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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Thulani Maseko murder a blow to Eswatini struggle for democracy — but a boost for the king

Thulani Maseko murder a blow to Eswatini struggle for democracy — but a boost for the king
Pro-democracy protesters in Eswatini. The assassination of political activist and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko (not pictured) has been a significant setback for democracy in the country. (Photo: Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum/Twitter)

Without Maseko’s leadership, the Multi-Stakeholder Forum that pushes for democratic change shows signs of falling apart. 

Seven months after his murder, it is evident how much the absence of political activist and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko has weakened Eswatini’s chances of a genuine transition to democracy.

Maseko, who headed the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), a coalition of opposition political parties and civil society activists, was shot dead in his home near Manzini in January. The murder remains unsolved, but it is now becoming clearer that absolute monarch King Mswati III benefits most from it. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Thulani Maseko and the declaration that activists suspect rubbed up the Swazi monarchy the wrong way

Maseko was a rare unifier amidst a fragmented political opposition. He convened the MSF as a voice of those Swazi democrats demanding that Mswati launch a real, independent and substantive national political dialogue to chart a path to democracy.

Mswati had grudgingly agreed to the dialogue under pressure from the Southern African Development Community (SADC). After years of neglect, SADC was forced to sit up and take note of what was happening in the kingdom. There were unprecedented levels of violent rioting in mid-2021, to which the Swazi security forces responded with excessive violence, killing scores of protesters. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mswati tests his popularity after deadly Eswatini protests

After probing missions to Eswatini by SADC ministers and officials, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, then chair of SADC’s security organ, met Mswati in Eswatini in November 2021. He persuaded him to launch a national political dialogue to address the democratic deficit that SADC correctly deemed to lie at the root of the instability.

But Mswati has been stalling since, and has also been trying to contain the dialogue by framing it within the tight constraints of ‘Sibaya’ — the traditional engagement of the king with his people. The MSF rejected Sibaya as a vehicle for political dialogue. It said the practice was a monologue where the king talked down to his ‘subjects’ — sitting on a throne in the royal kraal while they all sat on the ground and listened. 

Since Maseko’s death though, the MSF has struggled to maintain its force and cohesion, a local analyst told ISS Today. He said no one with Maseko’s ‘gravitas’ had stepped in to fill his shoes, and the MSF was in danger of disintegrating. 

Biased elections

That would suit Mswati, as he is apparently playing the divide-and-rule game. Last month he dissolved Parliament and announced that elections would be held on 29 September and that he would hold another Sibaya after that in the future. That has been taken as a reference to the national dialogue agreed with SADC. 

But these elections will be held under the prevailing system where candidates can stand only as individuals, not representing political parties, which remain banned. Most democratic activists — including the banned political party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) — believe that sequence is wrong. The national dialogue should take place first, partly because the non-party political system should be on the negotiating table. 

But three political parties, the Swazi Democratic Party, Inhlava and Swaziland Liberation Movement, walked out of an MSF meeting in July. They complained that they had been threatened with ‘divorce’ from the MSF by the main political party Pudemo because they insisted on contesting the 29 September election. 

Although the three have apparently not announced their formal withdrawal from the MSF, a local analyst said he feared this was “the beginning of the end for the MSF”. He lamented the lack of a “voice of reason” — like Maseko’s — to hold it together. 

The global civil society alliance Civicus noted last month that the election was going ahead “without any constructive dialogue or reform. The chances of reform-minded potential MPs winning significant representation are slimmer than ever”. It noted how MPs Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza had been convicted of terrorism and murder in June, simply because they called for political reform and a constitutional monarchy during the 2021 protests. 

Civicus also suggested that any reform-minded candidates for Parliament would be weeded out during a two-round selection process “that is exclusionary by design, with candidates first needing to win approval at the chiefdom level”.

“To further rein in those elected, Mswati gets to directly appoint most of the upper house and some of the lower house. And just to make sure, he picks the prime minister and Cabinet, can veto legislation and remains constitutionally above the law,” it added. 

SADC indifference?

Civicus called on international partners — including SADC and South Africa — to “strongly urge King Mswati to open the election up to multiparty competition”. SADC had an opportunity to do just that at its annual ordinary summit this week in Luanda, which Mswati attended. But it didn’t, judging by its 17 August communiqué. The regional bloc merely wished Eswatini “peaceful elections” along with other member states preparing for upcoming polls.

A Swazi analyst told ISS Today he expected Mswati to brandish his plans for elections and a Sibaya to deflect criticism about his slow pace in implementing SADC’s demand for national dialogue. 

Piers Pigou, Head of the Southern Africa programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said: “Mswati’s announcement of a focus on dialogue after next month’s election aligns with his wider containment strategy of providing a veneer of commitment to a wider reform, while remaining completely in control”. This might put the protest genie back in the bottle for the moment, but Mswati was ultimately laying the groundwork for confrontation and instability. 

“This also reflects how weak SADC’s mediation and conflict resolution infrastructure has been and how it has failed to scaffold a discussion about the real issues,” said Pigou. “The death of Thulani Maseko was a body blow to the democratic movement. But it will eventually recover from that.” DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

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