears & we are addressing them. We will be working with Parliament and all concerned stakeholders to action them accordingly.”