Archive photo of a barricade in the road in Mbabane Archive photo of a barricade in the road in Mbabane  (AFP or licensors)

Eswatini Church warns seething violence could erupt into civil war

The Bishop of Manzini in the southern African nation of Eswatini talks about his fears for the seething violence in the country that has already caused bloodshed and that could escalate into conflict on a much greater scale.

By Linda Bordoni

The lawyer and human rights activist Thulani Maseko was gunned down in cold blood in his home close to Mbabane, the capital city of Eswatini, on 21 January. Authorities promised to investigate the assassination, but over one month on, no answers have been provided and calls for justice are swelling across southern Africa. 

As the country’s highest-ranking Catholic cleric explains, Maseko’s murder spotlights seething violence in Eswatini, a dangerous atmosphere described by Maseko himself as a low-key civil war.

Speaking to Vatican Radio, Bishop José Luis Ponce de Leon of Manzini expresses his fears for the unrest and unease that are erupting in the country, reiterating the need for dialogue and awareness so that this does not become “the new normal.” 

Listen to the full interview with Bishop José Luis Ponce de Leon

No longer peaceful

Formerly known as Swaziland, Bishop Ponce de Leon said the country, which lies between South Africa and Mozambique, has always been considered a peaceful one.

It has a small population of about 1.2 million and came to be known in particular during the 80s and 90s because it is home to a very high percentage of HIV-positive people and the government enacted successful policies to detect positive cases, and treat and monitor them. In this sphere, he said, it became a point of reference for many.

Eswatini . map of southern Africa
Eswatini . map of southern Africa

But in June 2021, “we had a type of violence never seen in the history of the country,” the bishop said, that has led to killings, anger and division.

He recounts previously unknown experiences of teargas, roadblocks and curfews that led the Council of Swaziland Churches, of which he is part, to offer its service to authorities in the pursuit of dialogue and peace.

The Council, Bishop José Luis explained, was founded in 1976 to empower Christians as advocates of justice and peace at a time in which it was necessary to offer a welcome to a large influx of migrants; it includes the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church.

Our delegation, he said, had perceived the risk of serious violence in the country and as we arrived to express our concern to the authorities, “we started feeling something in the eyes: tear gas was in town.”

The aftermath of violent clashes in June 2021
The aftermath of violent clashes in June 2021

The acting prime minister, Bishop José Luis said, “was good enough to welcome us, and we spoke to him about the need for an inclusive National Dialogue in the country as a way out of the crisis.

“In the month of May, a University law student was found dead and there was a suspicion that he had been killed by the police,” he said.

“The day before his funeral, I was overwhelmed by the amount of police and military presence in Manzini.”

The undercurrent of violence in Eswatini, which has been rated as one of the most unequal countries in the world, is fuelled by unemployment, poverty, lack of infrastructure, and by the perception that the king and the government are turning a deaf ear to the demands of the people.

The wreckage of a car burnt by protesters during unrest in Manzini
The wreckage of a car burnt by protesters during unrest in Manzini

“As Council of Churches, we offered to pursue the path of dialogue and started meeting different groups – political parties, NGOs - to understand what their demands are, what they think is the way forward,” he said.

Searching for a way forward through dialogue

One of the things that were born at that time was the Multi Stakeholders Forum  (MSF), a coalition for constitutional reform, which chose as its chairperson a lawyer: Mr Thulani Masego, a man who wrote every month in a magazine called "The Nation".

“A man who always stood for dialogue and a peaceful way forward. Thulani was very much aware of the consequences of violence.”

The unprecedented clashes, brutality, fighting and disorder, Bishop Ponce de Leon continued, that affected men and women from all walks of society, gave rise to an organization for victims of violence, deeply in need of counselling. 

It also highlighted the urgency for a forum of discussion in which citizens could voice their needs, difficulties and political views. This, he added, is especially vital for young people, many of whom do not recognize themselves in the country’s 2005 Constitution and need to be able to talk about the future.

“But to do that, he said we must be able to sit down together and see what the way forward is as a nation.”

“Unfortunately, I am not aware of any steps having been taken in the last year and a half towards the dialogue,” he said, decrying a very difficult and crucial time for the country "because the government says 'yes, dialogue will take place but it cannot take place in the midst of violence'."

The Bishop of Manzini described the feeling of being caught in a vicious circle in which “some groups say because there is no dialogue, we turn to violence,” and warns that “unless we are able to break that circle, things can become out of control,” which is exactly what is happening.

“Violence increases slowly and people keep adapting to it. It becomes, as we were saying during Covid, part of the new normal, we just accept this as a natural consequence and we don't react anymore.”

Bishop Ponce de Leon spoke of his shock and sorrow to wake up one morning in January to the news that Thulani Masego had been killed.

Not only was he a voice for human rights, but he also said, very clearly, that “he felt that no one is safe any longer in the country.”

As Church and as Christians, the bishop continued, there is much we can do to find a way to work together.

Lawyer and human rights advocate, Thulani Masego
Lawyer and human rights advocate, Thulani Masego

“Eswatini is a Christian country and it makes no sense that we say we are Christians and we are killing each other, or that we are Christians and we keep quiet in front of the war that is taking place.”

The Council of Churches, he said, keeps on insisting on the need for dialogue and encouraging “every initiative, from any side, towards dialogue in the country.”

Bishop Josè Luis Ponce de Leon
Bishop Josè Luis Ponce de Leon

Peace Clubs

A positive step has been taken by the Justice and Peace Office in the diocese that has started to set up Peace Clubs in high schools, he noted, adding that “the Ministry for Education would like this to go beyond the Catholic schools.”

“These are tools that we have and we don't need to ask anyone to allow us to use them or to help the young people to grow up, and convince them that violence is never the answer.”

Bishop Ponce de Leon also spoke about how he tries to make young people understand they need to be critical and wary of what they are told, careful not to be manipulated by some people on social media or they “might find themselves, later on, to be puppets in the hands of someone else.”

That, he said, could lead to another crisis later on, “if they discovered that they were being used by someone because all these killings and shootings must be financed by someone.”

“These things don't come for free. There is always an 'interest' when there is a war. When there is violence, there is always an interest behind, looking forward to cash-in later.”

Doing their best to help create the conditions for a peaceful way forward for the tiny nation of Eswatini, the Churches are setting up Peace Clubs and caring for victims of violence without asking questions, “like the Good Samaritan.”

“We just realise that the person is by the road, badly hurt,” Bishop José Luis concluded, “and try to offer counselling wherever possible, to be close to those who wonder about their future.”

Thus, the Church and its partners do what they can to engage the government and other stakeholders and support the people in the midst of a crisis that remains largely ignored.

Street vendors live hand to mouth on a daily basis
Street vendors live hand to mouth on a daily basis

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24 February 2023, 19:58