AFRICA/ESWATINI – In a worrying social and economic situation, the Churches strive to dialogue with everyone

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Mbabane – Violence continues in the small Southern African state of eSwatini. The murder of Thabani Nkomonye, a young law student, at the hands of the police last May, sparked protests from thousands of citizens a few weeks ago. But beyond this sad episode, it is the harshness of the regime to which the population has been subjected for some time that has triggered the massive protests that have gathered thousands of demonstrators since the end of last month. King Mswati III is accused of oppressing the little more than a million inhabitants and of not wanting to encourage the democratic process of the country. The king responded to the protests by blocking the internet, imposing a curfew and deploying armed forces. According to activists, many people were killed and injured. The situation is now close to chaos, as evidenced by the declaration of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 6 July, who says he is “deeply concerned”. Reverend Zwanini Shabalala, Secretary General of the Council of Churches of Swaziland, spoke about this difficult time for the small country to Fides. “Since Prime Minister Themba Masuku banned the possibility of delivering petitions, we have seen the situation deteriorate day by day. The so-called ‘petition strategy’ was the only way for the people to exercise their constitutional right of expression in the most formal and correct way: that is, by asking the district power centers and parliamentarians to listen to the demands of the population. At first, the government showed tolerance and, although the petitions clearly disagreed with the policy of the executive, it at least allowed a meeting point between the power and the people. But this initial acquiescence was followed by an announcement of closure published on June 24, which disturbed the peace of our country, especially frustrating the hopes of the youth. In fact, in the last days of June, when the petition presented by MP Mduduzi Simelane – one of the politicians calling for the election of the prime minister – was banned, the situation precipitated and there were clashes, looting and arson by demonstrators in all regions of the country. Since then, the deployment of the armed forces – which are not well trained for this type of situation – has been massive and, with it, the fear that the eSwatini will soon turn into a military state with martial law. The fact that in some cases the armed forces have brought deviant elements who wanted to take advantage of the chaos, should not be misleading and suggest that the situation is back under control. After the first few days, the internet was restored but all social networks are still blocked.
To date more than 50 people are believed to have died, although the figures are difficult to verify in such a situation. For some time now, the small southern African state has been living in an emergency situation, exacerbated by the high number of AIDS victims. In recent times, the population, overwhelmed by a prolonged economic crisis and exacerbated by the arrival of the Covid, which from the outset proved particularly virulent in neighboring South Africa, unlike other African countries, and suffocated by anti-democratic measures, wanted to make its voice heard in a massive way. “The pandemic has made everything worse. Many have lost their jobs and the level of poverty in the country has increased. For young people, education and employment opportunities have been reduced But the Covid has hit an already precarious economic situation and many businesses have had to close due to the restrictions imposed, which have limited mobility and trade. With the increase in poverty, we have witnessed a increase in violence, especially gender-based violence: there was a lot of abuse within families and many girls had to drop out of school because they were pregnant. But in addition to this violence, abuses by the police and other forces have increased and the population has lost confidence in the security agencies. In addition, there is a very weak national health system, the absence of vaccines, the scarcity of medicines as well as a deficient infrastructure network, also damaged by recurring cyclones. For all these reasons, our country, renowned for its level of peace, has plunged into violence, and its citizens demand that at least minimum services be guaranteed. For some time now, the political groups belonging to the progressive or pro-democratic front have been sounding the alarm bells on an autocratic drift, but they are often silenced: our model of government does not allow political parties to participate in the electoral system and parliamentarians are appointed on the basis of their personal merit in the 59 constituencies. This is why petitions have multiplied in recent times, especially from young people who hand over their constituency representatives to Parliament, in which they demand, among other things, a democratically elected prime minister. Other petitions targeted minimum services, high unemployment and police brutality”. In this situation, the position of the Churches becomes fundamental. With the call for peace and dialogue, based on a long tradition of presence and activism in Swazi society, all churches wanted to make their voices heard. The Swaziland Council of Churches continues to call for calm and for all parties to sit peacefully around the table and discuss. We know that it will not be easy but also that it is the only possible way and the way that God wants us to promote as a Church. In this sense, we are committed to dialogue with all the actors at this stage of the country and we are already reaching some of them, such as the government, traditional political structures and civil society. We are also mobilizing our regional ecumenical bodies, such as the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa, the All Africa Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches, to put pressure on the African Union, the Southern African Development Community , and the UN so that the situation in eSwatini becomes a priority”.