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Against Absolutes: The Endurance of Eswatini’s Anti-Monarchy Movement

Image depicts Eswatini's Parliament building
Image depicts Eswatini's Parliament building

The king must go. This is the sentiment sprayed onto shop walls, shared on WhatsApp statuses, and chanted across the Kingdom of Eswatini. Eswatini was known internationally as Swaziland until 2018, when King Mswati III changed its name. He is Africa’s last absolute monarch and has ruled with an increasingly despotic hand for over thirty years. The past few months, however, have seen the greatest threat to Mswati’s power in the history of his rule. In an unprecedented move earlier this year, pro-democracy members of Parliament called for democratic negotiations. When local government petitions demanded the same, Mswati strangled the petition process — one of the few but inadequate means Emaswati had for input into government. This, combined with a high-profile police attempt at covering up the suspicious death of a law student, precipitated weeks of mass protests in late June and early July 2021. Thousands protested, looted shops, and burned buildings. The Swazi police and army brutally cracked down, killing, injuring, and detaining dozens of protesters and bystanders. In the weeks since then, it appeared that Eswatini had returned to its troubled but fairly tranquil regular state of affairs. Mswati refused to concede to a single demand, and to some, it appeared that his hold on power was as strong as ever. 

However, the protests earlier this year were not merely an extraordinary moment in a deeply repressive monarchy that can indefinitely maintain its power. They emerged from a long history of anti-monarchy organizing that is continuing to build momentum. The past few weeks have seen massive protest action pick up again. At immense personal risk, many Emaswati — through unions, women’s movements, and, most notably in recent weeks, student organizing — continue to call for democratic negotiations and the release of political prisoners. Through the endurance of this movement’s resilient range of actors, it is shaking the foundations of not only the monarchy but the whole of Swazi society. 

The extensive impact of the movement is rooted in protestors’ opposition to not just the king but also the socioeconomic inequities shaping Swazi society. These are immense: high poverty and food insecurity rates, an unemployment rate of 41 percent, and the world’s highest prevalence of HIV. Many ordinary Swazi lives are in the starkest contrast to their king. On top of huge personal wealth, King Mswati has unconditional control of a trust of $10 billion — a value equivalent to well over twice the size of his nation’s annual GDP. He uses this money to finance private jets, palaces, and a fleet of hundreds of luxury cars for his fourteen wives. However, inequality pervades Eswatini well beyond the royal family: It is one of the world’s most unequal countries. Wealth inequality is undeniably tied to these protests. The movement has been led and sustained by working-class Emaswati often associated with unions who have remained antagonistic in the face of injury and death. A recent transport workers union strike called for both democratic reform and more equitable conditions, and unions were prominent among the estimated ten thousand people who recently delivered a petition to the US embassy. In part through union and working class action, as the movement continues to challenge the monarchy’s wealth, it will have to face the concerns of those who are marginalized by this intense inequality. 

The ability to organize online has been central to broadening and sustaining the impacts of this movement across Swazi society. Since the 1980s, acute violence has pushed organizations like the banned People’s United Democratic Movement underground. Any criticism of the monarchy is illegal, and journalists who attempt to fault the monarchy face imprisonment, torture, and death. However, in recent years, criticism of the royal establishment has become tentatively bolder, partly because the Swazi state struggles to entirely control the spread of information online. Concurrently, protest action in the past few years has gained increasing traction, and recent polls show rising support for multiparty democracy. These dramatic shifts in public opinion are a profound departure from decades of implicit approval of monarchy as a symbol of Swazi identity and unity. In a desperate attempt to curtail pro-democracy organizing, at the height of this year’s protests, the state cut the internet. Forced to allow for connectivity again, with continued organizing online by everyone from journalists in exile to high school students with smartphones, the Swazi state is facing a persistent movement.

Along with the internet shutdown, intense police and army brutality in response to protests has brought a wide range of Emaswati together in condemnation of the regime. The popular support and impact of the movement on Swazi society has been broadened. In excessive retaliation to looting symbols of the king and protests earlier this year blocking highways, the army directed tear gas and live ammunition into crowds. The state says 27 people were killed; human rights agencies say it’s closer to 100. Around 600 people were detained under largely contrived charges, including the members of parliament who called for democratic negotiations. Three months later, they remain in prison. However, rather than entirely smothering protest, state displays of brutality have heightened calls for alternatives to monarchy. For instance, the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly strongly called for an immediate end to the Swazi state’s brutality and a new feminist democratic order against Eswatini’s deeply patriarchal status quo. The force of student organizing is also illustrative of the ways that the movement has strengthened in response to state violence. Initially, University of Eswatini students, angered by the death of a final year law student, ignited the protests. In recent weeks, the most active protests have been at many schools, led by students boycotting and disrupting classes to condemn the monarchy’s violence and call for the release of political prisoners. By mid-October the army was deployed, arresting dozens of students, one as young as seven. The state has indefinitely shut down all schools, but students continue to protest. The students, women, unions, and other actors carrying this movement continue to face immense risk, yet calls for democratic negotiations have only become more intense as the state becomes more violent.  This year the demands of Eswatini’s most marginalized groups have united to call for an end to despotic rule by a monarch who has disregarded their dignity. Though King Mswati appears to be just as powerful, he has been unable to crush this year’s protests as he has done in the past. With unstoppable popular support and wider calls to transform Swazi society, the movement continues. If the voices of these most subjugated Emaswati are listened to, the changes that the country will see will likely be more all-encompassing than a just change in political organization. For Swazi society to encompass the demands of working-class unionists, the nation will have to address its inequality. To do justice to women’s associations in the movement, Eswatini will have to confront its patriarchal hierarchy. To listen to students means dismantling state violence, unfree speech, and substandard educational systems. Not only is Eswatini’s pro-democracy movement far from over, its impacts may be far wider than expected.

Image via Bernard Gagnon