Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network protesting
Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network protesting in the precincts of the Botswana Consulate in Toronto on June 24, 2021

It would appear the maxim of distributive justice in Eswatini reflects The Book of Matthew that says, to paraphrase, “to him that hath shall be given, from him that hath not shall be taken away”.

The clashes between pro-democracy fighters and King Mswati’s security forces in Eswatini in June 2021 represent a counter-revolution of the powerful against the weak and highlight the concern of untrammeled sovereign power, tyranny, and the rule of a few against the interests of the many.

Demand for a change from the hereditary-state structure and the practice of “divine right”—to an open system forged on democratic principles and freedoms were muscled out by police and military forces who have been characteristically accused of excessive use of violence to quell the excesses of pro-democracy demonstrations including arson and looting.

What originally started off as a peaceful protest over an alleged involvement and murder of a 25-year-old law student by members of the Royal Eswatini Police in May 2021 escalated to extremity leading to the death of an estimated 60 pro-democracy protestors, many more incarcerations, and injuries.

Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is a landlocked country with a 1.6 million population, located within the southern region of Africa and bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. Swaziland is significant in many ways including being the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa.

By all accounts, recent developments in many parts of Africa—including Mozambique, Eswatini South Africa, Ethiopia, Mali, Eastern Congo and Central African Republic—have wider geopolitical security implications that could destabilize already fragile political landscapes, and the international community needs to enhance their contributions by elevating local voices in defense of democratic governance.

How it Began

The political foundations and the making of Eswatini state have been overwritten, which makes it convenient to grossly simplify the many crafted history of the country, and how the people find themselves in a political abyss.

Eswatini gained independence from the British protectorate on September 6, 1968 after 66 years of British control. King Sobhuza II assumed the role of head of state and laid the contours of what has come to define the governance structure of the country including the “outmoded” local government known as tinkhundla.

founder of Swaziland
King Sobhuza II father of King Mswati and founder of Swaziland

While King Sobhuza’s era witnessed political stability and social progress in the area of education and health, he sowed the seeds of contemporary political system in Eswatini when he—under the guise of creating a system of “our own making”—dissolved parliament through emergency decree denouncing democracy and banning political pluralism in 1973.

When his son King Mswati III was coronated in 1986, he firmed up his grip on the patrimonial structure based on the notion of ceding no powers and accepting no different status including exercising concurrent jurisdiction over parliament, prime minister and the judiciary.

Political watchers believe the country’s constitutional reform triggered by students, labour, political activists and human right campaigners in 2005 after a series of protests has only served one purpose—a validation of King Mswati’s tyranny, and a rubber stamp parliament that has no real oversight jurisdiction over the king’s financial imperatives.

Section (79) of the Swaziland Constitution (2005) states:

The system of government for Swaziland is a democratic, participatory, tinkhundla-based system which emphasises devolution of state power from central government to tinkhundla areas and individual merit as a basis for election or appointment to public office.

Yet, the electoral and administrative institution of Tinkhundla is safeguarded by traditionalism that allows the monarchy to maintain its position of control in reality and in practice, and protesters are saying that reforms are non-negotiable.

It is fashionable to recall Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) who declared L’état, c’est moi!

‘I’m the state! King Mswati did not want to second-guess his absoluteness that he was “the state” when he changed the name of his country in 2018 without due process.


While the name change has been lauded by Pan-Africanists as necessary to correct colonial imposition, it did not galvanize the people along because of lack of consensus and participation in the process leading to the name change.

Mswati is accused of referencing the state against individual intrusions by not only blocking moves towards political pluralism but also revising and increasing censorship targeted at scandalous text and political writings inconsistent with absolute monarchy. For example, freedom of expression is compromised by the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, and other defamation laws often used to gag and arrest journalists and dissenters.

Misrule Has Consequences

The roots of discontent and pent-up grievances among Maswati (Swazis) lie not only in their poverty—compounded by increasing Covid-19 cases, but also self-consciousness of subordination of a corrupt state that monopolizes power to create wealth for those who possess it.

King Mswati’s rule has been punctuated by deep-seated corruption and the country has only managed a score change of -4 since 2012 and consistently ranked 33/100 on the global corruption perception index.

Global development indicators measuring income and food security cast a grim verdict on Eswatini. For example, in August 2008 Forbes magazine named Mswati III the second richest man in Africa, while the United Nations’ World Food Programme kept “a record 600,000 Swazis alive—more than 60% of the population”

The kingdom ranks amongst the highest in the World Bank’s Income Inequality measure, World Food Program Income Inequality index, described as having a level of hunger that is “serious” by the Global Hunger Index.

Despite more than half the country (58.6%) living below the poverty line, and over 20% of people considered extremely poor, King Mswati is yet to drop the ball on his exotic lifestyle and “state capture” that have dotted his reign for 35 years including owning two private airplanes, numerous palaces, a fleet of luxurious cars amidst extravagant travels with his “thirteen-fifteen” wives whom he picked at will in specialized ceremonies.

