Africa’s last absolute monarch holds all the cards as Eswatini dissent grows

EFF denies minister's claim 'they brought in guns and orchestrated the burning'

16 July 2021 - 10:52
By Matthew Hill
Swaziland's King Mswati III. File photo.
Image: GCIS Swaziland's King Mswati III. File photo.

Africa’s last absolute monarch will break his silence on Friday, weeks after the police and army quashed some of the most violent pro-democracy protests yet in Eswatini.

While the crackdown restored calm, the deaths of at least 27 people during a week of unrest drew renewed international scrutiny of the kingdom. Protesters were demanding King Mswati III, who has ruled South Africa's neighbour for more than three decades, cedes some control.

Mswati, 53, has called a national policy meeting, known as a Sibaya and which usually only takes place once a year, for the same day activists plan to resume demonstrations. As governments including the US called for dialogue, authorities have insisted that any amendments to the constitution must go through parliament. That means the king would have to agree on any proposals to curb his powers.

“It would be a waste of time,” Angelo Dube, international law professor at the University of SA, said in reply to e-mailed questions. Any member of parliament who tries to amend the constitution “would likely be ostracised by his/her peers, and might attract harassment from the state”, he said.

The king chooses the prime minister and his cabinet, and has the power to nominate almost one-third of the members of parliament. He appoints the director of public prosecutions, is commander-in-chief of the military and police, and is immune from being charged and paying taxes.

Two-thirds of lawmakers must approve a change to the constitution, which the king has the power to reject. If the amendments have to do with clauses on his pay, or him being immune from paying taxes or prosecution, 75% approval is needed. If it meets that threshold, the amendment must go to a referendum before going to the king for ascent.

The week-long protests in June are estimated to have caused more than $200m (R2.9bn) in damage to infrastructure in the landlocked country of 1.2 million people, and opposition groups contend the actual death toll is far higher than the official number.

The army joined the police to halt demonstrations and access to the internet was blocked.

EFF denies allegations of involvement

The government has accused SA’s second-biggest opposition party, the EFF, of being behind the violence.

“They brought in guns and they orchestrated the burning of our assets in our country,” commerce and industry minister Manqoba Khumalo said.

“That I can confirm without any hesitation.”

The EFF, which did stage demonstrations at SA’s borders with the kingdom, dismissed the allegation. The protesters were Eswatini citizens targeting the business interests of the king, said Godrich Gardee, the party’s head of international relations.

Mswati’s assets include personal stakes in companies including the local unit of Johannesburg-based MTN Group, Africa’s biggest mobile phone operator. He also holds interests in the sugar industry, hotels, shopping malls and the domestic unit of Anheuser-Busch InBev as a trustee for the kingdom.

“It’s the crux of the issue,” said Wandile Dludlu, secretary-general of the People’s United Democratic Movement opposition group.

“The absolute power is exactly what gives him unlimited access to not only state resources, but also control over the private business space.”

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