Regional ministers sent to Eswatini to try to defuse the crisis there after a week of deadly and destructive protests met the government, but left without having properly engaged the opposition.
Opposition leaders said the government had handpicked only a few less-critical civil society leaders to meet the three ministers of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Sunday.
Then leaders of the real opposition heard about this and gatecrashed the meeting which the SADC ministers were having with Eswatini’s acting Prime Minister, Themba Masuku, Foreign Minister Thuli Dladla, Justice Minister Pholile Dlamini Shakantu and a few church and civil society leaders.
The external foreign ministers in the meeting were South Africa’s Naledi Pandor, Botswana’s Lemogang Kwape and Zimbabwe’s Frederick Shava, representing SADC’s security organ troika, which is tasked with addressing regional security threats.
Violent protests erupted in Eswatini 10 days ago and spread to several cities and towns. Prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, spokesperson for the Multi-stakeholders Coordinating Team, said at least 52 protesters had been killed by security forces and scores injured.
He said the army had taken over the security of the country and had mostly restored calm by day. But protests and destruction were still taking place at night. Scores of shops and other businesses as well as delivery vehicles have been torched or looted during the unrest.
Maseko, who was among the uninvited civil society leaders who briefly met the SADC ministers, said he and the other leaders demanded to meet the SADC ministers separately from the government so they could express themselves freely.
But the government ministers insisted on being in the meeting. The SADC ministers, however, agreed with the opposition leaders that they should meet with them alone. The opposition leaders, though, said they needed time to prepare properly for a meeting with the SADC ministers.
Both sides agreed that the SADC ministers would go home and return at a later date to meet the opposition delegation. Maseko said the date of this meeting had not been agreed on.
Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who chairs SADC’s security organ, had announced on Friday that the mission of the SADC ministers was to try to facilitate an “open national dialogue” in Eswatini.
Maseko said when civil society leaders did meet SADC, they would tell it that the national dialogue must be inclusive; that all banned political parties must be unbanned; that a new democratic constitution must be negotiated; that a transitional authority had to be established in the meantime; and that a new dispensation must be based on multiparty democracy.
Maseko said the position of King Mswati III would also have to be negotiated. Civil society and the opposition had previously been open to the idea of transforming the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy.
But some were beginning to question even the justification for a constitutional monarchy after the army and the police had killed so many protesters in the name of the king. However, others were arguing that this problem related to Mswati as an individual and so should not affect the thinking about a constitutional monarchy.
Observers believe SADC’s role should be to support existing moves towards a national dialogue. Maseko said on Monday that church leaders had reported back to a broad meeting of civil society organisations and political parties about their meeting with acting Prime Minister Masuku last week to discuss the political crisis.
Masuku told the church leaders the government was ready to hold a dialogue with anyone, but did not know who to talk to. Maseko said Monday’s meeting had agreed that in fact there were many political parties, trade unions and civil society organisations ready to enter into a dialogue with the government.
The meeting agreed that the church leaders would seek a return meeting with Masuku to tell him which organisations were ready to participate in the proposed national dialogue.
By Peter Fabricius