Former Cabinet minister Jeff Radebe heads Ramaphosa’s team to engage Mswati amid violent protests

King Mswati III of Eswatini. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Shiraaz Mohamed)

The intervention comes while violent protests deepen in Eswatini.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will dispatch special envoys to Eswatini this week to address the growing violence in the country with King Mswati III, as violent protests continue in the country.

Police fired live ammunition and rubber bullets to disperse a march in the capital Mbabane on Wednesday, according to local media. Some activists said seven protesters had been killed during the day in the disturbances, which have been continuing for weeks.

Former Cabinet minister Jeff Radebe will head the team of envoys from South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, who are expected to travel to Eswatini this week, Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement. 

The envoys originally hoped to travel today and to meet Mswati on Thursday afternoon, according to a letter from South Africa’s High Commission in Eswatini to the Swazi ministry of foreign affairs requesting the meeting.

The fact that the statement from Ramaphosa’s office mentions no specific date suggests Mswati is in no hurry to meet Radebe’s team, though the Presidency did add: “The President appreciates His Majesty King Mswati III’s availability to receive a delegation.”

The statement said Radebe’s team would engage with Mswati on “security and political developments in the Kingdom” though clearly the continuing violent protests have prompted the intervention. 

Ramaphosa’s office said he was sending the envoys as chairperson of the security organ of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Representatives of the Namibia and Botswana governments would be part of the delegation since those countries are currently the other members of the SADC security organ troika.

And SADC executive secretary Elias Magosi would head a SADC secretariat delegation which would be part of the team. 

The other South African envoys in the delegation will be Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Candith Mashego-Dlamini and Maropene Ramokgopa, Ramaphosa’s special adviser on international relations. 

Ramaphosa spoke by phone with Mswati on Wednesday to arrange the visit, according to the letter by the South African High Commission in Eswatini.

Violent protests erupted again recently after a lull since a major eruption in June, when rioting and destruction of government and other buildings and vehicles were met with live bullets fired by security forces that killed about 70 demonstrators, according to opposition activists. 

The protests then were sparked by the government’s decision to prevent Swazis from petitioning their MPs to call for the country’s prime minister to be elected by parliament and not appointed by the king.

Two pro-democracy MPs, Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who supported the call for the prime minister to be elected, were later arrested under the country’s Suppression of Terrorism Act and remain in jail.

This provoked a transport strike and more demonstrations this month by protesters including schoolchildren, demanding the release of the MPs. The government shut schools in response and has intermittently also shut down mobile networks to try to stop protesters organising. 

Some activists said security forces were tear-gassing buses, shooting unarmed civilians in the legs with live rounds and severely beating those picked out of protest groups. 

Local media also reported that police shot at protesters from the roof of a burning school in Mbabane on Wednesday. 

“The current consensus, reading through all the varying reports, are seven confirmed dead and the hospitals are calling for blood donors to treat the wounded,” one activist said, referring specifically to Wednesday’s death toll.

Radebe’s visit would be the second intervention by the SADC in the Eswatini unrest. In July, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor and her Botswanan and Zimbabwean counterparts visited the country, on behalf of SADC’s security organ troika, after the first bout of rioting and shooting.

They met Eswatini government ministers and representatives of civil society and the political opposition. Later a delegation of officials from the same three countries visited the country to meet a wider range of stakeholders. They prepared a report which was presented to the SADC summit in Malawi in August.

Officials said the report recommended that Mswati launch an all-inclusive political dialogue about the country’s future. But one official said then that if Mswati didn’t want a political dialogue, “it’s not going to happen”.

However, the continued protests, deaths and instability have increased the pressure on the SADC to do something and Radebe’s team intends to meet Mswati himself this time, where it is likely to deliver the same message: engage in a real political dialogue with your opponents. 

But whether the king will take the team’s advice is doubtful. Earlier this week the Multi-Stakeholders Forum, representing a broad range of political and civil society interests, made it clear that it did not want Mswati to participate in the all-inclusive political dialogue it is calling for.

It said this was because of his insulting remarks about the protesters in a speech he gave at the Mbabane Government Hospital last Friday, 15 October. 

The forum said in a statement that Mswati had used “derogatory and insulting language” to describe the protesters and had encouraged violence against them. 

However, the forum said that royalists who subscribed to the principles of justice, rule of law and supremacy of the constitution were welcome to participate in the dialogue to make the case for monarchy “and other traditional governance systems in the future multiparty democratic dispensation.”

On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres added his voice to the chorus of criticism of Eswatini, calling on its government to respect the rights of children. 

He said in a statement that he was “following with concern the ongoing developments in Eswatini, including the recent deployment of armed security forces at various schools, reports of excessive use of force in response to student demonstrations, and the indefinite closure of schools”.

These developments “adversely” affect children and young people, and the UN chief “urges the Government to ensure that security forces act in conformity with relevant international human rights standards, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”, the statement added.

Guterres “condemns all acts of violence and urges all parties and the media to refrain from disinformation, hate speech and incitement” to violence, he said. DM

This article has been updated.


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  • It’s not quite clear what the ANC’s ‘special envoys’ will be able to achieve in Eswatini, given the inability of this government to manage its own affairs.