When a recent spate of pro-democracy protests spread across Eswatini, the untruth of the country’s peace and stability gained a global audience.
Eswatini’s contrived reputation as a ‘peaceful and stable’ country has come to define the kingdom. The notion of being peaceful was quickly internalized as intrinsic to being Swati. But what that only serves to perpetrate is to silence people confronting unforgiving realities and trick them into docility. When a recent spate of pro-democracy protests convulsed across the country, the untruth of the country’s peace and stability gained a global audience and pronounced a political re-awakening, driven by the youth against the structural violence of scarcity.
Eswatini’s political putrefaction actually began 48 years ago, in 1973. On the 12th of April 1973, the late King Sobhuza II made a proclamation that repealed the multi-party constitution of 1968 with a rule by decree where ‘all political parties and similar bodies that cultivate and bring about disturbances and ill-feelings within the Nations are hereby dissolved and prohibited.’ The decree further states that any person who even conspires to form a political party would be liable for imprisonment. The late ruler believed the 1968 multi–party constitution disrupted ‘Swazis peaceful, constructive and essentially democratic methods of political activity’. Under the guise of ensuring peace was maintained, specifically this Swazi peace, he bequeathed complete power to the throne. By disallowing the political agency of his people, a wound was marred into the nation’s body politic and somewhat frozen in that time. As years have passed, that wound has been thawing and there has been clear evidence in the years since of pro-democracy movements gaining pace, and its latest manifestation were the June 2021 protests.
But before these particular protests escalated, there was already mass protest action against police brutality in Eswatini, following the mysterious death of 25–year–old law student, Thabani Nkomonye. Nkomonye is believed to have died at the hands of police, after illogical explanations the police peddled to the family and nation. The student-led #JusticeForThabani protests quickly morphed, encompassing more than demanding accountability for a young life lost under what seems like police brutality but became a demand for all the injustices that plague the country and accountability from a government, which has systemically failed its people. With the support of three members of parliament (Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube are currently in jail under terrorism charges, while Gawuzela Simelane is in hiding), the protest burgeoned as the three MPs proposed a constitutional democracy, in which the election of the prime minister lies with the people instead of being elected by the King, as is the current method. Well within their right to freedom of association enshrined in the 2005 Constitution and galvanized by the MPs’ boldness, citizens across Eswatini started petitioning government through their constituencies, known as Tinkhundla, the supposed democratic and participatory wing of governance. Instead of creating an environment that fosters dialogue between the government and demonstrators, the government proceeded to ban protests citing COVID-19 regulation violations and potential ‘anarchy’ as their reasons. This was a critical moment for the government to respond in a manner that avoided violence and the loss of life. Instead, the government chose to wield the force of the military and the police to regulate protestors, to ‘maintain peace’. The notion of states deploying violent strategies to keep the peace has always been a political misnomer, because how does violence birth peace? But Eswatini prides itself on its peace-hood, and this peace-hood has even come to describe Swati identity. Yet, the ferocious response the government chose, ultimately, spurred the protests and looting that began on Monday, 28th of June, which is the anti-thesis of the peace they allegedly advocate for.
THE BURNIN’ & LOOTIN’
While Eswatini (known as Swaziland at the time) was undergoing its ruinous political restructuring in 1973, Bob Marley & the Wailers released their politically charged sixth studio album, Burnin’. The album features a song titled ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’’, a song that describes components of protest action. Inspired by the raid of his mentor’s house, the song encapsulates the sentiments of protesters across time and space and symbolizes the frustration of people at a social landscape riddled with injustices and the deafening inertia to address those injustices. As the protests and looting raged across Eswatini that week of June 28th, the scenes echoed Marley’s opening verse:
‘This morning I woke up in a curfew / O God, I was a prisoner too / Could not recognize the faces standing over me / They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality’
The ‘uniforms of brutality’ in Eswatini acted under the instruction of the government and by the end of the first day of clashes, the police had shot 28 protesters and the number of casualties continued to rise throughout the week, reaching 45 people by the 6th of July. Amidst a country in disarray and adding to the profuse frustration of citizens, the government shut down the internet on the 29th of June. To deaden the communication facilities during such civil unrest reeks of a government with something to hide from the world. This tactic enables the concealment of possible human rights violations and prevents digital mobilization within the country—given that digital mobilization is a powerful protest tool as witnessed with other movements on the continent including #FeesMustFall in South Africa and most recently, #EndSARS in Nigeria. The unnerving consequence of an internet shut down is that the government controls the narrative. The moment they can slant the reality in their favour with no counter narrative, they articulate themselves as upstanding and the protestors as a problem that needs controlling. In this way, their violence exerted on protestors is justified. MTN Group would later confirm that they received a directive from the Eswatini Communications Commission to block access to online platforms, including social media. Sometimes, the uniforms of brutality are not gun toting soldiers, but suits that brandish their force systemically.
