Defend Truth


The naked emperor: We must act now on the dystopian dream of Eswatini’s tinpot dictator


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

There is a toxic morbidness about monarchy. A patriarchal cesspool of absurd notions of divine rights and decaying human perversion, wrapped in cotton wool, spinning a fairy tale of mystical alchemy. When exposed, its putrid self-serving spectre stalks our land, carrying the befuddling stench of the drunken stupor of a naked emperor. Such a stench rises from our impoverished landlocked neighbour, Eswatini.

King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, with unfettered powers, enslaved his 1.3 million subjects living in poverty. He extorted Eswatini’s scarce resources to feed his greedy appetite for lavish luxury for his 15 concubines and self-seeking entourage of children, family, hangers-on and cronies. In 2019, opposition forces revealed that the king treated himself and his clique to a fleet of 19 Rolls-Royces and 120 BMWs, at a cost of €15-million.

Eswatini (Swaziland, as it then was) has been in crisis since 1973 when King Sobhuza II unilaterally abrogated the independence Constitution and assumed absolute power over all organs of state. The country has been ruled through a State of Emergency, banning all political parties and restricting political activity, as well as prohibiting the exercise of all internationally recognised civil liberties, basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Read here.

The national socioeconomic and political crises that erupted with the murder of student activist Thabani Nkomonye in May 2021 sparked a massive wave of protests that escalated with the ruthless response by the security forces on the instruction of the king. It resulted in the murder of at least 96 people and injury of more than 500 citizens, as well as the arrest of more than 1,000, with many being denied their constitutional right to bail. The internet was closed down and a propaganda war waged through state media to taint and foil organisers of the legitimate protests. 

I myself have been arrested in Swaziland, when I went there as part of the International Trade Union Confederation, investigating the abuse of worker rights. Read here

The demand for political and economic reforms in the country has exploded the myth of passive compliance. The refusal by King Mswati III to yield to the will of the people has rendered the country ungovernable, deepening an ongoing political conflict with violence.

We cannot just be observers any longer. 

This regime needs no accommodation. 

It’s brutal. 

It needs to be replaced.

Swazi activists have been part and parcel of our struggle for freedom and worker rights. Chris Dlamini, my mentor, my comrade, the president of the food union I was baptised in, like many Swazis, saw his fate wrapped up in our own mass democratic movement. We cannot be blind any longer to their pleas for solidarity. We betray them with our silence while a tyrant wages war right in our own backyard against innocent Swazis, who supported us through our dark times. 

Our beloved Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Africa has no more tolerance for tinpot dictators.

And this is an unequivocal message from the youth on a continent where the majority of citizens are under 25. Impatient, angry and willing to give their lives for authentic liberation. We are exhausted by the talk, talk and talk declare the exasperated youth of Africa. Our lives are littered with the broken promises of leaders. Our current leaders are out of touch. And old. We are the richest continent under the ground but we are the poorest in the world. It’s time for leadership and governance. It’s time the older generation moved out of the way, is the youth’s earnest appeal.

As a generation that still clings to power, we have to listen very carefully and build a genuine intergenerational dialogue and cooperation. It is the only way we will avoid our youth dividend becoming a nightmare of despair and a fertile ground for political opportunism and extremism.

There is no exceptional African model or Western model of democracy. And we don’t need a poor photocopy of some Western or Asian example. 

Human rights are human rights are human rights. 

We need governments to respect the fundamental human rights of all citizens, governments that build social cohesion and shared prosperity for all, not just for the elites.

Good governance and ethical leadership are not luxuries. They are a prerequisite for our success. As a reported plea by a young Swazi protester put it, “We are the youth of Swaziland and we are so much depressed by the government. Our government is not being fair; it is just one man’s land.”

Finally, people have organised a broad spectrum of the Eswatini Mass Democratic Movement with political parties, labour movements, the youth, students, women, LGBTQ activists and NGOs who met in Johannesburg in December 2021.

They set up a Multi-Stakeholders’ Forum and designed the terms of reference for a dialogue and negotiation that would lead to a durable political solution responding to the demands of the people.

It’s up to the Southern African Development Community Organ on Politics, Defence and Security affairs (also commonly referred to as the Troika), which is currently chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa, to take the lead. We have no time to lose.

We all need to act. Civil society, the labour movement, academia, the political class and business. You and me, us. That’s what South Africa expected from the world. That’s the solidarity that was given unconditionally to us.

And as South Africans, and indeed all across Africa, we have a moral and historical responsibility to advance and defend the sovereign right of the people of Eswatini to universal suffrage and a right to elect a government that represents the collective will of the people. And that is independent with a Constitution above the king.

Now it is our time to reciprocate. To support our brothers, sisters and comrades in Eswatini.

Before civil war breaks out in our neighbourhood. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Parr says:

    Jay, why should we worry about the little boy and his tin pot kingdom. SA must just cut off money flows from the customs union and not allow any of the so called royals to enter SA. We can stand on our heads and we’ll achieve nothing for the people there.

  • cunninghamcvb says:

    I’m minded of the recent situations in Georgia, in Hong Kong and Afghanistan- and take note, Zimbabwe. Following decades of costly intervention by stable governments for the oppressed, our age is one of outrage at a distance. The despots note this and trade on it. The media thrives on stories that vilify intervention as corrupt and self-interested. We are in danger of becoming another such oppressed people, as parties and individuals capitalize on easy targets for populist rage…

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    People who live in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones. Your first paragraph could be used to describe your beloved ANC.

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