Revolt against Africa's last absolute King

04.07.2021

Article published at Diari Ara.

The struggle for democracy in the former kingdom of Swaziland questions the future of the despot Mswati III

The kingdom of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland and bordering the Republic of South Africa, is the last absolute monarchy in Africa. And for the past few days, the kingdom has been tottering. Last Monday, South African broadcaster SABC News announced that the all-powerful King Mswati III had fled the country after the violent outbreak of pro-democracy protests. These protests have been going on since May and have intensified in the last few days due to the population's suspicions about the flight of their monarch. The day after the publication of this information, however, the government denied it, and since then no image of the King has been published and his whereabouts are still unknown.

King Mswati III, 53, lives in a parallel reality to his 1.3 million subjects: he earns an annual salary of $50 million while 60% of the population lives in poverty on less than $1.90 a day. The monarch controls the political power - since 1973 there are no political parties and the country is governed by a system of government by decree - and also the economic power - Mswati III has investments in the big companies of the country. In fact, the attacks of the demonstrators are directed against these companies. Images of the Eswatini Beverages beverage factory, in which the King has holdings, in flames, have been seen on different media platforms.

But let's go back to the beginning. The demonstrations erupted after the death of student Thabani Nkomonye on May 17th. His body did not turn up until five days later and the police argued that he had lost his life in a road accident. Suspicions of police involvement in the young man's death spurred protests against the crackdown, which grew bigger and bigger on Monday after parliamentarians were banned by decree from petitioning the government. Three MPs had sent a request to be able to choose the Prime Minister, currently appointed by the King. The demand was seconded by more elected officials in 59 districts of the country. Faced with an avalanche of petitions, the government suspended them.

And this ban sparked scenes of violence in several cities across the territory. There have been reports of roadblocks and the burning of property. The government has responded to the protesters with violence and has even deployed the army. At least eight people have been killed, although the opposition speaks of more than 40. The government, however, has shut down internet connections and there is very little information flowing. In addition, it has decreed a curfew from five in the evening to six in the morning. Even so, this has not stopped the protests from continuing.

A monarch who is a thug

The country's citizens have long been aware of the eccentricities of Mswati III, who has ruled since he turned 18 in 1986 and often dresses in traditional dress. In 2018, he celebrated his 50th birthday with a surprise announcement: the country was changing its name. Fed up with the name Swaziland being confused in English with Switzerland - Swaziland and Switzerland, respectively - the monarch said they would switch to the pre-colonial name: Eswatini.

To celebrate the christening, he gave himself an Airbus A340-300 with a capacity of 227 people in which he travels with his 15 wives and 23 children. To store it, he had a special hangar built. All in all, the toy cost him around 160 million euros. The previous year he had already bought 15 Rolls Royces and 80 BMWs for the exclusive use of his family, at a cost of 15 million dollars.

The success of the popular uprising will also depend on the role of the international community. The United Kingdom and the United States have already criticized the police violence, but South Africa's position is particularly relevant. Eswatini depends almost exclusively on trade with the neighbouring country, from which it imports 70% of its products and where it exports 65% of its own, mainly cane sugar and forestry products. The South African government is concerned that the continuation of the protests will cause a humanitarian crisis with thousands of people crossing the border into South Africa. So far, South Africa has only asked the security forces for restraint. But if they persist and international pressure increases, Africa's last absolutist monarch could fall. The news is expected by many of the country's young people, who are in the majority: the median age in Eswatini is 20 and more than a third of the population is under 15. The prospects of reduced economic growth and stagnating poverty reduction present a bleak future for them.