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Eswatini, Formerly Swaziland, Sees Brutal Government Crackdown on Mass Protests over Inequality

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The government of the southern African nation of Eswatini, which was known as Swaziland up until 2018, is brutally cracking down on the largest anti-government protests in the country since it became independent from Britain 53 years ago. Eswatini, bordered by Mozambique and South Africa, is currently facing an economic crisis with a shortage of gas, food and other resources. More than half of Eswatini’s citizens live in poverty, while King Mswati III is known for his lavish lifestyle, including owning expensive cars. Amnesty International reports at least 20 protesters have been killed by state security forces, and dozens of others tortured, detained or abducted. We speak with a women’s rights activist in Manzini, Eswatini, who asked for her face and voice to be obscured due to safety concerns. She says the situation is especially dire for women. “Their situation is very bad,” the activist says. “We’ve been facing the scourge of gender-based violence, but this situation will exacerbate.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to the African nation of Eswatini, which was known as Swaziland up until 2018. Eswatini is a landlocked nation in southern Africa. It’s bordered by Mozambique to its northeast and by South Africa in all other directions. It’s also Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

Human rights advocates are denouncing Eswatini’s King Mswati III for brutally cracking down on the largest protests in the country since it became independent from Britain 53 years ago. Eswatini is currently facing an economic crisis with a shortage of gas, food and other resources. More than half of Eswatini’s more than a million citizens live in poverty, while King Mswati is known for his lavish lifestyle, including owning expensive cars and palaces. Amnesty International reported at least 20 protesters have been killed by state security forces, and dozens of others tortured, detained or abducted. There have also been reports of the military and police firing live rounds at protesters. The Committee to Protect Journalists has also criticized the government for mistreatment of journalists and for cutting off internet access. According to CPJ, two journalists from South Africa were recently detained and beaten while in custody.

Well, on Tuesday, Democracy Now's Juan González and I spoke to a women's rights activist in Manzini, Eswatini. She asked us not to show her face and to disguise her voice because she’s concerned she would be attacked for doing this interview. She began by talking about what sparked the recent protests.

ACTIVIST: In March 2021, a university law student called Thabani Nkomonye, who was a final-year student, was alleged to have been killed by the police. Because of the ongoing police brutality, before the death of Thabani Nkomonye, I would like to highlight some of the instances which made Emaswati, or the Swazi people, feel, “This is enough. We can’t take it anymore.”

First of all, Eswatini is facing a serious economic crisis, where we have a high level of poverty and an unemployment crisis. We are also facing issues of students not getting quality education. And also, those who would want to go to universities, there are no scholarships, because the government is saying they can’t afford them. We are also facing challenges, a health crisis, where you go to clinics, and you don’t find medication, where, as a woman, you want to go to the clinic, you have to walk kilometers and kilometers to get to the nearest clinic where you can get help. We are facing all those challenges, which include extrajudicial killings, where fellow civilians or citizens, when they pass by game reserves, the rangers, they shoot to kill. And nothing — it’s like they have killed something that doesn’t matter; it’s not a human being.

We are seeing an increase of police brutality, which not only happened to Thabani Nkomonye. We have seen cases where people are demonstrating — there was a live recording which was circulating on social media of a group of police officers beating an unarmed man who was part of a protest of transport operators, and insulting him, which really triggered the people of Eswatini. And nothing was done to those police officers. And more than that, we have seen — in Eswatini, we are experiencing an increase of cases of violence against women. And some of these women have died, killed by enforcement officers who are maybe their husbands or lovers. And it has made Emaswatis lose trust in the justice system, because we have seen some of these women abused, and nothing happened. Instead, the law enforcement officers are promoted if they’ve abused a woman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask our guest: Could you — you mentioned the economic crisis that the country is going through. The country is a landlocked nation, surrounded on three sides by South Africa, on one side by Mozambique. What has been — and many of the people of your country work in South Africa. Could you talk about what the South African government’s response has been to this repression, if any?

ACTIVIST: Some of the Emaswati have been moving out now to try and look for work in South Africa, and we have now experienced some of the Emaswati being killed, attacked by South Africans, because the South Africans felt the Swazi people are going out to take their jobs. And it has become a very difficult situation. And this is why, even now, we are pleading with our fellow Africans and also the international community to say, “What is it that we can do to try and address this situation without having lives lost?”

