DECODING THE SIGNALS EMITTED BY THE TINKHUNDLA REGIME DURING THE CRISIS PERIOD
"In the art of war, each belligerent chooses the terrain considered most advantageous for its battle for the offensive and tries to impose that terrain on its adversary, so that it is put on the defensive. The same goes for politics. The same goes for politics, both at the national level and in the geopolitical struggles" - Samir Amin
eSwatini is currently embroiled in a moment characterised by sporadic civil unrest incidents and deadly tensions as legitimate moves towards a democratic new are being violently opposed by the absolute rule state apparatus. Side by side with the violent crackdown, the regime has engaged on a push back offensive propaganda wise to counter the pro-democracy narrative and to communicate how they see a way forward out of the crisis. The response of the regime has mainly been hidden in coded messages sent out by the King, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry in the period since the first points of tension in late June 2021.
The king has made three public pronouncements, since the unrest ensured in late June, and in these addresses that last between thirty to fifty minutes he has spent less than five minutes dealing with the contentious contemporary issues. Even in those few minutes he speaks in indirect coded language without giving away completely what his thought are and he often leaves people none the wiser or gets them concentrating on none core parts of his speech.
In his first address on 14 July at Sibaya in Lobamba the king firstly acknowledged that there was a constitutional crisis facing the country. He also commented briefly that the agitations for change were coming from an unlikely but legitimate platform of parliament and therefore he had no choice but to institute a process to deal with demand. He then placed COVID-19 as an impediment to the immediate auctioning of the matter because he insisted that before the matter could reach parliament it first had to go through Sibaya as per the constitution of the country.
In essence, the King threw the current constitution of the country in which Members of Parliament have no direct power to introduce legislation to the rest of the country. In the current constitutional order, only the government enjoys the right and privilege and the argument advanced by the King was that the government would need some form of mandate to do so. Sibaya would cover the issue of the mandate.
The king also knew how easy Sibaya and all the traditional platforms could be manipulated and how they have been historically manipulated to reflect his will and not that of the people. Sibaya, the chiefs and royal household in its entirety are now deeply subordinated to his wishes and cannot function as a legitimate advisory structure to him at any rate. In his reasoning, the outcome of Sibaya is predetermined and from this he would reform the system to his liking.
The king’s second public address was on 6 September 2021 when he launched the Reconstruction Fund at Lozitha. During his speech, the king again broached this subject but this time around he focused his attention on representative politics. In a nutshell, he told his audience that, contrary to popular world-wide belief that the country was undemocratic and that democracy was an unknown concept to him, he actually understood precisely what democracy is and was in fact leading the country within a framework of democracy. In his usual indirect style of address, he sarcastically informed the proponents of democracy and their teachers (international supporters) that in his eSwatini democracy is clearly understood and the understanding was that democracy is the rule by the majority.
This was now a slight shift from his earlier statement. Perhaps upon doing their calculations, noting the number of MPs who had come out in the open to call for democracy against those who remained silent or remained in full support the king, now felt assured that his state was still intact and would survive the whirling winds. He also sought to cement the notion that political parties or the pro-democracy movement in general was not carrying the mandate of the majority, instead he was, that even though eSwatini might not be practising political plurality in the form of political party participation in its system, but still it was a system that carried the mandate of the people of the country.
The King’s third address was on 15 October 2021 when he officiated the opening of the Mbabane Government Hospital’s new wing. This time he directed his focus on dialogue. In that address, he stopped short of ruling out any form of dialogue because in not so many words he insinuated that the political opposition in the country was not formidable, nor were they serious or carried enough weight for him to negotiate with. He used ill-timed humour to castigate the opposition as drunks and dagga smokers who were not worth his time.
From these addresses by the king, three propositions emerge. Firstly, there is no form of dialogue he will hold with the pro-democracy movement because, by his calculations at least, he is exercising powers with a mandate by the majority. To demonstrate the above beyond doubt he hopes the Sibaya forum which, following a strong intervention from the current SADC Organ Troika Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa, he had pledged to convene after the Incwala formalities but within three months.
THE PRIME MINISTER AND OTHER SENIOR OFFICIALS
Building on the addresses of the king, the Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini around 13 October 2021 was interviewed during the Dubai Expo by CNN and on that occasion provided specificities and also gave away the deeper patterns of thinking of the regime regarding the way forward in dealing with the pro-democracy movement in the country. In the interview with CNN the Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini revealed that they regarded the pro-democracy movement as an insignificant percentage of the eSwatini population. In a separate interview the Prime Minister indicated that no international body can force them to negotiate through any method but that which is in their constitution.
Obviously, the Prime Minister’s utterances served to internationalise of the king’s later line of approach to the crisis facing the country. They now sought to reject that they were on a back foot and to steer the focus away from the international call for negotiations and transition to a democratic order.
The Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku, together with the Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry Mancoba Khumalo, in separate South African media interviews within October 2021 both revealed in not so many words that the country’s challenges were only going to be resolved through a process of constitutional amendments.
Of course, their sentiments kept within the framework that had been built by the king in his speeches and interviews served to present this framework to the international community.
PIERCING TOGETHER THE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
The different pronouncements when pieced together give a coherent solid picture that the government is communicating to the international community, to the pro-democracy movement and the rest citizens of the country. The highlights are presented as follows:
1. The King realises that his house is on fire but he still does not believe the fire will do any extensive damage and sooner or later will extinguish.
2. There are indications that within the regime internal discussions are taking place with a view to carry out window-dressing reforms through a constitutional amendment process that will be presented as the outcome of the proposed Sibaya.
3. Sibaya is therefore central to the regime constitutionally, ideologically and practically.
Constitutionally, section 231 (1) of the constitution is clear that “The people through Sibaya constitute the highest policy and advisory council (Libandla) of the nation”. This constitutional clause provides the king with a rebuttal tool against any suggestion, local and international, to use any other method to proceed and they would want to milk this constitutional clause to its last drop at this stage. However, it is worth pointing out that the king long repudiated the Sibaya’s statue in the constitution by openly disregarding input made by citizens there by his own ideas that he might have had even before calling Sibaya.
Ideologically, Sibaya continues to entrench the notion of eSwatini being a kingdom deeply steeped in culture as the basis of its existence. That all things in the country are based on the cultural understanding first and foremost then they can proceed to modern institutions such as parliament.
Practically, Sibaya is a home ground advantage for the king and regime and essentially the king chairs and gets to decide the next course of action after submissions. In the past, he has convened Sibaya but not even hinted at making a follow up regarding popular submissions made by members of the public at Sibaya.
In terms of rituals the regime believes primarily in the power of their ritual activities and as long as they can effectively carry out rituals before gatherings in the privacy of their residence, then their confidence remains intact. This is the comfort that Sibaya will serve to the ruling household. This is where they are most comfortable to start the process so that they can ensure that all rituals are performed for an outcome that favours them. Procedure at Sibaya is extremely unfair to groups such as women who have a long list of things they cannot do in conformity with emaSwati culture.
From statements by the Multi Stakeholder Forum (representing the pro-democracy forces in the form of political parties and NGOs on the country) it is clear that they out rightly reject any move to have dialogue at Sibaya. They have said they prefer to dialogue at a neutral venue with an internationally mandated mediation team. This indicates that the road to a political settlement is still rocky and layered with many minefields.
NB: Fundizwi writes this article in his personal capacity and the views expressed are his own and do not, in any way, reflect those of the organizations he serve.