Blow by blow account of the events that gave us both a massacre and a humanitarian crisis

For the first time in the history of eSwatini the Commander in Chief of the Umbutfo Eswatini Defence Force (UEDF), His Majesty King Mswati III, commandeered his army to take up arms and mow down his own people. Conservative statistics point to at least 45 people dead, most of whom were mercilessly executed by gunfire at point blank range in broad daylight by the combined might of both the army and the police’s paramilitary force, the Operations Service Support Unit (OSSU). The scale of the violence of the last few days has been unprecedented in the history of the kingdom. History will remember this week as the day King Mswati III reintroduced himself to the nation as the knight who returns home with his sword dripping with the blood of his own people. Off the window went the halcyon days. A new nation has been birthed, on the corpses of ordinary citizens. A once revered monarchy is now irredeemably stained, the blood of his people dripping from his hands.

Where it all started

What started as a #JusticeForThabani movement, organised and led by the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), quickly escalated to a demand for the election of a Prime Minister soon as the ‘Democracy MP’s, as the troika of Mthandeni Dube, Bacede Mabuza and Mduduzi Magawugawu Simalane are now popularly known, witnessed the heavy handed response of the police to a peaceful memorial service organised for Nkomonye at Fairview in Manzini. Rewind only just a few days before, and you have a widely circulating video of police officers insulting and assaulting a man calling him all manner of profanities.

This video angered the public to a point that the National Commissioner of the police was forced to do some mitigating PR exercise and condemned the overzealous actions of the police. He went as far as claiming disciplinary action would be taken against the offending officers. With such palpable anger against the police, throwing in the mix the mysterious death of law student Thabani Nkomonye, allegedly under the very cops, and you had a nation waiting just for the right moment to explode and vent out all those years of bottled up anger. But all this anger needed the three MP’s to cook and then serve at the right moment.

One of the iconic images that came out of the Msunduza banned rally

It was after the MP’s had witnessed firsthand police tear gas old women and children who had attended the memorial service held in preparation to bury Nkomonye that they returned to parliament changed men altogether. If in the past they had become a ‘defacto’ opposition to the Tinkhundla government, reprimanding the regime in fearful whispers, this time around they had found some testicular fortitude never seen before in contemporary history. On that day the demand to elect the country’s Prime Minister was born right inside the belly of the beast—shocking some and inspiring many. If in the past the MP’s wanted a slice of the cake they now wanted the entire ingredients, baking stove and for good measure, the bloody kitchen. The demand to elect our own Prime Minister, and by extension our own government, gained traction soon as there was an outpour of support from the public especially after other MP’s tried to play the grovelling card and distanced themselves from the ‘democracy MP’s’.

Even the Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku made a dismissive rebuke calling on the MP’s to seek mandate from their constituencies if they so much as wanted to be listened to. Hosea MP Bacede Mabuza was the first to flex his muscle and hosted a meeting in his constituency where people, young and old, echoed his call for an elected Prime Minister. It was a spectacular show of force, deep in the rural areas where the monarchy is wont to telling the world it had unfettered support. This meeting went viral on social media and shocked those who had underestimated not just Mabuza’s popularity within his constituency but the growing support for a Prime Minister elected by the people.

Youth blockading roads at a rally in Msunduza during the early stages of the uprising

Angered by the response of other MP’s, who had earlier on rejected the call for an elected Prime Minister, the public quickly started a campaign of texting their MP’s demanding that they support the ‘democracy MP’s’. Their conversations were circulated on social media and instead of acknowledging public anger the MP’s, and government officials, called the public ‘cyber bullies’. While everyone was still catching breath the first march to deliver a petition to Manzini North MP Macford Sibandze broke out. Even though this march didn’t attract as many numbers it was historic in that it took activism to the doorstep of Tinkhundla centres, the epicentre of the country’s politics.

Other young people from other constituencies got inspiration and within a few days there were matches in all the 59 different Tinknundla Centres. By the time Sithobelweni Inkhundla hosted their match, by far the biggest, the momentum had built to a fever pitch and in its wake left a united political front for activists coming from different political parties. The marches were still peaceful then and providing nothing more than a picturesque ‘T shirt revolution’ as political parties tried to outclass each other in terms of public visibility and branding. But the Acting Prime Minister was to gift the marches the much needed jet fuel to take activism to the next level. He banned the marches claiming they were offending COVID regulations much to the ire of the entire country.

MP Simelane saw this as his chance to square up the earlier ‘Becede show of force’ and announced he was still welcome to receive a petition. Simelane read very well the public mood and fanned the tensions that were building to a crescendo. At this point, everyone was dying to attend the march even if just as a show of defiance. As usual, the police drew from their old script and tried to not just stop the petition but also to limit Simelane’s movements on the day. At some point they even wanted to enforce Simelane’s travel restrictions by claiming he didn’t have a mask on even as it hung loose on his chin. When all other frivolous reasoning failed they just told him straight to his face that his constitutional right to free movement was being suspended for only just a day. Senior cop Ndlangamandla delivered the news as rolling phone cameras captured everything. It was a historic moment seeing a senior police officer openly saying they were going to defying the constitution they are meant to enforce. Tensions were by then rising, if police could treat public representatives like this what then of the average joe?