Let me also highlight another issue which has really infuriated Emaswatis. Whilst I have mentioned that Swaziland is facing economic crisis, there was a debate in Parliament where Parliament was supposed to endorse a loan by our government to borrow money from India to build a new Parliament. As I’ve said, political parties were banned in Eswatini. So, our members of Parliament, when they go to Parliament, for them to be respected or to be heard by the head of the country, they have to listen. If they ask you to jump, you ask how high. You jump on the tune of what the head of the country is saying. So, people were saying, “How can a whole country borrow money to build a new Parliament, when we have been hit hard by COVID-19? We have not been vaccinated. We do not have funds to get the vaccine. How can we build a new Parliament, instead of maybe using those funds to procure ventilators or to procure medicines that we don’t have, or to beef up the health and education systems so that we have a quality health system and a quality education system?”

So, when Thabani Nkomonye was murdered, the youth and everyone felt, “This is enough.” And that’s when there was a first march, where the youth — it was the first march in history to have Emaswati gathered in that form. And when these youth were demonstrating, going to the police station, around where this student who was alleged to be murdered by the police, instead of government or Parliament taking action or doing an investigation, they condemned those young people for doing that. And they were told, if they’ve got issues, they have got to go to their constituencies, where they can raise their grievances — hence the protests that were all over the country. So, all the young people and civil society organizations, they went to the different constituencies. And now people were putting clear demands. They wanted multiparty democracy. They wanted an elected prime minister. They were asking and demanding improved youth employment strategies. They wanted an improved health system. They are also calling for the gender-based violence to be declared as a national emergency. Those are some of the many demands that were raised in the different constituencies to the different members of Parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about the internet blackouts being condemned by human rights groups, just the shutting down, working with international companies to just shut down the ability to communicate.

ACTIVIST: Yeah. Let me first talk about before the shutting down. Because the people were sending protests in their constituencies, exercising their constitutional rights, the prime minister, the acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, issued an order to stop the delivery of petitions to the different constituencies. And by doing that, he said he is trying to stop the unrest. He also ordered all businesses to close by 3:30 p.m. and a strict curfew to have all residents off the street from 6 up until 5 a.m. And he also immediately closed all schools. He said it was for the safety of the learners. And he ordered the protesters to send their petitions online. And whilst he said they must send their petitions online, they then ordered the internet service provider to switch off the internet.

And then Emaswatis were so furious, saying, “Then what do you mean?” And whilst they have done that, they then unleashed the army, the police and the military to attack people who were looting on the streets, and some were burning structures, were burning shops, were burning vehicles on the streets. As I have mentioned, Swaziland is facing a serious poverty crisis. And when people are angry, there is a lot that can happen. We have seen recordings where police and the military were literally beating, shooting, killing unarmed civilians, unarmed Emaswatis on the street. As I speak now, there are currently more than 50 people who have died. And within those victims, the youngest is 14 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: We are not identifying you. But you are a women’s rights activist in Eswatini. What is the current situation for women under crackdown right now?

ACTIVIST: The current situation is very bad. It has hit women hard. And in Eswatini, 70% of the population is living in the rural areas. And in the rural areas, there are few shops. And those few shops have been burned. They have been looted. And now it is difficult for women to get food to eat. It is difficult to get sanitary pads for their kids, to buy milk for their babies. It’s a very painful situation. And some of the people that have been arrested for looting, they are women. And as we speak, they have been denied bail just for looting. There is also a heavily pregnant woman who was denied bail yesterday. And we are worried about the safety of these women.

And now the army, what do they do? They go to each and every home and say, “Where did you buy this sugar? Where did you buy this cooking oil?” If you don’t have receipts — and these are rural areas; they don’t have them — they are beaten. Some of these women are beaten. And when they explain, “I don’t have a receipt. I bought in the nearby shop,” and no one listens to that.

So women are hit hard. And some of the dead people have left behind kids, which means women now have a heavy load to take care of those kids. And the shops that were burned, people have lost jobs. And the majority of people who work in the shops or restaurants are women, which means now they are without jobs. Their situation is very bad. We are worried now that, yes, we’ve been facing the scourge of gender-based violence, but this situation will exacerbate. This is a situation where we will see more women abused, more women staying in abusive relationships or abusive marriages.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a women’s rights activist speaking to us from Eswatini, the country formerly known as Swaziland. She asked us not to show her face, to disguise her voice, because she was concerned she would be attacked for doing this interview.

When we come back, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister warns the country could face a “social explosion” as Lebanon confronts what the World Bank has described as one of the worst economic depressions in modern history. We’ll go to Beirut. Stay with us.

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