By Inhlase Reporter  

Political parties and activists in eSwatini will boycott political talks aimed at democratic reform if the dialogue is held in the traditional Sibaya format. Pro-democracy activists in eSwatini argue that this traditional top-down format will not bring any meaningful change and won’t address the tensions that sparked months of violent political unrest in the country last year. 

Months of pro-democracy protests and bloody clashes between civilians and the armed forces last year resulted in the death of over 40 unarmed civilians. The violence prompted a visit to eSwatini by a SADC delegation in November last year. The delegation, which was headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who chairs SADC’s security troika, met with King Mswati III. The SADC visit ended with a commitment to political dialogue and an agreement that SADC would collaborate with the eSwatini government to help draft the terms of reference for the talks. 

The terms of reference for the national dialogue are critical as they will determine the format. While no terms of reference have been announced yet, the King’s statement following the SADC visit was clear that the format of the talks would be “a process of national dialogue through [a] Sibaya”. 

The SADC statement was that: “The process towards the national dialogue will take into account and incorporate structures and processes enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Eswatini, including the role of the Parliament of the Kingdom, and the Sibaya convened by His Majesty King Mswati III.”

While questions have been raised about SADC’s ability to facilitate any meaningful political talks, Inhlase’s efforts to get an update on the SADC process wasn’t successful. Tyrone Seal, who is acting spokesperson for Ramaphosa, told Inhlase that Ramaphosa was still consulting with other departments, including the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). At the time of going to press, Seale had not responded with further details on the SADC preparations for eSwatinit talks.  

Pro-democracy activists argue that no meaningful dialogue can take place if the talks are the same as other national dialogues at Sibaya at the national cattle byre at Ludzidzini Royal Residence, the eSwatini traditional capital.

They argue that the definition of Sibaya, as per the eSwatini Constitution, does not provide room for a dialogue, whatsoever. There are no regulations to operationalize Sibaya and, as history has proven, no one has been held accountable for non-implementation of any matters arising from Sibaya. 

A former senator and founding member of the Swaziland Progressive Party (SPP), Mbho Shongwe, who also has vast experience as an election observer across Africa, has his doubts that the King, who is supposed to chair Sibaya, will be dragged into the milieu of a political debate. 

Secretary General of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), Thami Hlatjwako, agrees and states: “You must read Clause 232 of the Constitution with the understanding of the function of Sibaya in the setting of culture and tradition at a normal Swazi homestead, the chief’s residence and finally the royal residence. In all of these institutions there is no debate (akukhonjwana emehlweni, akuphikiswane). Only one person makes a pronouncement, and all others take it in as it comes.” 

He adds: “What happens if the dictates of the Constitution are not followed, who is held accountable? The Constitution dictates that Sibaya must function as an annual general meeting but this has not been the case, who do you arrest, definitely you cannot arrest the King because he is exempt from judicial prosecution by the very constitution.” 

He further observes that a number of matters submitted by citizens at Sibaya have never been implemented. One issue, for example, was a 2012 matter which was a call for political parties to contest elections and for the nation to elect their own prime minister. The individual who took that matter to parliament for debate was later fined cows as per tradition.

Hlatjwako argues that eSwatini’s Constitution only offers a mediation process. Only the persons having issues come together to settle them. 

“This Constitution says all adult Swazis should come to Sibaya instead of addressing the issues with political players because not every Swazi is interested in debating political issues. It is the political parties that must come to the table with the King and his government. That is why there is a cloud of uncertainty about what is meant by dialogue,” adds Hlatjwako. 

The reality is that the Constitution of eSwatini itself does not have guidelines or regulations on the running of Sibaya and now, the question is, whether SADC will undertake that assignment on behalf of emaSwati.

Christopher Vandome, a research fellow with the Chatham House Africa Programme says: “While SADC is drawing up terms of reference for a dialogue, it may have already lost its ability to be seen as an honest broker. In July 2021 a SADC fact-finding mission to the country met with the monarch and pre-approved civil society groups. But groups excluded from the mission hijacked a meeting and SADC left with its tail between its legs. Subsequent visits, including SADC envoys drawn from South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, and a visit from the Chair of the SADC Troika on Peace and Security, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, have all privately reported back to SADC, but have led to very limited public pronouncement of action. One challenge the body faces is that there is no precedent or roadmap from within the region for the types of reform under discussion in eSwatini.” 

Thulani Maseko, chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, has argued that: “There are no signs yet that the dialogue is going to take place. If so, under what conditions. How and where? There is no communication from the government. All we have heard is that they are thinking of hosting a national Sibaya dialogue.” 

While Inhlase has not been able to get further government comment on the talks, in February, Finance Minister Neal Rijkenberg announced a E22 million budget for the dialogue and said: “In order to achieve this, we need an all-inclusive process that will allow everyone to be heard. We need to reflect on our words and put aside our weapons. We need to focus on healing rather than hurting, reconciliation rather than conflict and unity in directing our efforts towards common goals of peace and prosperity and a better life for all emaSwati.” 

Only time will tell whether eSwatini Sibaya political dialogue will happen and, if it does, whether it will be meaningful or just a monologue.