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Security tight on Eswatini protest anniversary

June 29, 2022

Wednesday marks one year since a violent clampdown on pro-democracy activists that left dozens of people dead, many injured and several arrested in the tiny southern African country of Eswatini.

A barricade in the road that is on fire in Mbabane, Eswatini, on June 29, 2021
Protests escalated radically in Eswatini on June 29, 2021 as people demanded immediate political reformsImage: AFP/Getty Images

Police and troops were deployed across Eswatini's major cities for Wednesday's anniversary of bloody pro-democracy protests.

Security forces patrolled the capital, Mbabane, and the city of Manzini, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. Helicopters were also reported flying constantly overhead.

Eswatini — formerly known as Swaziland — is one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world. According to the constitution, King Mswati III is not bound to any law. And he takes great advantage of it. 

Anger against the king had been building for years in the country. 

What did the protesters demand?

Activists accused the king of running a repressive government and evading calls for reforms.

The king had 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.

Demonstrations first erupted in May following the death of a 25-year-old law student, reportedly at the hands of police.

The UN human rights office pointed to reports of "disproportionate and unnecessary use of force, harassment and intimidation" by security forces sent in to quell escalating protests.

Protests against Eswatini's monarchy system broke out on June 29, 2021, led by young people, particularly high school and university students, in response to the country's lack of development and opportunities.

Security forces hit back violently, firing gunshots and tear gas to disperse the protesters, witnesses said.

Violent clampdown

Eight people died in clashes with the security forces, initiating protests over the following months that have since become sporadic.

According to the authorities, a total of 37 people died in the prolonged protests, while Human Rights Watch puts the toll at 46. However, a statement issued by the Eswatini Solidarity Fund, puts the death toll closer to 80, with around 300 injured and almost a thousand arrested.  

Activists said no one was arrested for the deaths and no compensation was given to the injured or families of the victims.

Although the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent a delegation to investigate and find a solution, pro-democracy groups accuse the regional body of holding selective meetings with representatives of the monarchy system and organizations close to it.

Eswatini's King Mswati III sits with hands clasped
King Mswati III has ruled Eswatini for more than three decadesImage: Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

"SADC is the most useless organization in the history of humanity. They have failed the people of Swaziland. African leaders, it is time that they intervene," said Lucky Lukhele, Coordinator of the Swaziland Solidarity Network.

Activists claim that, since the June 2021 clampdown, which spilled over into July, the government has continued issuing threats of harm to quell any planned protests.

Thabo Masuku, a member of the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice in Eswatini, said the government had refused to allow marches to commemorate the clampdown.

"Since the start of the month of June, the military and the police have been on the ground in plain clothes to clamp down on activists," Masuku said.

"We have seen a number of arrests to try and scare people against continuing with the planned activities for the commemoration," he added. 

Eswatini's youth has had enough of its king

'Winter revolution'

Other pro-democracy groups also complained about efforts to thwart Wednesday's commemoration.

"Currently there is no public transport that can take people to various places. Business is closed down — even the Central Business District (CBD) of Manzini, there is nobody there," Nkanyezi Vilakati, secretary-general of the Swaziland Youth Congress, told DW.

"And there are a number of blocked roads that lead to various towns," Vilakati said, "more specially Mbabane and Manzini."

Citizens of Swaziland have engaged in what they call a "winter revolution" across the country.

King Mswati III disembarks from a plane
King Mswati III has been criticized for the lifestyle enjoyed by himself and his 15 wivesImage: imago images/ITAR-TASS

Recently two police officers were killed by a mob, prompting the government to call protesters insurgents and threaten to deal with them. In the previous week, a group calling itself, Swaziland International Solidarity Forces attacked Inyatsi Construction, an international firm linked to King Mswati III.

Pro-democracy groups are demanding justice for the victims.

They also want King Mswati III to hand over power to the people to pave the way for democratic elections.

Cristina Krippahl contributed to this report.

Edited by: Keith Walker