The government of eSwatini imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, blocked the internet, and deployed the army on 29 June in an effort to quell ongoing unrest calling for major democratic reforms and an end to the absolute monarchy. These drastic measures were imposed after protest leaders announced the formation of a new campaign dubbed Kungahlwa Kwenile (It’s late in the evening) calling on protesters to target properties owned by King Mswati III.
The anti-protest measures failed to prevent Kungahlwa Kwenile protests from occurring in most major urban areas in the country and despite the internet shutdown, reports emerged of clashes with security forces and buildings being set on fire. These include buildings and companies believed to either be owned or associated with Mswati.
Political tensions have been steadily increasing in eSwatini in recent years as perpetual economic difficulties were compounded by Mswati’s lavish lifestyle. As a result, strikes and demonstrations have become increasingly common. The most recent unrest began on 26 June when around 500 youth demonstrators protested in Manzini district demanding an end to the Tinkhundla political system, including an end to the ban on opposition parties and the right for the prime minister to be elected rather than appointed by the monarch. Security forces violently dispersed this protest using stun grenades and live ammunition. This led to clashes with the demonstrators and appeared to instigate further protests which quickly spread to other areas of the country. By the night of 28 June, violent protests were reported in Manzini, Mbabane, and Matsapha. Protestors blockaded roads and several buildings were looted and set alight in the accompanying unrest.
Despite the escalating unrest, Mswati is yet to make a public appearance or statement leading the government to forcibly deny reports that he had fled to neighbouring South Africa and was currently hiding in Johannesburg. In the same statement, the government alleged that “criminal elements”had infiltrated the protests and called on the country’s citizens to lodge grievances using a newly set-up e-mail address apparently unaware of the irony of doing so while simultaneously shutting down the country’s internet.
Thus far the government is attempting to forcibly quell the protest movement as it has done in the past. However, the curfew and increased deployment of soldiers using live ammunition appears to have had no effect and is instead fuelling the groundswell of anti-government sentiment. This is due to the fact that this unrest has been building for several years during which the Mswati regime has been utilising oppressive tactics to remain in power. Opposition parties and most trade unions are banned and journalists critical of the government are regularly targeted or forced into exile. In addition, when demonstrations calling for reforms do occur, the state responds with heavy-handed tactics violently dispersing demonstrations and using the security and intelligence services to quell protests and arrest organisers and leaders, as occurred during the 2019 public sector wage strikes. Further, the Tinkhundla political system gives Mswati total control over the government and legislature, meaning that political frustrations cannot find expression at the ballot box.
This has all led to a steady build-up of political tensions and anti-government and anti-monarchy sentiment. The 26 June clashes appear to have ignited these frustrations. The scale and intensity of the protests as well as Mswati’s absence have further encouraged demonstrators that their aims might be achieved.
It is clear that eSwatini is at a tipping point. The speed at which the protests escalated from an isolated rural demonstration to countrywide unrest has taken authorities by surprise. However, the 26 June protest was within itself a warning sign. Mswati has typically enjoyed significant support in the country’s rural areas and anti-government protests are rare. The fact that 500 rural youth were willing to protest against the government to the point of clashing with security forces underscores the extent to which Mswati has lost support in the country.
If the government is unable to contain and suppress the protests in the coming days, the situation will continue to increase in intensity. The announcement of the Kungahlwa Kwenile campaign indicates that protest leaders are forming a more coherent front and are actively calling for the downfall of the government and even Mswati. This is in stark contrast to previous demonstration campaigns which merely advocated for political reforms and better pay. As such, security forces are expected to intensify efforts to violently suppress the protests and the use of live ammunition is expected to increase, likely resulting in the killing of protesters. Should this fail to work, the state will need to promise major reforms potentially including the introduction of opposition parties and the end of the absolute monarchy. However, the protests may have already passed the point where this would be accepted. It is possible the situation will only end in either the forceful quelling of the protests or the end of the Tinkhundla and Mswati being dethroned.