While the crackdown restored calm, the deaths of at least 27 people during a week of unrest drew renewed international scrutiny of the kingdom. Protesters were demanding King Mswati III, who’s ruled the South African neighbour for more than three decades, cedes some control.
As governments including the U.S. called for dialog, authorities have insisted that any amendments to the constitution must go through parliament. That means the king would have to agree on any proposals to curb his powers.
Earlier this week, Mswati, 53, called a national policy meeting, known as a Sibaya that usually only takes place once a year, for the same day activists were due to resume demonstrations.
At the gathering on Friday the king, who sat on a golden chair and was draped in traditional regalia of red, black and white, rejected the calls for change. He re-iterated his government’s position that there are existing systems for people to bring their grievances against the state. Mswati was the only person to address the meeting, where he also appointed Cleopas Dlamini as the nation’s new prime minister.
“Everything in the country is the king’s and when they destroy it they are causing the king pain,” he said. “This is not a country that if you want something you must scare people in a certain way then say people must listen to you.”
As Mswati spoke, police used teargas and rubber bullets to break up a protest less than a 30-minute drive away, according to Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer in Eswatini. A helicopter circled above throughout the demonstration, he said by text message.
Activists say the existing constitution is designed to protect the status quo, making it near impossible to change it, and that democracy must be mediated internationally.
“It would be a waste of time,” to follow the existing rules to amend the constitution through parliament, Angelo Dube, international law professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, said in reply to emailed questions. Any lawmaker who tries to do so “would likely be ostracised by his/her peers, and might attract harassment from the state,” he said.
The king chooses the prime minister and his cabinet, and has the power to nominate almost one-third of the members of parliament. He appoints the director of public prosecutions, is commander-in-chief of the military and police, and is immune from being charged and paying taxes.
Two-thirds of lawmakers must approve of a change to the constitution, which the king then has the power to reject. If the amendments have to do with clauses on his pay, or him being immune from paying taxes or prosecution, 75% approval is needed. If it meets that threshold, the amendment must go to a referendum before going to the king for ascent.
Known as Swaziland until 2018, the landlocked country of 1.2 million people less than half the size of Switzerland produces sugar and concentrates for beverages like Coca Cola. It’s also the last African nation that recognises Taiwan as independent.
The week-long protests in June are estimated to have caused more than $200 million in damage to infrastructure, and opposition groups contend the actual death toll is far higher than the official number. The army joined the police to halt demonstrations, and access to the internet was blocked.
The government accuses South Africa’s second-biggest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, of being behind the violence.
“They brought in guns and they orchestrated the burning of our assets in our country,” Commerce and Industry Minister Manqoba Khumalo said by phone. “That I can confirm without any hesitation.”
The EFF, which did stage demonstrations at South Africa’s borders with the kingdom, dismissed the allegation. The protesters were Eswatini citizens targeting the business interests of the king, said Godrich Gardee, the party’s head of international relations.
Mswati’s assets include personal stakes in companies including the local unit of Johannesburg-based MTN Group, Africa’s biggest mobile-phone operator. He also holds interests in the sugar industry, hotels, shopping malls and the domestic unit of Anheuser-Busch InBev, as a trustee for the kingdom.
“It’s the crux of the issue,” Wandile Dludlu, secretary-general of the People’s United Democratic Movement opposition group, said. “The absolute power is exactly what gives him unlimited access to not only state resources, but also control over the private business space.”
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