In June 2021, protests against police brutality following the death of a law student quickly gained momentum and transformed into a much larger call for democratic reforms in Eswatini (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Protesters (mostly youth) across different constituencies marched to deliver petitions to their members of Parliament (MPs) calling for the unbanning of political parties and the right to democratically elect a prime minister, who is currently appointed by the king (Koogotsitse, 2021).
The government moved to ban the delivery of petitions. What followed was a brief yet unprecedented level of chaos and violence as angry protesters looted and destroyed numerous businesses (Maphanga & Vandome, 2021). Dozens of civilians were killed in the mayhem as security forces, including the army, moved in to suppress the protests (Voice of America, 2021). The authorities also imposed a curfew and restricted access to the Internet.
Over the years, trade union leaders and political activists in Eswatini have routinely clashed with the police. However, the deadly protests of 2021 signaled a turning point in the fight for democracy in the country as several civil-society and pro-democracy organizations, each with its own interests and mandates, converged under one united and sustained call for democratic reforms (Maphanga & Vandome, 2021).
Some five months on from the chaos of June, mediation by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is yet to deliver any meaningful resolution to the impasse. Interviewed in October on CNN (2021), Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini argued that the protests were primarily in demand of economic delivery as citizens were feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with political reforms being secondary. He stated that more than 80% of the country’s citizens were in favour of the political status quo and that the protesters represented only a minority of the public.
Following the latest mediation visit by SADC, it was announced that a national dialogue will begin after the annual Incwala ceremony, which typically takes place in late December/early January, with the government appealing for calm in the meantime (Southern African Development Community, 2021).
Earlier in the year, Afrobarometer asked Emaswati how much of a democracy they think their country is and how satisfied they are with the way democracy works in Eswatini. Findings show increasing dissatisfaction with the country’s democracy, accompanied by a significant rise in the number of Emaswati who believe that having many political parties would help ensure that citizens have real choices when it comes to electing those who govern them.