Living on an island of prosperity has been a scathing jeremiad in the country that is emaciating the public purse while the contrast is stark—high youth unemployment, high concentration of employment in low-value-added activities, and poor health infrastructure, and a failing education system.

The population is inundated with the highest number of HIV cases in the world; women being disproportionately affected as they make up 120,000 of the 210,000 population affected by HIV in 2018. Among other forms of child labor, girls are particularly vulnerable to domestic servitude, violence, and commercial sex exploitation.

Can Pro-Democracy Protesters Force Reform in Eswatini?

Opinions are divided about the chances of any real reform as an outcome of the recent protests the call for a “national dialogue” or intervention by The Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Cynics argue that protests by students, labor, and human rights groups in the 1990s, 2000s, and as recent as 2019 didn’t achieve much by way of structural transformation except the introduction of a new constitution in 2005 widely labeled as cosmetic, and conspicuously silent on the status of political parties.

Images showing some members of Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network protesting in the precinct of the Botswana Consulate in Toronto on June 24, 2021

This view is contrasted with the optimists who believe there is more clarity and urgency to the ongoing movement. It is organic and less structured. A member of the Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network, Themba, concedes that while demonstrations are rare and rendered “ineffective” in the kingdom, the magnitude of the current wave of protests is much bigger than previous ones.

In Thembe’s words.
“We no longer want the King; we want to help ourselves and choose our own prime minister or president. We do not want this country to be a kingdom anymore, we just want to get rid of the king or the royal family and have them become ordinary people just like everyone else”.

Where Do Pro-Democracy Protesters go From Here and What Support is Needed?

Human rights defenders, regional and international watchdogs including the UN and SADC have condemned the use of excessive force on demonstrators, yet, close-to-the-ground reports indicate that security forces are still in the business of harassing and intimidating prodemocracy demonstrators.

It is important to recognize that the fight for emancipation has never been a one-off event but long-term sustainable enterprise contingent on the power, organization and resilience of the people.

While democracy is under siege in many parts of the world, the people of Eswatini are yet to have a bite at any form of meaningful democracy, and the international community needs to do a lot more to raise and support local voices—in particular civil society organizations—as the frontlines of democracy.

The Swaziland-Canadian Diaspora Network is leading a series of campaign activities geared towards democratic reforms in Eswatini including organizing a peaceful demonstration in the Botswana Consulate in Toronto, holding lectures, and fundraising in support of the injured.

What some of these organizations need is recognition, enduring political support, and the capacity to achieve their visions for their country. Small organizations assuming the herculean burden of democratic crusade require support.

In a recent communique, issued in a meeting of G7 Foreign and Development Ministers, and reaffirmed by heads of government of member countries in a Cornwall meeting on June 11-13, 2021—the leaders (among other things) underscored their commitment to “strengthening open societies, shared values, and the rules-based international order”.

This is a perfect time for G7 leaders, in partnership with other regional blocs, to actualize their pledge by promoting leadership and empowerment of a robust network of community organizations, civil societies, and individuals fighting for democracy in Eswatini and other troubled areas.

While there is no resident Canadian government office in Eswatini, Canada offers international assistance to the country through the Canada Fund for Local Initiative (CFLI)—a component of the Feminist International Policy.

In the wake of the protests in Eswatini, Canada was criticized for failing to join the US in denouncing police atrocities. This “omission” is further heightened by the failure of Canada’s Foreign Minister, Hon Marc Garneau and Moussa Faki Mahamat, African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson to discuss the issue when both diplomats spoke on July 19, 2021, about emerging issues in the continent including the political unrests in Ethiopia’s northern state of Tigray.

L-R: Canada’s Foreign Minister, Hon Marc Garneau. His Excellency Moussa Faki Mahamat, African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson

While Canada alone cannot change the fate of Africa and Eswatini for that matter, Canada is well-positioned—to take measures to rally its peers around the democratic cause of the people of Eswatini including strengthening democratic institutions and forging a path that makes democracy meaningful for everyday lives—as articulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a speech to mark International Day of Democracy in September 2020.

Governance is part of the connective tissue between developed and developing countries, and we urge Canada and its counterparts to use their influence to promote peace, security, and democracy in Eswatini.

Quick Facts About Eswatini

Quick Facts About Eswatini
  • Population: 1,160,64 million (source: World bank)
  • Median age: 20.7 (source: United Nations)
  • HIV Prevalence: 200,000 people living with HIV (source: UNAIDS)
  • Adult literacy rate (percentage of people ages 15 and above): 88%
  • National Poverty rate: 58.9 (source: World Bank)
  • Infant mortality rate: 39 per 1000 live births (source: World Bank)
  • Life expectancy at birth: 60
  • Under-5 mortality rate: 49.7 per 1000 live births
  • Religion: Christian-90%, Muslim 2%, other religions 8% (source: CIA World Factbook)
  • Maternal mortality rate: 437 per 100,000 live births (World Bank)
  • Urban population: 24% of the total population live in urban areas (source: World Bank)