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Q&A with Eswatini activist as Taiwan-allied African kingdom descends into martial law

Amid internet blackout, activist talks to Taiwan News in phone interview about situation following government crackdown

Police beating locals in town of Matsapha June 30 (left), blaze set by protesters blocking road near Manzini on June 30. (Twitter photo...

Police beating locals in town of Matsapha June 30 (left), blaze set by protesters blocking road near Manzini on June 30. (Twitter photo...

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Martial law grips Eswatini following days of protests calling for more representation in the impoverished kingdom, where political parties have been illegal since 1973.

Formerly known as Swaziland, Eswatini is Taiwan's only remaining diplomatic ally in Africa. It is also one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world, and its monarch, Mswati III of the House of Dlamini, has ruled with an iron fist since becoming king in 1986 at the age of 18.

After days of sometimes violent protests last week, troops were sent in to suppress the demonstrations and occupy towns.

Soldiers have openly fired on citizens, and the capital's Mbabane Government Hospital confirmed to Taiwan News that it has received many patients suffering gunshot wounds, including several who have died, adding that "the wards are full" in the 500-bed hospital.

The population remains confined to their homes from 6 p.m., and internet access has been severely curtailed, making it more difficult to verify the number of casualties and track the situation.

Taiwan News reached out to Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of Swaziland and a regional leader of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, to get his take on the unrest, the conditions leading up to it, and where the country of 1.3 million may go from here.

Could you paint us a brief picture of the protests this week and the government's response?

In a nutshell, there have been protests the day before yesterday, but as of today, the protests have stopped. So, there have been mass killings of people. As of yesterday (July 1), we have had over 50 people, just yesterday alone, who were killed by military personnel.

Around Mbabane, at the biggest hospital in the country, above 100 people have been [treated], with something like nine people supposed to go to the operation theater, and four are in the ICU department, which means they are critically injured. The others were treated and then discharged.

And then the other towns... in total, we have over 400 people who have been treated, some admitted for gunshot wounds, so that is the intensity of the situation in the country right now. Remember these are numbers that are confirmed. That does not include those numbers that were not able to reach the hospital.

What's the internet situation like now?

So, we are only given two hours to be on the internet. For example, yesterday and today, we were able to access the internet from 9 a.m. and it was taken away at 11 a.m. I think it's so businesses can function. But in the main, they are trying to deprive us of the opportunity to talk to the outside world and also communicate amongst ourselves about developments in the country.

There were rumors earlier this week that the king had left the country, which the government denied. Has there been any word from him?

They have maintained that the king has not escaped the country, but looking at the developments in terms of the protests themselves and the kind of situation we are facing in the towns, we are expecting at least the head of state to come and address the situation — at least say something. But instead, we are hearing voices from the king's daughter Princess Sikhanyiso and the prime minister, who called a press conference yesterday to address the service on the developments in the country.

So, it is worrying to see after people have been killed and all these developments, the head of state is saying nothing. So basically, it can be true that the king is not in the country.

So what they've been saying is that the country's not under martial law, but the presence of the military in all the towns seems to verify that it is now martial law in the country. There have been [directives] issued by the prime minister to say assets of the king will be monitored by the military and the military will be present in all towns, which defines the state of the country right now.

And the curfew is still in place from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.?

Yes, and that is the interesting part. What we were informed about the new development on restrictions, the previous time when we were in lockdown, it was because of the number of dead we had accumulated as a country. But the number of dead [during] the restrictions is not tallied, which says something. The coronavirus situation is being used to advance the political interests of the regime.

Some protesters have been engaged in burning and looting. How widespread is this?

You will recall what ignited the whole violent situation. The violence that is perpetrated by the regime against the people. Depriving the people of their constitutional right to petition their members of parliament. It was the conditions of violence created in the first place. And these acts of violence [by protesters], in the initial stages were only targeted at businesses and assets that belong to the king himself because he is the one who is responsible for the conditions we are facing.

So they're trying to make sure their voices are heard. The king gave them an audience so that the issues that are affecting them — the issues of economic exclusion, political exclusion, the issue of poverty, and other things — they get a chance to talk as responsible citizens.

But what happened is the regime itself deprived the people of that.

Why has this all come to a head now, and what are the main drivers of these protests?

It was bound to happen any time. In 1973, when political parties were banned in Swaziland, the institution of the monarchy assumed all power — executive, legislative, and everything. And there have been calls ever since then for change to take place, power to be returned to the people, allowing the people to decide what needs to be done.

And there have been several protests since 1973, for 50 years now.

You will note that the level of poverty in Eswatini is very high. The rate of unemployment is also very high. More than 51 percent of the youth from 25 to 31 years old are unemployed, so the situation is very grave.

And then when they decide to petition their prime minister — to your question "Why now?" Because there have been activities to find a solution, which was deprived by the regime, and so everything erupted to this position.

So, enough is enough.

Yes. Now, enough is enough.

What do you predict will happen over the next few days?

Right now because of the military presence in the towns, in the communities, the protests have stopped, but it doesn't mean it is the end. It might happen that the protesters are trying to reorganize themselves to see how they will move from here.

There are slim chances it will die down now. They will continue to fight.

Or else, if the regime will heed the calls for democratic change, that will be a turning point. We are hoping that they do the good thing and call the people for negotiations.

They should make sure democratic processes now begin because the people are tired of living in the old social order. They want transformation for a better society.

How about you? Do you fear for your own safety as a dissident?

I am moving from location to location trying to ensure my safety because no one is safe under these conditions, especially when you know we are also a target. It means you must always be careful where you are.

Updated : 2021-09-26 22:02 GMT+08:00