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TROUBLED KINGDOM ANALYSIS

King Mswati should take note of his great-grandmother’s support of a free press

Eswatini’s King Mswati III and his government have no remorse. It has been a year and they have not had the humility nor humanity to extend their condolences to each and every family that lost their relative during the massacre. (Photo: Bess Adler / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Absolute monarch of Eswatini, King Mswati III, has been eager to emphasise the legacy of Regent Queen Labotsibeni. She is celebrated by today’s monarchy as an astute and influential leader who protected Swazi territory during colonial encroachment.

In 2019, between opening a glitzy hotel and a new corporate building, King Mswati unveiled a towering bronze statue of Regent Queen Labotsibeni along a street also named in her honour in the country’s capital, Mbabane.

Though he is not known to be as diplomatic as Labotsibeni was, Mswati shares many traits with the Regent Queen — most obviously the masses of wealth and intense inclination for self-preservation that defines the Eswatini royal family. Less familiar is their shared affinity for aircraft. In 1918, Queen Labotsibeni famously bought a plane for the Allied war effort. One hundred years later in 2018, King Mswati spent R2.7-billion on his latest private jet and parking space for the plane.

mswati free press
A sculpture of Swazi Regent Queen Labotsibeni (born 1859, died 1925) in central Mbabane, Eswatini. King Mswati III celebrates her legacy, but his violent suppression of free speech flies in the face of her progressive support of the newspaper Abantu-Batho in the 1910s and 20s. (Photo: Maru Attwood)

Abantu-Batho

Yet perhaps the most important comparison between Mswati and Labotsibeni’s reigns is their relationships with the press. Both rulers have funded newspapers and understood the importance of controlling public narratives to support their ambitions. Yet, in his relentless suppression of journalists and activists, King Mswati could not be further from Queen Labotsibeni’s progressive support of Abantu-Batho, a paper tied to 20th-century African nationalism.

Now that liberation movements are no longer directed at colonial powers, but are fighting for democracy in the country, Eswatini’s monarchy has turned against exactly the kind of media it supported generations earlier. 

Most recently, Mswati’s government declared Swaziland News and its editor Zweli Martin Dlamini “terrorist entities” for their critical coverage of the monarchy. Eswatini’s government surveils the social media accounts of activists and ordinary citizens, routinely detaining and harassing them. The country ranks extremely low on freedom of expression indexes, a standing that has sunk even more in the past year as Eswatini’s police targeted journalists for their coverage of the ongoing anti-monarchy movement.

The monarchy has not always had such a fraught relationship with a free press. In 1912, Labotsibeni became a founding supporter of Abantu-Batho, a multilingual African nationalist newspaper closely aligned with efforts for anti-colonial liberation.

As colonial power and land appropriation escalated, Labotsibeni fought to buy back land that Boer settlers duplicitously convinced her husband King Mbandzeni to sign away. She watched the influence of The Times of Swaziland, a paper established by the colonial secretary to Swaziland, Allister Miller. The Times justified colonial policies and helped maximise white land concessions. Labotsibeni understood the centrality of the press in extending colonial power.

Pixley ka Isaka Seme

So when she was approached by her lawyer and missionary-educated intellectual Pixley ka Isaka Seme to support the founding of Abantu-Batho she eagerly agreed to fund it, becoming a major founding shareholder in the paper. The African nationalist newspaper was the communications organ of the South African Native National Congress (which later became the ANC). 

With Labostibeni’s backing, Abantu-Batho became a central part of a dynamic black press for an increasingly popular audience in the early 20th century. In The people’s paper: a centenary history and anthology of Abantu-Batho, Peter Limb argues that it marked a shift away from a press entirely controlled by the colonial state or the missions. Editorially, the weekly paper advocated for the interests and inclusion of black people across southern Africa.

Limb writes: “In [Abantu-Batho’s] pages important themes of the day, from the pass laws, Land Act and the World War to strikes and socialism, the founding of Fort Hare, the rights of black women and Garveyism were articulated, just as mundane events such as football matches, marriages and church gatherings were reported.”

mswati free press labotsibeni
Queen Regent Labotsibeni Gwamile Mdluli, featured on the right. (Photo: Unknown)

According to historian Christopher Lowe, in the paper’s early years, all of its main editors and many of its journalists had meaningful Swazi ties and followed Swazi affairs. Based on her transnational ties and support of Abantu-Batho, Sarah Mkhonza, an eSwatini writer and academic based in the US, argues that Labotsibeni should be seen as a Pan-Africanist. 

Queen Labotsibeni used her financial support of Abantu-Batho to influence the paper to advance her interests. It published articles opposing Swaziland’s incorporation into the Union of South Africa and advertised to raise funds for Queen Labotsibeni’s efforts to buy as much land back from colonial concessions as she could afford.

Eswatini Observer

King Mswati also funds a newspaper, the Eswatini Observer. According to the paper’s website, it “is 100% owned by Tibiyo Taka Ngwane”, a $10-billion trust under the sole control of King Mswati. “The Observer, established in 1982, is the state’s official mouthpiece, set up to promote the image of the king and the royal family”, wrote journalist Bheki Makhubu for the Campaign for Free Expression. Makhubu was imprisoned for 15 months by Eswatini’s state for exposing corruption in the judicial system. 

Both King Mswati and Queen Labotsibeni have strategically used the press to further their ambitions. But it is King Mswati’s treatment of the press that isn’t his mouthpiece that truly breaks with Queen Labotsibeni’s legacy.

Eswatini’s police have routinely harassed and tortured journalists for covering discontent with the monarchy. Relentless legal cases against the media have cost newspapers immensely, enforcing self-censorship. Dozens of laws restrict freedom of expression in Eswatini, despite the constitution’s protection of free speech. The impact of violence, intimidation and legal repression on Eswatini’s media landscape has been to create a censored environment of fear and repression. 

Queen Labotsibeni’s legacy

For King Mswati to truly celebrate Queen Labotsibeni’s legacy, he would have to celebrate all of it. This would mean honouring Abantu-Batho’s ideals of liberty and its open reporting by putting an end to brutality against journalists and allowing free expression, even when it’s critical of the monarchy.

After the violent suppression of last year’s anti-monarchy protests in which armed forces killed dozens of citizens, King Mswati has refused to engage in a national dialogue with anyone outside of a sibaya, a format that allows him to control all the terms of conversation and speak rather than listen.

Most recently, King Mswati refused to show up in person at long overdue regional talks in Pretoria on Thursday. 

It’s clear that King Mswati is unwilling to listen. He’s unwilling to listen to Eswatini’s activists who want to make their country freer and more equal, he’s unwilling to listen to pro-democracy ministers, and unwilling to listen to a press that reports honestly on issues in his country. So far, Mswati has only selectively listened to the example of his great grandmother, Queen Labotsibeni.  MC

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