Students walk out of classes in Eswatini’s ongoing pro-democracy movement

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Three months after police violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland and Africa’s last absolute monarchy, the movement has carried on quietly. Young people have played an important role in the protests, with the last wave of the opposition centred around school boycotts at various high schools and universities around the country throughout the month of September. Videos online show crowds of students leaving their classes in protest.

Eswatini is a small, landlocked country in southern Africa. Its leader, King Mswati III, has ruled for 35 years by decree. Officially, at least 27 people were killed in the frenzied protests that erupted in Eswatini in late June 2021. However, rights groups maintain that this number may actually be much higher, closer to 100.

Initial protests dwindled after several weeks full of looting, burning tyres and buildings, and violent police reprisals. But high school and university students have continued to mobilise quietly, organising walkouts and delivering petitions to parliamentary representatives.

Students and young people have been key to the pro-democracy movement, which emerged from anger and allegations of police brutality after a young law student died under mysterious circumstances blamed on police last May.

Pro-democracy protesters in Swaziland have been calling for elections and the right to elect the country’s prime minister, plus accountability from parliamentary representatives whom they say are silent on issues such as police brutality and corruption.

Currently, the king appoints the prime minister, as well as ministers, heads of agencies and judges. Eswatini has been an absolute monarchy since the 1970s, shortly after its independence from the United Kingdom.

‘This movement is a decider of our future’

Thabo (not his real name) is a university student in central Eswatini involved with a national student union association. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has chosen not to publish his real name due to security concerns.

All the universities and students of higher learning institutions have been part of the pro-democracy movement. Our motto of the student union is clear, it says we are members of the community before we are students. Therefore, we decided to say, ‘Let’s take it back to our communities.’ We decided to go back and petition our different representatives in the different constituencies.

For Thabo, the fight for democracy is more important than missing classes and sitting exams in an already interrupted school year:

The protests are hand in hand with the issue of Covid-19 and different school calendars, university calendars, have changed. Some universities are still doing their first semester, some are trying to finish the second semester. Some people who were supposed to graduate this year are graduating next year because, following the unrest [in June and July], the prime minister decided to shut down everything, including schools – everything was at a standstill.

What has happened throughout this process and this movement is important in particular to young people and students. That’s because it is a decider of our future. Even though we can try to pursue our studies in the different universities in the country, without a free democratic Swaziland that will create opportunities for us as young people, we will be in a serious situation in the future. Therefore, this process and these protests are going to assist in changing the political arena of the country.

These protests have been organised with young people and old people and the influence from different communities, because all we need is freedom and freedom for all. The king of the country is the law himself. Everything is decided by him. The operations that we have in this country are no longer bearable.

Speaking up can be dangerous for students in Eswatini: on September 19, soldiers attacked students at the William Pitcher College who were on strike after not receiving their allowances and refunds for Covid-19 university closures. The soldiers reportedly fired teargas in university residences and struck students with batons.

High schoolers on strike

The student protests have not been limited to the university level: throughout the month of September, high school students in several regions in Eswatini have organised boycotts. On September 23, students of 10 different high schools all left their classes, mainly in the southern region of Shiselweni, raising fears that students would be behind for exam season in October.

Some students responded that they wouldn’t sit their exams until two Members of Parliament (MPs) arrested in July were released, according to local media.

Key figures in the democracy movement, MPs Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube were arrested on July 26 on terrorism charges. On September 20, the trial for the two MPs was delayed from mid-October to late November, several days after their applications for bail were denied, reigniting anger in the pro-democracy movement.

Videos show high school students from Nkanini High School boycotting their classes on September 22. Some students hold a sign saying, “Free our arrested MPs.”

The prime minister responded to this wave of school protests on September 23, saying that children were being “used to subconsciously push the agendas of other people".

On the throne since 1986, King Mswati III has 15 wives and more than 25 children. He has been accused of using state funds to fund a luxurious lifestyle for himself and his family. Following several months of demonstrations and calls for change, the king has not given way to protesters’ demands.

According to the World Bank, more than 58% of Eswatini’s population was living below the poverty line in 2016, and the 2020 unemployment rate was around 23%. Youth unemployment is estimated to be even higher, at over 50%.

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