In the third verse of Burnin’ and Lootin’, Marley sings:
‘We going to be burning and a-looting tonight (To survive, yeah)…Burning all illusion tonight (Lord-a, Lord-a)’
At first gleam, it sounds like Marley is supporting the destruction of property and businesses, but he was not interested in physical things. The burning of illusion alludes to destroying propaganda in the media, the lies governments spin to circumvent responsibility. The kind of looting he meant is the pillaging of the systemic inequality that renders a whole people disenfranchised and broken. That is why when protesters turn to looting, it is the symbolism of that looting that carries a more powerful message—that your oppression has physical consequences. In a system that values profits over tangible efforts to combat the stark inequality and poverty, one understands how targeting commercial sites elicits a prompt response from government—profits over lives is the institutionalized unspoken edict. But it is simultaneously agonizing because the veracity of looting is that it interrupts the livelihood of people who already have so little, thus spiralling them further into their scarcity. The motivations for looting, remain a response to the grim socioeconomic realities of people and a cavernous discontent at the lack of change.
At first, demonstrators allegedly targeted businesses related to the king and government properties. This was a strategic strike on the monarchy—cremating their filthy lucre sent a clear message. The next few days resulted in long, snaking lines at supermarkets, banks were closed, fuel shortages and general panic abound due to the spread of the looting. The Eswatini government reported ZAR 3 billion ($204 million) in damages post the protests. But how do we begin to measure the institutional looting that occurs at the hands of corrupt government officials or a monarchy that siphons state funds for its luxury lifestyle? It seems looting is chastised when it is people of a certain class doing it, yet corruption is rampant at every level of the Eswatini government and that doesn’t receive the same remedying rage from government. Yet their corrupt looting has far–reaching consequences, as it affects a whole network of structures, has damaging economic implications and it ultimately leads to the death of people via under-developed health care systems, shoddy infrastructures, poor service delivery etc. Corruption affects poor people ‘most grievously’ as Corruption Watch notes because ‘public resources are largely beneficial to poor people.’ Redirecting money meant to provide for citizens for your own belly driven politics strums with a more sinister intention than a people protesting for the right to choose their own prime minister.
When the looting eventually lulled, in the aftermath, it appears that it was a destructive exercise as the government insinuates, but it marks something in the political memory of the country. It is a necessary reminder that we are always at the precipice of chaos lest we address the persistent foundational disparity in Eswatini—which begins by giving citizens back their political agency, so they can feel more represented in their government.
RESPECTABILITY IS NOT PEACE
Eswatini’s deep sense of culture demands that people articulate their personhood in a particular, ‘acceptable’ manner—it is one of the tenets of this country’s social contract. That manner tends to be within the confines of respectability, which is immensely patriarchal. It bends us into uncomfortable shapes of silence and docility, that fast becomes entrenched as common sense in our national psyche. So, for years, we trade in this currency of respectability to sustain this ‘peace’ and honour traditions that have simply lost their point.
Under the veil of respectability, the political mirage of peace is sustained and weaponized as truth to the world. But respectability is not peace, it is regulation; and silencing a people through laws does not make them docile, it makes them careful. That’s why when Princess Sikhanyiso told the BBC that the protests were being spurred on by ‘foreign mercenaries’, it reflected the monarch’s and the government’s denialism. It was unbelievable that Swati people, with our peaceful nature could incite such ‘chaos’. They had to untether Swati citizens as operatives of the protests because if they accepted that, it meant they also had to face responsibility for their role in arriving at this moment. This government’s narrative of foreign mercenary involvement deepened their refusal to believe that the people of Eswatini have the agency to incite their own change. At the same time, the narrative invalidated the people’s misgivings and justified the state–sanctioned violence that occurred ‘since the country needed to be defended against these “foreign agents”’. It was a clear attempt at reputation management, but failed dismally because it was an invention, not fact.
The ‘foreign mercenaries’ narrative also maintains the novelty of peace apparently intrinsic to Swati people. The absence of war and unrest does not make a country peaceful. This is negative peace, as Johan Galtung terms it. It is a peace that is ‘pessimistic, curative, peace not always by peaceful means.’ Following this, how can Eswatini’s curatorial peace be real? The reality of living in Eswatini is a violence of another kind: 58.9 per cent of the rural population lives under the national poverty line; over 100,000 people depend on feeding schemes (on the 2019 Global Hunger Index, we rank 97 out of 117 countries); 26 per cent of the adult population is living with HIV; one in three girls in the country will experience gender–based violence among many other deplorable statistics. Compounding this with purposeless leadership, Eswatini is in a perpetual state of dawdling development, which can partly be mended by decisive leadership concerned with the well-being of its citizens and leadership that cultivates opportunities and access to those opportunities. Real peace, according to Galtung is positive peace, a conscious effort at integrating society and harmonious existence. Until Eswatini addresses these issues, this peace–hood they claim is propaganda.
The truth is, Eswatini’s people are just a hurt people. A collective hurt, a collective frustration brought us here, to this rage. But this kind of rage is love in practice. It is love for the self, love for each other, but, most importantly, it is love for the future, so that it may be better. Rage as love becomes an act of social salvation and because dialogue never yields enough response, rage is the final act. The motifs of rage that continue to be witnessed in Eswatini chart a new political trajectory for the country. The people have accentuated their call for better governance and an overhaul of the current structures of power.
As the democratic movement marches on, we cannot go back to the way things were in Eswatini. This opportunity to re-imagine Eswatini means an inclusive, integrated society should be what the movement aims to achieve; or the protests were all for nothing if only to re-create the same disharmonious futures⎈
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