Recent allegations that Eswatini’s July 2021 ‘winter revolution’ involved foreign-funded protest action aimed at regime change have put the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the country’s pro-democracy movements in a bind. They have also emboldened King Mswati III’s position on the format of the delayed national dialogue – a process he committed to in November 2021 after SADC’s intervention.
A year after student leader Thabani Nkomonye’s death, which sparked the most recent violent wave of popular protest and civil unrest, Eswatini is drifting further away from solving the crisis through dialogue. Opposition party members and civil society continue to demonstrate, and the security forces continue to carry out illegal detentions and torture against protest leaders.
SADC seems to be losing whatever traction was built by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visit to Eswatini last year, and the pro-democracy movement is faltering. The regime change allegations have muddied the waters and could delay efforts to democratise the kingdom, at least with SADC’s intervention. The king has yet to give timelines for the traditional Sibaya talks and still needs to respond to SADC’s terms of reference for the national dialogue.
On 13 May, the Eswatini Financial Times published an article that alleged the pro-democracy and anti-monarchy movements were foreign sponsored. The claims were repeated on Twitter by Zimbabwe’s controversial former cabinet minister Jonathan Moyo, who produced apparent dates and minutes of meetings and key players involved.
The meetings are said to have taken place in Rwanda, Mauritius and South Africa. The National Democratic Institute, an American non-governmental organisation, is reportedly funding the ‘winter revolution’, with planning and logistics allegedly provided by organisations like Amnesty International and Canvas Africa. Eswatini’s pro-democracy movement and the organisations mentioned in the allegations have denied the accusations.
The government of Eswatini’s response to the allegations has put SADC in a bind. The story presents the government as under attack, with the monarch as the main victim. As SADC prepares for its August summit, it must balance calls by Eswatini’s citizens for democracy and human rights with perceptions that it supports an endeavour tainted by a regime-change narrative.
By linking the alleged ‘winter revolution’ with a planned Zimbabwe protest in May, Moyo strengthened the regime change argument in Eswatini. A group of social movements in Zimbabwe had pushed for a nationwide shutdown to protest the rising cost of living in the country. The shutdown failed to materialise.
The narrative is that the global North is ‘at it again’ – attempting to use concern for human rights and democracy as a justification to fund and support regime change. This well-worn argument conjures up memories of alleged efforts by the North to push for regime change in the region and elsewhere.
Liberation movements, including South Africa’s African National Congress, are wary of foreign powers’ apparent accusations of human rights violations made to topple legitimate governments. In recent years, Zimbabwe’s government has used this narrative to get SADC off its back. The regional bloc has been engaged with that country’s political crisis since South Africa’s then president, Thabo Mbeki, took on the SADC mediation role in 2007.
In the case of Zimbabwe, SADC member states seem to have bought the regime-change story and now sing from the same anti-sanctions hymn sheet. This position has allowed the government to continue its draconian tendencies and clampdowns on civic space.
Whether or not the reports of foreign funding in Eswatini are accurate, SADC is sensitive to any notion of externally-sponsored regime change clothed in popular protest. The regional bloc will now likely favour a more cautious approach than what the people of Eswatini have called for – a firm stance and push for comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue.
There is arguably a thin line between claims of funding regime change and supporting active citizenship. Eswatini’s democratic movement risks losing goodwill from stakeholders in the region, such as South African opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. The tag of ‘paid mercenaries’ can’t sit well with its supporters.
Regional actors concerned with Eswatini’s democratisation must consider that the allegations could be a red herring. SADC needs to distinguish between this sideshow and the citizens of Eswatini’s struggle that has continued since the 1973 decree banning political parties.
The regional bloc should adhere to its principles and insist on the talks agreed between Ramaphosa and Mswati. This will help ensure that the national dialogue goes ahead and show SADC’s ability to handle crises decisively.
Eswatini’s pro-democracy movements also need to change tack. Their current push for extensive reductions in the king’s power plays into the regime change narrative. The transition requires a willingness to compromise and work incrementally towards achieving a parliamentary democracy.
Written by Ringisai Chikohomero, Research Consultant, ISS Pretoria