The student protest to the Matsapha police station demanding answers on what caused Thabani's death

The Damascus moment

If eSwatini needed its own Damascus moment then Msunduza gifted it wrapped in gold. It was here that it became a mini war zone as police tried to ban the delivery of petitions at Mbabane West Inkhundla. The imagery of young people fighting armed to the teeth police officers with nothing but stones inspired the nation and showed that police were not invincible after all. Iconic images of activists holding tear gas, throwing stones and fighting courageously inspired a nation already resenting a police force that had insulted and assaulted a man, allegedly killed Thabani and now being used to suppress the democratic right of protestors.

Then came Zweli Zwemart Dlamini’s viral #KungahlwaKwenile, which, by sheer coincidence, had anchored a circulating pamphlet by the Institute of Alternative Ideas that called for protests to be held at night. People embraced the cryptic #KungahlwaKwenile (darkness is concealment) viral hashtag and just like that the country exploded. For two days running police were stretched beyond capacity trying to contain protests, vandalism and looting. From the north to the south, the country burnt and nothing was spared. At some point police just stood helplessly as runaway protestors just helped themselves to every shop available. Adding correctional services officers did not help and by the time the army was roped in the country was like a ghost town. What followed, perhaps motivated by vengeance and spite, was a massacre in its crystal and brutal form. Soldiers ransacked the country looking for ring leaders, asking people why they had so much food and shooting people at point blank range, execution style.

They didn’t care that they were being seen or watched. It was an execution with royal impunity. The next morning bodies were discovered all over the country and overwhelmed by bad publicity, and a false report that the king had fled, the government closed the internet and paralysed communication in the entire country. The world couldn’t report the full scale of the massacre that had happened on Wednesday night. At best foreign press had to rely on pictures circulating on the internet but they didn’t provide much context for a world media with little knowledge about the country except 'the king marries wives year after year’. But these leaking images were just too gory to come from an otherwise peaceful country and the number of those killed too ‘inflated’ for a nation known for ‘peace’.

The night of the army massacre

Yes, the police and army had killed people but 10, 20, 30 and damn well over 40 sounded way too exaggerated even to the most pessimistic person. Yet that was the truth, a conservative figure even. The army had killed as many people and injured more. It is understandable why the international media preferred a measured response when reporting on the army’s massacre. They were treading with caution after being misled that the king had fled. They now didn’t trust information coming from the kingdom and it didn’t help that some people were circulating widespread false rumours that police and army had exchanged gunfire or that the king had killed his son, Prince Sicalo. Even more disappointing were rumours that the government had delcaired martial law because procedurally that can only be done under a military government, a situation the country was far from. Things were not made easier that South Africa was on level four lock down and travel restrictions limited movement hence the media could not report the news from inside the country and had to rely on the very people they now didn’t trust. However, when the full scale of the deaths, now accompanied by a name and face, the international community was astounded.

All organisations called for an immediate end of the violence and called for the government to dialogue. From the African Union to the otherwise conservative Business Eswatini, all voices united in the need for dialogue to break the political impasse. Swazis found solidarity from all significant political players in the region and zoom meeting after zoom meeting everyone wanted a role to play. As hospitals got inundated with casualties of the army massacre the emergency wards were almost full. The picture of the killings and extent of the destruction was clearly visible by long lines at petrol stations, queues at shops and the strewn bodies lying dead along roads.

The videos shared on social media only helped to magnify the gravity of the situation and the possibility of a humanitarian crisis. The government’s July 1 statement made a casual reference to the massacre by claiming the government was “yet to receive official reports about alleged deaths due to the riots.” The statement could not have been complete without the usual “We will investigate these allegations.”

Princess Sikhanyiso calls for calm

Nothing was communicated after that until Princes Sikhanyiso, perhaps seeing the vacuum of leadership caused by her father’s inexplicable silence, tried to calm the nation and apologized for his family’s behavior on national radio.

Despite her best shot at civility, the public just told her to "phuck off". At the time of this report, the government had started on a push back narrative blaming China, foreign mercenaries and everything in between. Even Alex Fakudze, Insight Magic founder and businessman, had nailed his colours on the mast by creating a fake voice message and then circulating it on WhatsApp promising war to ‘puppets of China’ who wanted to disturb the kingdom’s so called peace. In Fakudze’s Voice Note, and subsequent Princess Sikhanyiso’s BBC interview, the ‘blame China’ and ‘foreign mercenaries’ narrative become a running theme repeated in bot social media accounts and obscure media websites.

Meanwhile, PUDEMO President Mlungisi Makhanya, together with countless activists, are reportedly being wanted for charges of high treason. Unconfirmed reports are that warrants of arrest have been issued against leading PUDEMO activists who are thought to have been instigators of the riots. In all of this the king has remained eerily silent. And yes, all this happened in just two months too. What a time to be alive!

NB: All pictures used here are to be credited to the photographers soon as we are alerted to who took them