ROME – As unrest continues to grow in Africa’s sole absolute monarchy, Eswatini’s sole Catholic bishop is calling for calm and dialogue. At least 21 protesters have been killed by state security forces in recent days in the southern African nation formerly known in English as Swaziland.
“As I have stated in the past, fighting fire with fire will bring our country to ashes,” said Argentina-born Bishop José Luis Ponce de León of Manzini in a statement released July 2. “The restoration of calm should not make us think that the reasons behind the unrest have been addressed. An all-inclusive and open dialogue, without excluding any stakeholder, is the only possible way forward.”
The prelate also called for the restoration of internet services in the country “without which we depend on the information being offered by foreign media, and not by our own people.” This, he said, would also allow Churches, NGO’s and political organizations to issue their own appeals for peace and dialogue.
The pro-democracy protests were sparked on June 24, but local sources have told Crux that the unrest can be linked to the death of a university student in early May, with police officers suspected for the crime. This turned into calls for political reforms, which led to King Mswati III, who’s been the absolute monarch since 1986, to issue a decree banning petitions to the government calling for democratic reforms late last week.
The situation unraveled even further in Eswatini beginning last Monday evening, when one of the supermarkets outside of Manzini, the country’s largest urban center, was burnt and a truck looted.
As Mswati’s children flaunt their opulent birthday parties on social media, six out of 10 citizens of this tiny landlocked nation wedged between South Africa and Mozambique live in poverty, and observers believes the disparity of the situation the country’s 1.1 million people live in compared to that of their ruler has led to the most explosive civil unrest since Swaziland’s independence 53 years ago.
Protesters have taken to the streets in the executive capital, Mbabane, in Manzini and elsewhere and the government has responded aggressively, with witnesses, activists and hospital staff reporting that the military and the police have fired live rounds at protesters and looters.
On Tuesday, Ponce de León, as part of a delegation from the Council of Churches, met with the country’s Prime Minister, because they feared the violent unrest could soon escalate, despite an apparent standstill that is more a reflection of the government’s strong response to the protest than any resolution to the deep-sided problems.
In his statement, the prelate quoted Pope Francis’ encyclical on human fraternity, Fratelli Tutti, to say that “authentic social dialogue involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns.”
A dusk-till-dawn curfew was also imposed last Tuesday and acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku had to deny media reports that Mswati had fled the violence to neighboring South Africa.
“His Majesty…is in the country and continues to advance the Kingdom’s goals,” Masuku said in a statement. “We appeal for calm, restraint and peace.”
Ponce de León also shared on twitter a message published July 2nd by the Council of Swaziland Churches, of which he’s a member as the country’s Catholic bishops, saying that de question lingering seeing the violence taking place and the damage to people’s property is “what is causing this and what could be the solution?”
“This is due to the fact that every person wants to progress in life and therefore the current destruction being witnessed is not taking the country towards its goal,” the statement says, before signaling several possible motives for the violence, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the lack of job opportunities, which has in turn “rendered the youth vulnerable and frustrated.”
The country’s economy was ailing before the pandemic, and has been worsened by it, with lockdowns not making the situation better “as we witnessed other social problems like gender-based violence scaling up.”
The uneasiness caused by these problems was exacerbated, the statement says, by the government’s “wrong prioritization” when it comes to allocating funds, and the “upsurge of law enforcement agencies’ brutality against the people,” which led to the loss of life, did not improve matters.
“Currently we are experiencing high levels of violence from both the security forces and the protestors,” the Council of Churches said. “Protestors have left behind a trail of destruction with properties vandalized or burnt, shops looted and some people injured. On the other hand, the security forces have their own share in the violence where we are told of people who have been beaten, shot at or even killed by security forces.”
There have also been several reports of people being taken from their homes by security agents, and their relatives being kept in the dark as to their whereabouts.
“Such violence has never been witnessed in the country and we are concerned that it will have a long-term effect on the people of Eswatini,” the statement says, before suggesting dialogue as the best solution to the impasses, pleading for people to “bury the hatchet and come to the table for a negotiated solution to the problems.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma