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‘An occasion to change the balance of forces in the country’

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Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS/Taken 28/03/2019, Kemptonpark – President Cyril Ramaphosa held a meeting with His Majesty King Mswati III of the Kingdom of eSwatini in South Africa in March 2019 at which the two leaders discussed strengthening bilateral relations. Human Rights Watch has called on South Africa to launch its own investigation into the allegation of South African mercenary activity in eSwatini.

By Katharine Bebington

Eswatini started 2023 at the forefront of the world’s attention following the death of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.

The world turned its gaze on the situation in the kingdom. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has continued to grapple with the situation, but its interventions have not progressed.

Aside from the additional interest that the kingdom received following Maseko’s death, eSwatini is set to host elections in 2023, an occasion that is sure to change the current balance of forces in the country.

On January 21, Maseko – a prominent human rights lawyer – was shot and killed in his house. He was an outspoken opponent of the political system in the country and the chairperson of the Swaziland MultiStakeholder Forum (MSF).

The MSF is a forum of political parties in eSwatini that has been leading the calls for democratic reform in the kingdom. The Solidarity Network claims that the government has hired mercenaries from South Africa, the Middle East and Asia to carry out assassinations and torture.

The government has denied any involvement in Maseko’s death and has indicated that it will not rest until the perpetrators have been brought to book. However, its denial of any involvement is undermined by the comments that King Mswati made only a few hours before Maseko’s murder, when he said activists should not “shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them”.

The government has denied that there are any mercenaries operating in eSwatini, but it did indicate that the government has engaged the services of security experts to assist with security issues that the kingdom faces.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent, impartial and transparent investigation into Maseko’s death and has also called on South Africa to launch its own investigation into the allegation of South African mercenary activity in eSwatini.

The African Union (AU) also called for an independent inquiry to investigate the murder, while the EU called Maseko’s death a brutal assassination and called for the launch of the delayed national dialogue.

In addition, the UN, US and UK all condemned Maseko’s killing and along with the EU, sent delegates to his memorial service. Maseko’s murder has made it harder to ignore the tension playing out in the kingdom and has opened the monarchy and the government up to renewed criticism.

Nine days after Maseko’s murder, the SADC convened its extraordinary organ troika summit in Namibia and condemned the killings and damage to property that has taken place in eSwatini, urged the government to initiate the national dialogue processes and called for a transparent investigation into the murder of Maseko.

The chairperson of the organ, Namibian President Hage Geingob, did acknowledge that there has been an increase in tensions in eSwatini, indicating that the incidents were regrettable and called for peaceful solutions to the challenges that eSwatini faces.

However, the presentations made by eSwatini to the organ do not point to a national dialogue taking place soon. A government spokesperson indicated the government’s reticence to engage with pro-democracy stakeholders that it alleges have threatened to kill and destroy the homes of people who do not share their pro-democracy sentiment. The government’s position is that it is prepared to go to a national dialogue, but that the pro-democracy stakeholders are the ones delaying the dialogue.

However, comments from the government that it believes pro-democracy stakeholders are a threat do not inspire confidence that it is prepared to sit around the table with these stakeholders. The national dialogue is the intervention proposed and supported by the SADC.

However, a year after it should have taken place, eSwatini appears to be no closer to holding the dialogue. A time will come for the SADC to either propose a new solution to the challenges in eSwatini or intervene more directly to ensure that the national dialogue does take place.

In addition, 2023 is an election year in eSwatini, which is an absolute monarchy. It has a unique electoral system, known as the Tinkhundla system, to conduct elections. The House of Assembly is made up of 66 seats, where 55 are elected via elections, 10 are appointed by the king and the remaining seat is given to the speaker of parliament, who is chosen from outside parliament.

The senate is made up of 31 members, 10 of whom are selected by the House of Assembly and 20 of whom are selected by the king. Under the Tinkhundla system, eSwatini is divided up into constituencies known as Inkhundla (Tinkhundla in plural). The Tinkhundla is then divided into smaller chiefdoms, where the first phase of elections takes place.

Nominations for candidates to the legislature are done at the community level and in the open, where a person’s name is called out and by a show of hands the community indicates if they nominate that person. The nominee either accepts or rejects the nomination. A chiefdom must have at least three nominees, but no more than 20. Following the nomination process, primary elections take place in the chiefdom via secret ballot. The primary elections must produce one candidate to contest the secondary elections.

Between the primary and secondary elections, the candidates have an opportunity to campaign for votes. However, since political parties are banned in eSwatini, candidates must campaign on a non-partisan basis. The secondary elections take place at the Inkhundla level to decide on the candidates who will represent the Inkhundla at the national level.

Elections are also proving to be a point of contention among pro-democracy parties, as opinions are divided on whether to compete in the elections. Elections do provide an opportunity to get pro-democracy candidates into the national legislature, but an argument against competing in elections is that participation may be interpreted as condoning the current system of elections.

Having pro-democracy members of parliament could advance the argument for democratic reforms. A strong performance from pro-democracy candidates in the elections would undermine the monarchy’s argument that pro-democracy activists are in the minority in the kingdom and that the majority supports the status quo.

Alternatively, a strong performance from pro-monarchy candidates would strengthen the position of the monarchy and the argument that the monarchy enjoys the support of most of the population. The elections have the potential to escalate the tension.

As such, the build-up to the elections, the elections themselves and the post-election period should also be observed closely.

Katharine Bebington is a programme officer in the research unit at Accord

The article was first published on Accord