From 1968 to 2021: its been a long walk to (deferred) freedom

 In order to understand the current unrest in the country, one must appreciate the evolution of the Dlamini dynasty and how the royal family has been the drivers of the country's politics and its ultimate degeneration. eSwatini is the last country on earth with a shamanic leadership ruled by ancestors communicating through a single leader. The political contest, therefore, has always been between those who want a modern system of governance and those who want to sustain this semi-feudal and backward shamanic leadership style. 

The starting point for where we are today is independence in 1968 when King Sobhuza's party, the Imbokodvo national movement, won a landslide victory with all contested seats going to his neo-traditionalist party centred on the Dlamini royal family. The subsequent Imbokodvo government advanced the Dlamini royalist cause, something that the royal family had been doing for half a century under British colonial rule. For example, when Sobhuza appointed the first cabinet no one was surprised that half shared his surname and the rest were political fellow travellers. In the following election, however, the opposition won two seats and openly contested his authority in parliament.

Sobhuza’s reaction was simple; he dumped the constitution, declared a state of emergency and ruled by direct decree. The concentration of all executive powers continued to this day and the state of emergency was never rescinded. But there is a very different monarch in power today. Where once Sobhuza followed an ascetic lifestyle and was able to finesse difficult situations making him widely respected, his son, Mswati, has taken another path.

King Mswati III’s need for money has increased exponentially over the last fifteen years. His friends are autocratic Gulf State rulers like Equatorial Guinea dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and, until he came to a sticky end, Gaddafi. But these rulers have oil based economies and eSwatini has a tiny industrial base, few minerals and no oil. Spurred on by the lifestyles that he experiences overseas Mswati bought a jet, then another much bigger one. At his 50th birthday party he was photographed in a custom-made diamond encrusted suit, stiff with gems.

The late King Sobhuza II. His 1973 Decree banned political parties and transferred political power to him.

The bling is clearly evident in royal buildings and lifestyles, leading one commentator to describe it as “a Gulf State without oil”. The king moves between palaces furnished with ornate gilded furniture that would have made Louis XIV gasp. This is extremely costly, and over the past fifteen years more and more money has been siphoned off to the ruling family as the king’s lifestyle expanded and his children reached adulthood and needed their own extensive homes.

When people questioned the right of the royals to subvert the government coffers for their own use the king acted. The justice system, which was once reasonably impartial with elderly South African judges in the highest court of appeal, was abandoned. When it was reconstituted a few years later it was heavily skewed to favouring the neo-Traditionalist Dlamini royal clan with a whole new set of judges appointed for their willingness to support the monarchy at any cost.

For over a year the government never lost a case. Without a free and fair court system foreign investment dried up, and many people with money quietly moved it out. Huge iconic government construction projects soaked up much of the available government budget, education and health were neglected. One hotel in Ezulwini is reputedly the most expensive building in Africa. It has yet to be finished or furnished. Then the king acquired a Rolls-Royce for each queen - and there are around thirteen queens, give or take a couple.

The cars probably cost far less than a 180 seater jet to buy and run, but the Rolls-Royces really shocked people. Unemployment rose. Princes and some princesses were handed whole sections of the economy – road construction, freight transport, sectors of scale. No one was astounded when royalty got contract after contract from the government, leaving long established businesses out in the cold. More jobs were lost. All this at a time when digital literacy was spreading through schools. An entrepreneur, Natie Kirsh, started out in Swaziland as a young man.

 King Mswati posing with his family. The monarch likes bling

Decades later as a dollar billionaire he put computers in schools across the land, and people put cell phones in their hands. Swaziland was connected. Facebook and Twitter spread, sometimes giving a semblance of the glitzy life, but it was a brittle façade, there was still grinding poverty in the face of royal excess. Then Covid arrived and the economy contracted further. Facebook sites with names like Swazi Royal Leeches started, clearly showing that the rumours of excessive wealth and privilege were true.

A journalist and part time detective Zweli Martin Dlamini (aka Zwemart) started criticising the government openly, eventually he spent some days hiding from police in a forest and then fled to SA. There he started a Facebook page, Swaziland News. The king tried to take Zweli to court in SA, instead of quietening him the case provided Zweli with credibility and access to a larger audience and won him public sympathy. Amidst all of this a young law student, Thabani, was stopped by the police near Manzini / Matsapha.

He then disappeared, his body was found in some bushes a few days later, the police said that there had been a car accident, and that he had been thrown from the car. But there were bullet holes in his body, and it had been clearly dragged some distance. The family looked for the car, eventually they found it concealed behind a distant police station, when the family looked behind the number plate there was a bullet hole.

An artwork of the late Thabani Nkomonye who was allegedly killed by police

They took photos of this and posted them on Facebook. A movement rapidly grew, “Justice for Thabani”, and he became a highly emotive Steve Biko-like figure, the centre for royalist opposition. Three vocal MPs called for the right to elect a Prime Minister, rather than have him appointed by the king. There was a mass movement to present a petition to the Acting Prime Minister, Themba Masuku. The government banned handing in petitions and said that they had to be submitted by email because of the Covid risk. Then they shut down the internet.

But it was too little, too late for the authorities, the movement had their martyr in Thabani who focused much wider anger. If long term poverty is the ultimate cause of the uprising, Thabani’s murder was the proximate cause. But there is another factor. Without social media the police explanation would have been disbelieved, but could not have been credibly contested by his friends and family. On social media the Justice for Thabani movement spread like wildfire. There were photos of the car with bullet holes on phones across the land. When newspaper billboards declared that his body had ninety or so holes, and his eyes had been removed, the country crossed a watershed.

There were ten days or so of tension. During this brief period of threats and counter threats the Commissioner of Police declared that “This is war”. A cabinet minister, Prince Simelane, declared that the authorities would “Fight Fire With Fire”. This was reported in newspaper headlines, Facebook sites and billboards across the country. It did not turn out quite the way that the prince expected. Instead of being cowed, politically motivated groups used the “Fight Fire With Fire” threat, responding “Okay, then we will burn the country”. And boy they have.