King Mswati accused of delaying Eswatini national dialogue

King Mswati accused of delaying Eswatini national dialogue
President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as Chair of the Southern African Development Community Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, with King Mswati III at the Royal Palace in the Kingdom of Eswatini on 2 November 2021. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS)

Meanwhile — this is, after all, Eswatini — a South African lawyer representing two jailed pro-democracy Swazi MPs has been expelled for allegedly urging maidens not to attend the annual Reed Dance.

It’s been almost a year since Swazi King Mswati III met President Cyril Ramaphosa in Eswatini and agreed to launch a national dialogue to address the kingdom’s growing political crisis.

Several regional summits and fact-finding missions later, amid growing tensions in the country, no dialogue has begun. And last month the Southern African Development Community (SADC) decided to convene yet another summit and send yet another fact-finding mission to the country, adding further to the delay.

Eswatini’s political opposition, under the umbrella of The Multistakeholders Forum (MSF) has mildly rebuked SADC leaders for “reinventing the wheel” by agreeing to the new summit and fact-finding mission. It has accused Mswati of dragging his feet and has warned SADC leaders not to be hoodwinked by the king into believing the crisis in Eswatini is a security rather than a democracy issue. They insist that the growing insecurity in the country is the result of Mswati denying democracy.

SA lawyer expelled

The Swazi government is in the meantime showing no signs of creating an environment for dialogue by allowing more democratic space. Last week, on the contrary, it expelled South African lawyer Sicelo Mngomezulu who is representing two jailed, pro-democracy members of Parliament, Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.

Government spokesperson Mlandvo Dlamini said in a statement that this was because Mngomezulu had called on Swazi maidens not to attend the annual traditional Reed Dance to be held on 5 September. The government said it was against the national interest as it had contradicted a call by the country’s authorities. Mngomezulu had therefore violated the Public Order Act.

The Reed Dance has become a political issue this year, probably because it is strongly supported by the Palace as part of the country’s traditional culture. But critics say it demeans the young women for the prurient pleasure of men.

Mngomezulu denied calling on the maidens to boycott the Reed Dance and said the government’s real reason for effectively banning him was that he had publicly supported the two MPs in calling for democratic reforms in Eswatini.

The two MPs — and a third, Mduduzi Simelane, who fled Eswatini before he could be arrested — last year allowed their constituents to petition them with grievances, including a call for the country’s prime minister and executive to be elected by Parliament and not appointed by the king.

When the government banned these petitions, it sparked protests which spiralled into rioting in June 2021, widespread destruction and the deaths of scores of people, mostly protesters shot by security forces. The government accused the MPs of inciting the violence.

It was this violence which prompted SADC to address the crisis and send three fact-finding missions to the country. In early November 2021 Ramaphosa — then heading SADC’s security organ — visited Eswatini and met Mswati who agreed to convene a national dialogue to plot a way out of the crisis.

But this has stalled. Part of the reason has been that Mswati and the political opposition have widely divergent views on how the dialogue should unfold. Mswati and his ministers have made it clear that they want it to be framed entirely as “Sibaya” which is a traditional consultation — enshrined in Eswatini’s constitution — which the king occasionally holds with his people.

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But the MSF and others have rejected Sibaya, saying it is not a dialogue but a monologue, entirely managed by the palace where the king talks down to his subjects and does not elicit their views. Instead, the MSF wants a genuine negotiating forum managed by a neutral entity and including all stakeholders, as well as opposition political parties which are now banned. Though Ramaphosa agreed at his November meeting with Mswati that Sibaya could be part of the process, SADC also made it clear later that the dialogue should be much more representative — and include political parties now banned. This was clear from a draft framework for a multistakeholder national dialogue that SADC wrote in February.

The framework also set out a timetable for the national dialogue, to begin in April. But not even preparatory discussions about establishing it have begun. After that, Mswati missed two SADC summits to discuss how to kickstart the dialogue.

Eventually, he attended the ordinary annual SADC summit on 22 August in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where Eswatini was discussed, but where the national dialogue was kicked down the road again.

The communique from the summit said the Eswatini government had presented a report on the security situation in the country. The leaders had condemned the violence, but had also ordered an extraordinary summit of SADC’s security organ to be held, “aimed at finding a peaceful and lasting solution to the security challenges facing the country.”

Ramaphosa, the outgoing chairperson of the SADC security organ, said afterwards that “SADC is now going to take this firmly in hand”, by setting up a fact-finding mission and sending SADC’s new Panel of Elders, headed by former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, “to go and find effective ways of dealing with the situation…” 

On his return from the summit, Mswati addressed the nation to explain that the SADC organ summit with his government would be held in Eswatini “to address issues affecting peace and security.”

This meant that the next move would be this summit and not the national dialogue, he added, significantly. He said the other SADC leaders had been surprised by the continued violence in Eswatini, which he had reported to them.

Democratic governance

The MSF issued a statement last week that said Mswati “should stop misleading his peers in SADC” that the problem in Eswatini was only a security issue. 

“The issue affecting the nation is more than just a security concern; it is fundamentally a political question. The security issue arises from the political problem, which is the lack of and absence of democratic governance in the country. The security issue can and will never be resolved without addressing the political question.

“The security instability is but a symptom of a sickness of our politics. SADC cannot resolve the Swaziland crisis by addressing symptoms and not the crux of the crisis.”

The MSF politely welcomed SADC’s decision “to send yet another fact-finding mission of the Elders” and to hold another summit on Eswatini. But it said that “we will impress on the SADC not to reinvent the wheel. The process has to proceed along the lines set out in the ‘Draft framework for inclusive multistakeholder national dialogue in the Kingdom of Eswatini’ which SADC had already drafted in February”. 

This was a good foundation for the national dialogue to start. “The delay has no justification; except that the King is buying time to delay the inevitable.” DM


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