Challenging the Last King of Africa as Disagreements Grow in Eswatini

As the crackdown restored calm, the deaths of at least 27 people during a week of unrest drew renewed international attention from the kingdom. Protesters demanded that King Mswati III, who has ruled South Africa’s neighbor for more than three decades, relinquish some control.

While governments, including the US, have called for dialogue, authorities have insisted that any amendment to the constitution must pass through parliament. That means that the king must agree to proposals to limit his powers.

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Earlier this week, Mswati, 53, convened a national policy meeting known as a Sibaya, which usually only takes place once a year, as activists would resume demonstrations on the same day.

At Friday’s meeting, the king, who sat on a golden chair and was draped in traditional regalia of red, black and white, rejected the calls for change. He reiterated his government’s position that there are existing systems for people to file their grievances against the state. Mswati was the only person to address the meeting, where he also appointed Cleopas Dlamini as the country’s new prime minister.

“Everything in the land belongs to the king and if they destroy it, they cause pain to the king,” he said. “This is not a country that if you want something you have to scare people in a certain way and then tell people to listen to you.”

As Mswati spoke, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a protest less than a 30-minute drive away, according to Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer in Eswatini. A helicopter circled above him during the demonstration, he said by text message.

Almost impossible
Activists say the existing constitution is designed to protect the status quo, making it nearly impossible to change, and that democracy must be mediated internationally.

“It would be a waste of time,” Angelo Dube, a professor of international law at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, said in response to email inquiries to follow existing rules to amend the constitution through parliament. Any lawmaker who attempts this “will likely be banned by his/her peers and may attract harassment from the state,” he said.

The king elects the prime minister and his cabinet and has the power to nominate nearly a third of the MPs. He appoints the director of the prosecution, is commander-in-chief of the army and police, and is immune from charges and paying taxes.

Two-thirds of lawmakers must approve an amendment to the constitution, which the king can then reject. If the changes are related to clauses about his pay, or his immunity from paying taxes or prosecution, 75% approval is required. If it meets that threshold, the amendment must go to a referendum before going to the king to be climbed.

ally of Taiwan
Known as Swaziland until 2018, the landlocked country of 1.2 million people that is less than half the size of Switzerland produces sugar and concentrates for beverages such as Coca Cola. It is also the last African country to recognize Taiwan as independent.

The week-long protests in June are estimated to have caused more than $200 million in infrastructure damage, with opposition groups claiming the actual death toll far exceeds the official number. The army joined the police to stop demonstrations and internet access was blocked.

The government accuses South Africa’s second largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, of being behind the violence.

“They brought in weapons and orchestrated the burning of our assets in our country,” Minister of Trade and Industry, Manqoba Khumalo, said by telephone. “I can confirm that without hesitation.”

Absolute power
The EFF, which organized demonstrations on South Africa’s borders with the kingdom, rejected the accusation. The protesters were Eswatini citizens targeting the king’s business interests, said Godrich Gardee, the party’s head for international relations.

Mswati’s assets include personal interests in companies, including the local unit of Johannesburg-based MTN Group, Africa’s largest mobile phone operator. He also has interests in the sugar industry, hotels, shopping centers and the domestic unit of Anheuser-Busch InBev, as a trustee for the kingdom.

“It’s the crux of the matter,” said Wandile Dludlu, secretary general of the opposition group People’s United Democratic Movement. “Absolute power is exactly what gives him unrestricted access to not only state resources, but also control over private business space.”

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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