Swaziland: Eswatini Protests - Breaking the Façade of Royal Dictatorship


The recent protests in the Kingdom of eSwatini have claimed nine lives and destroyed property of a great value. The demonstrations have also claimed the facade of political stability and the image of a people happy in their cultural element.

Loss of lives and livelihoods is tragic indeed. But loss of a political and cultural façade behind which chicanery, debauchery, hedonism, oppression and exploitation have thrived since independence is a revolutionary and liberating act.

The unprecedented demonstrations were sparked by a cocktail of grievances -- rising cost of living, the opulent lifestyle of the king and his harem of 15 wives and scores of children, and endemic thievery within government. But the most egregious grievance was the dictatorship that has resisted the winds of democratic change that have been sweeping across Africa since the 1990s. The tiny kingdom has been able to weather this storm and keep its people in the grips of oppression and poverty because of an ingenious invention -- cultural fundamentalism.

This fundamentalism indoctrinated in citizens the belief that the status quo was part of eSwatini's cultural heritage. Anyone seeking to change the status quo was a traitor out to destroy that heritage and, therefore, vanquish that which distinguishes the people of eSwatini as a people and as a nation.

So a king living lavishly, splashing precious funds on cars private planes and palaces, marrying and maintaining multiple wives at the state's expense was taken to be part of the great eSwatini cultural heritage. Further, the population was sold on the idea that what was most important in life was not material wellbeing, but preservation of traditional customs.

So the population religiously observed cultural rites and joyfully participated in traditional ceremonies, and overzealously preached the virtues of eSwatini traditional culture, even as poverty ravaged them, and their country's development indices kept pointing southwards.

There is an analogy with new-age evangelism in Kenya. The impoverished congregants are told to celebrate their faith because a special destiny awaits them. They sing with light in their eyes. They throw themselves on the ground in fits of spiritual trances. They cheer the preacher with every ounce of strength. They enthusiastically give their last coins. But while they remain mired in poverty, their pastors ride in luxury cars and live in opulent mansions.

The royal dictatorship in eSwatini was also able to pull the wool over the eyes of the world. Human rights organisations were reluctant to criticise the country lest they were accused of attacking a people's culture. African cultural and leftwing ideologues, just as they had praised Robert Mugabe as the embodiment of African nationalist and socialist ideals, praised eSwatini as the custodian of African traditional culture. In 2017, Zimbabweans exploded that myth. Now, in their demonstrations, the people of eSwatini are doing the same.

The writer is a Nairobi-based political commentator.

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