Eswatini opposition rejects King Mswati’s offer of a national dialogue

Traditional ‘Sibaya’ consultation is the wrong format, opponents say.

Eswatini’s political and civil society opposition has firmly rejected King Mswati’s offer — which followed his meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s special envoy on Thursday — to hold a national dialogue to discuss the troubled country’s political future.

Eswatini’s main political party, the banned Pudemo, vowed this weekend to continue with protests and strikes to force Mswati into real democratic negotiations.

The country’s traditional leadership, the Indvuna Yenkhundla, announced Mswati’s acceptance of a national dialogue on Friday, after a regional delegation led by Ramaphosa’s special envoy, former Cabinet minister Jeff Radebe, had met the king. 

The delegation representing the security organ of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — which Ramaphosa currently chairs — also met Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini, Pudemo, members of Parliament, diplomats, trade unions and other political and civil society groups.

The Indvuna Yenkhundla announced that Mswati would call the national dialogue after the annual Incwala ritual when the king goes into isolation. Swazi sources said the Incwala would finish near the end of January, so it seemed unlikely that the national dialogue would take place before February. 

The Indvuna also made it clear that the national dialogue would be in the format of a “Sibaya”, a traditional gathering called by the king to consult his subjects. Mswati held a Sibaya after Eswatini’s worst-ever eruption of violence in June and delivered a monologue without taking questions. 

Ramaphosa announced that all the stakeholders which Radebe’s delegation met had agreed that “a national dialogue should be the appropriate platform to address the ongoing challenges facing the country. In this regard, they recognised the need for a peaceful and conducive environment for the dialogue to take place.” 

He added that as Mswati had accepted the need for national dialogue, “I appeal for calm, restraint, the respect for the rule of law and human rights on all sides to enable the process to commence.”

However, Pudemo and the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholders Forum (MSF) — representing a broad range of political and civil society organisations — rejected Mswati’s offer of dialogue and vowed they would not attend his meeting. 

The MSF, chaired by human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, said after meeting in Manzini on Saturday that Mswati’s call “was a ploy to mislead the SADC troika into believing we are a dialogue-driven nation and to create the impression that the national authorities do engage the people on issues of national importance, which is not the case”.

The forum noted that the king was calling for calm, but said there could be no calm or peaceful dialogue “as long as the security forces continue to kill and maim the people”. 

Activists have claimed that security forces have killed more than 80 protesters, mostly with live ammunition, since pro-democracy demonstrations began in June and resumed over the past few weeks, mainly through protests at schools and strikes by transport workers. One of the demands is for the release of two pro-democracy MPs who were recently arrested and charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act for allegedly stoking the June protests and violence.

“It is unfathomable that a person responsible for the mass murder of citizens can decide on the process of dialogue or any other interventions going forward,” the MSF said.

“We will not allow the King, who has blood on his hands, to call the shots of how and where the dialogue will be held. Only the will of the people can be used to forge the way forward for the country,” it said, calling for a neutral venue that would be acceptable and approved by all key stakeholders.

It added that since the king and his government had “lost any semblance of legitimacy and credibility, the MSF believes that the time has come for an interim government that will ensure that the transition process is managed and the resources of the country are not abused”.

Pudemo president Mlungisi Makhanya also said, at a press conference on Sunday, that the party rejected a Sibaya as a platform for meaningful dialogue. For one thing, those at the Sibaya would be expressing their individual views and since the venue could hold only 3,000 people they could not possibly represent three million Swazis. 

Makhanya said Pudemo had told Radebe’s SADC delegation on Friday that there should be a dialogue among all Swazis and that the king would be subject to whatever decision emerged from the dialogue. 

“If we decide the royal family should be represented, we will ask the royal family to appoint a representative.”

Makhanya said Radebe had asked him if everything stopped in Eswatini during the Incwala ritual.

“We made it clear it was just a family ritual which has nothing to do with the nation.” The nation could not stop the business of attending to the urgent matter “which is engulfing us”, because of a family ritual. 

“There must be an all-inclusive Dialogue through a national Convention, which must be held and be presided by a neutral body in a neutral Venue,” Pudemo said in a statement. 

Makhanya vowed that the opposition would resume its political activism, such as industrial protests and strikes by trade unions, protests by learners calling for the reopening of schools and also attention to the problems which sparked the protests in the first place. And there would be more community protests on broader issues of democratic reform and the “struggle for emancipation”. 

Makhanya expressed appreciation to SADC for meeting Pudemo on this visit — which it had not done on a previous visit in July after the first eruption of rioting and a violent response by the security forces. On that first visit, “all this disgraceful delegation did was to hobnob with the murderous dictatorship”. 

Pudemo had little confidence in SADC to resolve Eswatini’s crisis because of the organisation’s lack of urgency. “The question of Eswatini is a long overdue question for SADC, which has shamefully buried its head in the proverbial sand when the problems of the country were staring it in the face. SADC has a huge responsibility to inspire the democratic and peace-loving citizens of the region.”

By contrast, some diplomatic sources said they believed that in light of the sharp polarisation of the country over the past few months and the grave danger of things spinning even further out of control, it was an important step forward that Mswati had committed to a national dialogue at all. “We don’t see any other way to maintain peace and calm right now.” 

Speaking to Daily Maverick on Thursday, just before Mswati met Radebe, Eswatini Finance Minister Neal Rijkenberg said if there was a legitimate party for the king to have dialogue with, this could be recommended. 

“On the ground here there’s a lot of illegitimacy taking place. And one has one’s Parliament which is fully democratically put in place, the House of Assembly. And theoretically if it was the people needing to say something, it should come through legitimate platforms. The platforms it’s coming from are illegitimate platforms. And it makes it awkward, constitutionally, to deal with.”

Rijkenberg said that constitutionally, Parliament was the only legitimate platform for a national dialogue. He noted that the country’s multiparty democracy, which it had inherited from the colonial power Britain in 1968, had been changed in the 1970s by a 100% vote, with all parties included, to the present Tinkhundla system (in which members of Parliament are elected directly by their constituents and not parties). 

“Now, if we want to go back to a multiparty system… it properly has to come through the constitutionally elected Parliament. It’s for the MPs who are legitimately elected by the people, to say, right now we want to raise a motion to say how about we change to a multiparty system. That’s the legitimate place. 

“Unfortunately, at the moment you have people running around looting and burning shops down, saying we need to change the system. It makes them tough to deal with. It’s not a case of, okay who’s looting the shop here, why did you loot it, what do you want? It’s a bit difficult to deal with.”

Rijkenberg insisted that even if the current system was not a multiparty democracy, it was nonetheless still democratic, as MPs were elected by their constituents.    

“Every single law, every single cent, every regulation, has to get passed by the House of Assembly, has to go through Parliament. It also has to be signed by His Majesty, every single law and regulation that goes through there. But the people say His Majesty makes all the decisions. It’s not true. It really is a double-headed system. The one leg is fully democratic, 100% elected by the people, and the other one is His Majesty. Unless they both agree, nothing happens.  

“And so, as minister of finance, I can vouch for it that things take quite long to get through. And things are quite difficult to get through because you really need everybody. You don’t have a party which backs a decision and then it just flies through Parliament. 

“In Parliament you’re dealing with people who come from their constituencies. And each one stands for whatever he stands for. It’s surprisingly democratic, if I can put it that way. Sometimes frustratingly democratic.” DM


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