The cold-blooded murder of world-renowned human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) has raised the stakes on the country’s tortuous path to democracy in Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
In death, Maseko has aroused the nation’s conscience in agitating for a culture of respect for human rights, while shining a spotlight on the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) ability to put out the flames of political conflict and mudslinging between the state and the opposition.
The assassination of the human rights defender also exposed how the state and the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) use the issue of the right to free expression as a shield to justify their diametrically opposed positions on the way forward to bring democracy to the country.
Maseko, who chaired the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), was assassinated in front of his family at his home on 21 January 2023.
The MSF is a coalition of pro-democracy proponents across Eswatini’s political landscape.
Two “make-or-break” events are slated for Eswatini in 2023.
First, this is an election year. The kingdom is ruled by King Mswati III. Political parties are not allowed to participate or compete in elections. The state recognises only individual candidates for parliament.
Second, the country is set to hold a contentious national dialogue for political reforms, which has been on the cards since the unprecedented June 2021 civil unrest, during which about 100 people were killed, many more were injured and businesses were looted, burnt and destroyed.
The government and the opposition are at loggerheads over how these two events should be conducted and under what conditions. They both invoke the right to free expression and the right to freedom of association to support their positions.
When the SADC called a special meeting of its Organ Troika in Namibia this week to discuss, among other issues, the deteriorating political and security situation in Eswatini, Mswati sent his prime minister, Cleopas Dlamini, with a message that due to the prevailing violence in the country, it was impossible to hold a national dialogue.
“On the ground, there remains a volatile and intimidating atmosphere. People do not feel free to even express themselves by association, such as by attending cultural events. Given the prevailing climate, it is doubtful that the outcome of a dialogue would be an accurate reflection of the aspirations of the majority,” he said.
Read in Daily Maverick: “As activist Thulani Maseko is laid to rest, Eswatini’s quest for democracy intensifies”
“All participants need to feel free to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association, regardless of their ideology, in accordance with the provisions of our constitution.”
Mswati’s position contrasts with what the opposition parties are saying.
The leaders of the MDM argue that it is these hostile conditions that make it imperative to urgently hold the national dialogue, in order to uphold and protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the freedom of association.
A paradox lies in the question of holding elections later this year. While the state insists that the polls shall go ahead as planned, with Mswati urging people to prepare to vote, a section of the MDM says there can never be a free and fair election before a national dialogue is held to iron out issues of freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Some pro-democracy groups have said they will participate in the polls with a view to flooding parliament with political activists in order to “change the system from within”.
Commenting on the elections, MSF communications official Mary Pais Da Silva said the organisation has a five-point plan that seeks a multiparty democracy dispensation for Eswatini.
“As things stand, we cannot and will not participate in elections that do not conform to this principle. We believe that the nature of any upcoming elections should be a product of the national dialogue that we are seeking. The people need to determine their own destiny in choosing a government of their choice,” Da Silva said.
“Therefore, until the national dialogue is held, we will continue to wage the anti-elections campaign. We will encourage all Swazis not to participate in a process that will not only legitimise the tinkhundla system of governance but will also reinforce their hold on the populace. We say no to tinkhundla elections, but yes to multiparty democracy that will allow political parties to contest for political power.”
The tinkhundla system refers to Eswatini’s constituencies-based governance structure on the basis of individual merit for election or appointment to public office.
Da Silva’s comments are echoed by Mandla Hlatshwayo, the exiled chairperson of the Letfu Sonkhe Institute for Strategic Thinking and Development who said the 2023 elections were a red herring aimed at defocusing the pro-democracy movement.
“SADC, instead of pressing the government and the king to address the causes of the public protests and investigating the malicious murder of citizens allegedly by the police and the army, has been appealing to the government to investigate itself,” Hlatshwayo said.
Read in Daily Maverick: “The Eswatini massacre one year on – lest we forget”
“The results of this failure by both the government and SADC has been the further deterioration in the security environment. The government has exploited the indecision within SADC and escalated the use of violence against political opponents as a way to dampen the call for political and constitutional reforms.”
The government has vehemently denied being part of the killing of Maseko and other citizens, vowing that a full and independent investigation is under way to catch the criminals.
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In an interview, government spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo warned against boycotting the polls, saying it has never served citizens’ interests anywhere in the world.
“Under very difficult and challenging situations and circumstances, opposition political formations participated in the elections in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and in Zambia, among others. Besides, there stands a constitutional imposition that in five years emaSwati should have a new government and that’s what the nation is currently anticipating to do in the next seven months.”
Warning from exile
Meanwhile, president of the Swaziland Liberation Movement Mduduzi Simelane called on emaSwati not to boycott the elections, saying that historically it has only enabled the state to go ahead with its agenda without being called to account. Simelane is in exile, having fled the country when the state sought to arrest him on terrorism charges. His counterparts, the MPs Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, are languishing in jail amid international calls for their release.
“I know the fruits of being in parliament and fighting the system from within. I was one of three elected MPs who were very vocal in parliament, calling for respect for people’s basic human rights and accountability by the authorities. The authorities could not stand three men inside [parliament], how are they going to stand 30 men and women inside parliament who will, for example, say the national budget will be stalled until an all-inclusive political dialogue is held and until the people’s demands for freedom and human rights are met,” the exiled former MP said in a recording to his supporters.
Simelane called for unity and cooperation among the opposition and the MDM.
As the government and the opposition dig in their heels in defence of their positions on freedom of expression and freedom of association, the political and economic situation on the ground is worsening.
Read in Daily Maverick: “King Mswati accused of delaying Eswatini national dialogue”
Sadly, it is the ordinary people who are suffering the most in the ongoing cat-and-mouse situation. Here is why:
Eswatini today has become the skunk of the SADC region. This is in sharp contrast to the economic prospects it had in the 1990s as investors chose to settle in the country when South Africa was grappling with apartheid, and Mozambique was torn by civil war.
Today emaSwati are suffering, with sluggish economic growth, fiscal challenges, rising unemployment affecting the young and rural populations in particular, high levels of poverty and inequality, low levels of foreign direct investment and poor human development indicators that are not in line with the lower-middle-income status of the country.
This week a crippling increase of more than 10% in electricity tariffs was announced, adding to the burden of a population already saddled by unprecedented fuel and energy costs, as well as escalating food costs. The health sector, in a country with the highest prevalence of HIV, has all but collapsed, with shortages of life-saving medicines resulting in deaths. Last week it was reported that three people died following a shortage of insulin in the hospitals. DM