The small Southern African state of eSwatini has been rocked by a great crisis since June, when decades of anger and frustration against intolerable living conditions, as well as the despotic rule of king Mswati III, finally burst onto the streets. A wave of strikes is currently rolling across the country. Despite severe repression, new layers are entering the struggle, including transport workers, nurses and government workers, as well as other sections such as students. This entrance of the workers onto the scene in such an organised way could provide the necessary momentum to topple the absolute monarchy of Mswati III.
The campaign has gone through many phases, mobilising different sections of the society. Its momentum over the past few weeks has been building on the student front, with boycotts and protests under the leadership of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS). Crucially, this action has now linked up with the trade unions. This momentum culminated in a country-wide protest with public transport workers, civil servants and many other sectors taking the streets on Friday.
In the east of the country, on the outskirts of Siteki town, a protest was held outside the police station demanding justice for Nhlanhla Kunene, who was killed by the police on 9 October for a curfew violation. The community was furious and decided to break the curfew themselves for several nights, despite heavy state repression. The movement is now spreading like wildfire.
On 13 October, a student of Nzongomane High School near Nhlangano town was shot dead by the police at a small demonstration. Following the murder of this student, important sections of the society, including public transport workers and government workers such as teachers and nurses joined the protests. A wave of indignation soon swept the country culminating in a national strike on 15 October, which paralysed the country.
On 20 October, the unions also held demonstrations in the capital Mbabane and the commercial hub of Manzini. The police opened fire on the demonstrations, killing two and injuring at least 80 protestors, with the majority occurring in Mbabane. Again, the repressive measures failed to quell the protests.
The Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) held protests in multiple locations across Eswatini since Thursday. The latest reports indicate that the workers are continuing the strike.
Last Friday, the state shut down the internet for two hours as demonstrators headed to the capital. The shutdown came as images of the protests circulated on social and traditional media, including pictures of two people who said they had been injured by gunshots fired by security forces. The internet shutdown blocked social media completely for two hours, and left many services running very slowly afterwards.
Repression fails to stop the movement
Protests are still raging across the country despite the heavy response from the state. The killing, arbitrary arrest and detention of unarmed civilians have not made the protests go away. If anything, they seem to be emboldening resistance and creating conditions for the situation to intensify.
Since the start of protests, the government has launched a ruthless crackdown. But despite this, the state has failed to quell the masses. On the contrary, the repressive measures only serve to provide new fuel to the burning hatred the masses have for the regime. Dozens of people have been killed and many others tortured, detained or abducted. Authorities have also ordered internet and telecommunications shutdowns. As protests continue to intensify, authorities have deployed security forces to crush dissent, closed schools indefinitely and instructed mobile telephone network companies to shut down the internet and social media platforms.
Global unions condemn the brutal attacks
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other global unions have condemned the latest attacks by state forces in Eswatini on working people.
ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: “We condemn outright this latest brutal assault on the people of Eswatini, and our thoughts are with the injured people and their families. It’s clear what the government has got to fix the situation: investigate and prosecute those responsible for this attack, and formally commit to a path to democracy that includes trade unions, civil society and political parties." She said further that “the international community, including the UN, the SADC, the African Union and the Commonwealth – all of whose rules the regime in Eswatini is breaking – must take a stand against these flagrant abuses.
The global unions stand in solidarity with the people of Eswatini and their fight for workers’ rights and democracy. The government must understand that they can’t crush this movement and that they must start talking.