As tension reigns, relatives mourn victims of Eswatini’s crackdown | ESwatini News

Khohliwe Mathunjwa is in mourning. It is also blocked.

His nephew, Sicelo Mathunjwa, 35, was shot in the head on Tuesday night when Eswatini police dispersed crowds with gunshots in Matsapha, a small industrial center about 35 km (21 miles) from the capital, Mbabane.

“Sicelo is dead, he died instantly,” Mathunjwa told Al Jazeera, claiming that she could not leave her village of Mazombiswe to go to the village of her nephew, Hosea, about 30 km (18 miles ), and pay him a final tribute due to the tensions in this small landlocked country formerly known as Swaziland.

For days, Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has been rocked by the biggest pro-democracy protests in years that have seen security forces engage mainly young protesters defying a nighttime curfew in fighting. street.

Mathunjwa said his nephew, a garment factory worker, was present when police opened fire on protesters who set fire to a building owned by Eswatini Beverages, a company partly owned by King Mswati III.

“He was near the Matsapha brewery that night,” the 59-year-old said in a telephone interview. “My children went to the mortuary to identify the body and saw a hole in the back of its head.”

Activists from two political movements, the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) and the United People’s Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), told Al Jazeera that at least 40 people were killed in the crackdown.

But in a statement released Thursday, the office of acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku said it “has yet to receive official reports on the alleged deaths.” We will investigate the allegations.

Calls for “political plurality, responsibility”

Although protests demanding political reform are rare, they are not new to Eswatini.

Tensions have simmered for months in the mountainous kingdom, where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated socio-economic grievances and whose monarch and his relatives have been criticized for leading an opulent life when most of the country’s population live in crushing misery.

The current protests were sparked by a June 24 decree from the king banning citizens from petitioning parliamentarians to demand democratic reforms. It followed a public outcry over the alleged murder by police of law student Thabani Nkomonye in May.

Businesses in Matsapha were looted and torched by protesters, but the presence of security forces on the streets made citizens vulnerable to the use of force.

“Dangerous civil unrest continues in Eswatini, including the use of lethal force by security forces,” the United States Embassy in the country said in a statement. declaration this week, noting communication interruptions.

A strict nighttime curfew, meanwhile, emptied the streets, while the airport and public transport system were closed. The PSC said 13 of its members were arrested.

“We are not surprised by the strong response of the regime,” Mlungisi Makhanya, head of PUDEMO, told Al Jazeera. “We the people are saying that we have to open up the constitutional space… for people to make their own choices about how they want to be governed,” he said.

“We need to transition to a new dispensation where there is political plurality and responsible leadership to its people, not one that hardens hearts against the monarchy,” he told Al Jazeera.

Although the small kingdom of 1.2 million people supports the monarchical regime, Makhanya warned that Mswati’s continued absolutism risked intensifying calls for a republic.

Crowned regent at the age of 18, Mswati inherited the throne from his father, King Sobhuza II, who banned the registration of political parties in 1973.

Instead, the country’s system allows candidates to run for parliamentary seats individually, leaving no room for a political party to hold a majority in parliament. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King, who holds all executive power.

The king has not addressed the protests throughout the week – a tactic, observers say, which is in line with the monarchy’s modus operandi if something goes wrong.

“Pro-democracy sentiments in Eswatini are nothing new. These are feelings that people have had for decades and the monarchy was able to overcome things through a combination of stick and carrot mechanisms, ”Menzi Ndhlovu, senior political and country risk analyst at Signal Risk, told the program. Inside Story of Al Jazeera. Thursday.

“In times of unrest, the monarchy tends to be silent until things are in order. It’s no surprise that the King has kept his silence while his generals and police officers get the job done, calm the people down, and then when things are a little quieter he will likely come out and speak.

Earlier this week, Masuku, the acting prime minister, dispelled speculation that Mswati had left the country. He then called the protests “heartbreaking and alarming” and told people to “report their concerns” to the government by email.

He also maintained that the deployment of security forces should ensure order.

“The government has stepped up security to restore the rule of law, peace and protect all emaSwati. We will continue not to tolerate looting, arson, violence and all other forms of crime that target businesses and people’s property, ”he said in a statement Thursday.

A fire on a road in the capital of Eswatini, Mbabane, Tuesday [AFP]

Calls for dialogue

Thabani Maseko, lawyer and activist, said growing discontent over Mswati’s crackdown on citizens could escalate into a crisis of legitimacy. During his imprisonment in 2015 for criticizing the justice system, Maseko wrote an open letter to former United States President Barack Obama, begging him to persuade other world leaders to push for constitutional change.

However, Maseko believes the only way out of “total chaos” is through dialogue.

“An attempt is underway to reach all stakeholders in civil society, unions, youth groups, businesses and churches to meet and find consensus. We are trying to create a platform for negotiations with the government, but it is difficult because the lines of communication are cut and travel is difficult, ”he said.

“The only way to end this tension is for the government to see dialogue as necessary to find a way forward,” he said.

However, for politicians living in exile, like the secretary general of the PSC, Kenneth Kunene, the first condition for dialogue is “the de-ban on political parties”.

Unable to return to Eswatini for fear of persecution, Kunene and dozens of her party members found refuge in neighboring South Africa.

The South African regional heavyweight on Thursday expressed his “great concern” at the actions of the security forces and called on them to show “total restraint and protect the lives and property of the population”.

“We are particularly concerned by reports of deaths and destruction of property,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said.

Back in Mazombiswe, Mathunjwa mourns the loss of her nephew and father of three children.

“Her father passed away a long time ago and he had to take on the role,” she said. “He was the only boy in my brother’s house, he is the only boy on the farm, now his sisters will have to take care of the family,” Mathunjwa added.

“We will remember him as a loving person and a communicator who united the whole family. It’s really painful for us. “

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